The Flaneur – On the art of exploring a city
We’re rushing through streets nearly every day, trying to get from A to B in the fastest way possible. Hectic is our constant companion on our day to day tours, causing stress, exhaustion and sometimes even anxiety, with no remorse, which is especially the case when you’re living in bigger cities like Berlin, for example. As we’re speeding through urban canyons, desperately trying to avoid any unwanted physical contact with one another, we become increasingly detached from our surroundings, and sometimes even from our self. We feel the need to hurry – possibly showing up late to work or to an appointment is indeed one of many valid reasons – even though most of the time we don’t really need to; no, we just want to get over it.
When I was a young boy, around 10 or so, during our family holidays, my father always suggested to walk slowly in places we’ve visited, reasoning that if I would walk in a more moderate speed, I would be able to soak up the beauty of things surrounding me, thus have a truly enriching experience no matter the place I’m at. Of course, as a 10-year-old boy, I couldn’t even imagine what he was talking about let alone comprehend his teachings, so I rejected his advice and kept on rushing. I continued this behavior until a while ago, but my childish reasons from back then – excitingly wanting to see as many things as possible in the least amount of time – weren’t really applicable anymore. Instead of curiously soaking up the world around me, I was more and more concerned about being where I wanted to be, as fast as I could, without any distractions whatsoever. In a way, I had shut my self out from the world surrounding me.
Up until one very particular day in my life I was a dedicated jaywalker, always careful and attentive, and quick in response to speeding obstacles. That was until I was forced to wait at a seemingly random and dreadfully busy intersection which I had to cross. Acting out of a strange mixture of boredom and simultaneous stress, I decided to take a deep breath and feel a bit more comfortable with the situation I’m in; turning my head left and right, I started noticing many different things, details of my surroundings. For a few seconds I opened up if you will, guiding my attention towards a beautiful dress worn by a kindly looking elderly woman across the street; the color arrangements of a middle aged man standing in front of a corner shop – lilac, he was wearing clothes in different shades of lilac, even his tablet was covered in lilac too; the interesting height differences between a man and two Great Danes he’d taken out for a walk; the scent of beer and pizza, and coffee and cigarettes, coming from various sides; transforming this usually as uncomfortable perceived moment of forced waiting into something unique and special. Upon crossing the street and continuing my course – the green light indicated its allowance to do so – a subtle smile occurred on my face; had I just shared an intimate moment of patience with complete strangers at an intersection?
On my way forth towards my destination I felt unusually light and present, noticing all kinds of patterns, shapes, and colors; rays of light bouncing off of various surfaces creating plenty of shadows, generating an overabundance of beautiful light situations in return; all this within only a couple of hundred meters. I suddenly remembered how my father used to tell me to slow down and pay attention to my surroundings; I also remembered that after years of trying, he eventually gave up.
Who would have thought that about twenty years later, his teachings would not only come to fruition but also unintentionally lay the groundwork for both, a great photographic practice, and an exciting way to widen general perception and strengthen the skill of patience?
Historically seen, the Sunday stroll was always vital to the well-being of the majority of people; the obligatory walk to church on the only labour free day of the week, used for recreation, quality time with the family, meeting friends and listening to the word of god; a truly social experience if you will; even artists, writers and later, photographers too, have devoted their craft to telling the art of strolling – Henri Cartier-Bresson is a perfect example of that. Nowadays, however, it is quite uncommon to just slowly stroll around, observe and pay attention to life happening around you, especially in places usually not frequented by travelers or tourists. People witnessing me, appear to be puzzled by both, my slow walking speed and my intense and curious way of looking – although I agree on Franz Hessel’s claim that you, the flaneur, do look somewhat suspicious, i would rather say interesting – adding the fact that most of the time I don’t carry a camera with me and I am solely photographing with my smartphone, mostly in unusual places too, seems to be sufficient enough to be approached by a few irritated, yet interested people, striking up a conversation in an attempt to find out my intentions – a classic, neck dangling camera, however, appears to be the only visible indicator of intent; allowing the general public to decide whether to dismiss or welcome you upon first sight without the need of interacting with you.
Usually, those conversations would end in smiles, sometimes spontaneous coffee dates, and on rare occasions even turn into long-term contacts. Anxious at first about being approached by strangers – somehow I always felt the need to explain myself – I quickly adapted and became more confident through time. I now see the good in irritating people, it just means that there is something new happening and they don’t know how to properly react to it, which mostly leads to a conversation; and that is always a good thing.
Today, I see the slow stroll not only as a great photographic practice – as it allows you to habituate a certain way of seeing and perceiving things – but also as a way of easing your mind; having to stop at a red light is not anymore only an aspect of obedience, but a welcomed invitation to just pause for a moment and let your eyes and thoughts wander around. If you remove the debatable necessity of speed and are willing to open yourself up emotionally, you will start catching up the vibes around you, thus training your sensitivity towards your surroundings and your empathy towards others, eventually finding yourself calmer, more content, and confident during unforeseen circumstances.
When I told my father about my past experiences he warmly replied: „You see, that’s exactly what I was trying to teach you in all those years. Sometimes it’s not bad at all to just listen and take someone’s advice, isn’t it?“