I’m not really a man for pictures; I’m a man for words. Please don’t get the idea I don’t like photographs, I love them, what I mean to say is that I’m not a photographer. So I tend to lump all of the photographs that I take together in one single folder and leave them there without ever reviewing them, mostly out of laziness. People ask me: when are you going to post some pictures online? And I tell them, soon, soon.
But I do look at some pictures again on a computer screen, after the event, perhaps for a blog or because a place is particularly interesting, and that was when I first noticed it.
I had spent the day at an abandoned hill station in southern Cambodia. The station had been built by the French in the 1920s, occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War, then occupied again by the communist government in the 1970s where it functioned as a killing ground. The centrepiece of the station was once a luxury hotel and casino that is now a decaying shell. The guide had told us not to go inside but a small group of renegades, we pushed through the long green stalks of grass to enter inside it from the back, hidden. It had been gutted to the walls, everything broken and cracked like mud in the sun, pockmarked with bullet scars, hardcore graffiti plastering the walls, echoing, echoing, only the white tile of bathrooms recognisable, the rest of the rooms unrecognisable, all three stories identical.
I was entranced by the history of this ghost-place so when I returned to civilisation I quickly transferred the pictures I had taken to my computer. I went through them carefully and meticulously, enjoying the desolation all over again, then I stopped. I went back to the previous photo. It showed the square pillars of the ancient ballroom and the wet floor, the smashed fireplace, and it showed some of my new friends standing amongst the square pillars. In the centre of the picture, far away at the other end of the room, was a doorway leading to another of the nothing-rooms. There appeared to be something in the doorway, a black smudge, a figure perhaps, very tall, that stood out to me only because it seemed too exposed against the grey sweating wall. It was odd because I remembered that when I had taken that photograph nobody had yet crossed the ballroom, I remembered it very well. Looking at the picture, I figured somebody must have done.
Several years passed and I was in Colombia, at the site of an abandoned hotel overlooking a waterfall that frothed and stank with pollution and sulphur. Our little group disembarked the bus. The road swung down and out of sight towards a small town which we could see part of. Going the other way, the road curved up and over the great waterfall where its edge fell sheer away. There were some empty wooden shacks beside the road but nothing else, and the spray from the waterfall steamed up towards us like smoke.
It is said that during the Spanish conquest of South America, Colombian Indians jumped from the cliffs into the seething water to avoid slavery, but they never hit the water, instead becoming eagles and flying to their freedom.
The hotel was fenced off and closed, but we hopped the fence and went inside. It had been constructed in the 1920s as a symbol of the elegance of the elite set, providing a breathtaking view that brought the tourists in their hordes. However, with contamination of the river, the tourists soon lost interest, the hotel closed down, and it became popular with suicides again.
It must have been two hours before the bus came back up the road from the direction of the town and we flagged it down. Later, looking at the photographs together, I saw it again.
I had taken a picture of everybody on the second-story balcony at the back of hotel, and there, again, undeniably, between my friends smiling and the balustrade, not directly behind but offset to the right, a shadow, black but not pitch, like a figure caught shifting in and out of a curtain of soot, and furtive as a dream. I believe in coincidence, not fate, but my eyes were drawn to it as if by providence and the others couldn’t see it as I did, they said it was most likely a speck of dust blurred by movement.
I thought, all right, even if it is something, I’m going far away from here anyway. What does it matter?
The next time was in El Salvador, at yet another hotel abandoned and neglected, at the top of a large hill with a view of half the country. The hotel had only been closed a decade but already it was overgrown with vines and creepers, writhing and tangling through its broken jalousie windows, ferns and mould overspreading the red tiles that peeled from the walls, the humidity encouraging such fecundity, exactly how I imagine the visitor centre on Jurassic Park island would look now. It was during the wet season and the sky had been grey and a low mist had crept over and it eddied noiselessly about us as if we were floating upon a restless imaginary sea, covering the view and everything else absolutely.
I have a fascination with these abandoned places, these eerie, uncurated museums, and so I took plenty of pictures. I didn’t intend to look back through them right away. I had been to abandoned sites since Colombia, not reviewing photographs, but on this occasion there was a peculiar feeling, it nagged at me like an unfinished task, a needle in my stomach, and so I opened the first image on the computer. It didn’t take long for me to find it. Behind stacks of chairs in what looks like an old bar, unmistakeably, a tall black, yawning shadow that could not have been cast by anything else.
I saw it in Chicago too, across a snowfield while I was walking the dog. Yet in this instance there was no extraordinary dilapidation, no fallen in roof or unstable walls, only the winter dilapidation of the forest. The same black shape between the empty trunks in a picture I had chosen for a desktop background.
I haven’t looked through my other pictures yet, but I’m sure if I did I would find it, a slender shadow, not flesh or blood or substance and always in the background, as if waiting for a command, stalking me. I like to think that it is my guardian angel, looking out for me. I don’t suppose I’ve had much bad luck in my life, I would even go insofar as to say that I’m sometimes ashamed of how easy my life has been, somebody or something must be looking down on me kindly. Perhaps I am simply on a dark pathway, I don’t know. I guess there’s nothing to be done now. It has followed me across three continents, so I carry on and wait for tomorrow.
Maybe it was with me in that Panama hostel; maybe it was what kept my awake in that room in El Salvador, with walls pale blue, cold, and so sad… and the rats in the ceiling and the heavy slaughterhouse door, and the dust and the living, scatty sounds of the deepest night. I couldn’t ever sleep in that room, not even the first night, exhausted, after playing football, and how about when I am drifting in and out of sleep, floating, then suddenly I’m awake and my nerves are alert and my bed is trembling and I have to put the television on to fall asleep to? And when my dog cries on the landing outside of the bedroom door, I wonder if it’s here then?