How I found my photographic purpose in a vacant lot during quarantine.

black and white picture of derilict delivery vans in a vacant lot.
A couple of old timers - © Mike Best

What a couple of old abandoned delivery vans taught me about mortality, my relationship with my father, and why I shoot photographs.

It is around 8 am. There is a firm knock on the door of my room. I’m staying in a hotel near Toronto airport as part of my three-day quarantine, now mandatory for everyone arriving in Canada. I’m anxious to get on with the next leg of my journey back to Vancouver, in hopes that I will have time to spend time with my father who is critically ill in hospital and is not likely to live much longer.

By the time I pop my head out the door, a bellman has scurried off down the hallway having deposited a brown paper bag at my feet. ‘Thank you,’ I say, but can’t make out his murmured response. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve been vaccinated and tested for coronavirus twice in the last 72 hours, yet anyone in transit during covid is an instant social outlier, a threat, a potential plague victim. I glance at the door just in case it has been painted with a large X. I examine the contents of the bag: a boiled egg, a chocolate muffin, orange juice, yoghurt, and an apple. The Canadian government clearly wants to keep me healthy if not overly indulged. I watch the news on tv over breakfast, recalling how bloody awful North American network television is with its back-to-back advertisements for healthcare products and adverts encouraging seniors to eat into their home equity as a nice little gift to their loved ones.

The suite I’m staying in is perfectly adequate; modern and tastefully decorated in arctic blues and whites; a colour scheme that I suspect would not be out of place in Toronto Maple Leaf’s executive office. There is a desk, a separate bedroom, a widescreen TV, and unlimited wifi; everything you need really, barring a view — unless you have a thing for airport parking lots.

The room is costing me $1300.00 for 3 nights, take it or… well, hop on a plane back to Heathrow. I don’t begrudge it, I’m travelling during a pandemic. Still, it’s weird to feel I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones that has is being afforded the opportunity to spend time with their next of kin at the end of their life. I’m all too aware of how many people have had to whisper their goodbyes to a scared and confused relative across a pain of plexiglass, such has become the now routine cruelty of the pandemic.

I look over at the large pile of suitcases, camera gear and guitar that is stacked against the wall, and realize I’ve probably completely over-packed, but I don’t know how long I will be gone. I remember that I once did a two week trip to Mexico carrying nothing more than a camera bag, a couple of spare t-shirts and some underwear. How did I come to need so much stuff?

I find myself pacing back and forth across the room, then, carefully rationing out my coffee packets to ensure I have at least 2 good hits of caffeine each morning — one for when I wake bolt upright a 4.40 am from the jetlag and another for when I crash out at 8 am just before I’m supposed to start work. Last night I sat up noodling on my guitar and watching American Horror Story on Netflix, because, you know, if you are in an isolated and fragile state of mind nothing beats binging on some psychologically twisted and deeply visually disturbing TV. But it did serve to help take my mind off the little waves of dread I keep having each time something in the back of my mind brings me back to what I am actually doing here.

It’s the third day before I finally pick up the hotel pamphlet outlining the official rules of my containment. Apparently, I’m allowed two fresh-air breaks each day, to be strictly accompanied by hotel security. ‘Of course,’ I think, and feel thankful I gave up smoking 7 years ago. I would have been climbing the walls by now. Still, a fresh air break would be very welcome. I decide to grab my camera and call down to the front desk for a walk.

The hotel security arrives at my door, bearing all the polite decorum of an American customs official. It’s almost as if the act of smiling could be dangerous. It’s strange how quickly people normalize to abnormal social situations. He ushers me to the front entrance and then leaves me to it. I wander outside, pull off my surgical mask and breathe in the frosty February air.

Outside is not much to look at. The parking lot is trimmed with piles of dirty snow. Large Kenworth tanker trucks release their airbrakes at a busy nearby intersection, and plumes of steam puff up from some kind of power plant in the distance.

I nod to another inmate who is tugging on a cigarette, dressed, as am I, in sweatpants, a parka, and bedroom slippers. Like me, he is in bad need of a haircut.

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I take out my camera and decide to start exploring the perimeter and test the boundaries of my encampment. I wonder how far I can reasonably venture from the Covid Hilton before I might expect to hear the sound of barking dogs or the clip-clop of RCMP calvary tracking me down.

I’ve never actually been to Toronto the city; I have heard it is nice, but from here it just looks cold, flat, and industrial. Then again airport parking lots seldom make great vantage points for a cityscape. As far as photography locations go it’s not exactly the streets of Marrakesh.

Still, as I clamber down a small embankment to a nearby vacant lot, I notice, to my surprise, that I am in my happy place. The sun is out, it’s cold but clear, and I am doing something I enjoy. I’m just walking around with my camera, trying to find something interesting to photograph.

Then, in the middle of an otherwise empty parking lot, I come across these old relics of bread delivery trucks. Their presence feels incongruous, sitting inexplicably alone and rusting away, their bleached and weather-beaten carcasses languishing in the harsh Canadian winter sun. Wonderbread reads the faded sign on the sign on one of them. A little slice of Canadiana, I think, a stalwart icon that worked its whole life literally delivering the goods to countless families only to be abandoned and forgotten. It seems a little ungrateful. Surely this old fella deserved to be painted up and preserved in a museum somewhere. Or at least properly crushed and melted down into kettles and ironing boards. Not just randomly left out here in the cold.

I start taking few pictures. I’m playing around with a new super-wide-angle lens I recently bought, one which easily throws out those spikey starburst lighting flares that people either seem to love or hate (I’m still deciding if I love or hate them). At this moment, I’m struck by a sensation of vivid clarity about a question that has been on my mind for some time: ‘why do I even bother with photography anymore? I mean I no longer view it as my profession, and with so many millions of pictures out there now, does anyone really care about your little pictures? I mean what is the point?’

But now, faced with this almost comically poignant visual metaphor for life, mortality, relationships… or whatever else one might to read into the scene, the answer to why I’m still drawn to photography is remarkably simple: I shoot pictures because it makes me feel alive, it’s my flow state — when I’m actively involved in photographing a person, place or thing, I’m not in this world, I’m in another place altogether. Although I’m only a few hundred meters from my dreary little hotel lock-in, I’m suddenly completely free. It’s almost like wearing a suit of armour to the world, while yet at the same time remaining completely present and connected to my environment.

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Old Wonderbread truck — © Mike Best

I’ve spent years worrying about the why with my work. Will it sell? Will people like it? Is this my job, my vocation, my retirement side hustle, or hobby? Am I a documentary photographer, photojournalist? What’s my niche..?

But as I stand here in one of the loneliest places I’ve been, knowing I will soon be saying my last goodbyes to my father and realizing I’m going to soon have a whole life of memories to process, I realize that my purpose in photography is simply to be focussed in the present, actively observing my surroundings. The deeper meanings, purpose, and context will reveal themselves later or they won’t. The camera, the kit, the lenses, and accessories just serve to facilitate the act of actively seeing the world.

I’ve always adored street photography and grew up following the work of the likes of Henri Cartier-BressonRobert FrankWalker Evans, Robert Doisneau — photographers who captured slices of everyday life at a time when most of the media were still focussed on the privileged and glamourous ends of society. But lately, I’ve come to recoil from their term street photographer because of its association with that growing community of shooters that enjoy ramming their cameras into random stranger’s faces on the subway and taking their slightly annoyed or intimidated reactions for a true reflection of the human experience. In a world of a billion camera phones, this seems to me to be a pretension built on a manufactured nostalgia for something that no longer exists.

Still, my favourite images have come from exploring the streets and byways of someplace I’ve never been, and I am continually amazed at how fruitful even a short walkabout outside of one’s local area can be.

From the first time I picked up a camera I’ve been fascinated by photography’s ability to capture fleeting moments of life, to grab a snapshot of the state of light at a particular time. Yet even the most iconic photographs fade, and while it’s true that I still feel that need to somehow imprint myself on history, I appreciate now that the notion of any sort of real immortality through photography is something of a folly.

I know this may sound negative or even nihilistic – like I’m sounding a death knell for photography, but for me the opposite is true. It’s actually quite a marvellous revelation, presents me with a whole new level of freedom. Sometimes, understanding the utter futility of doing something affords one the opportunity to be completely immersed in the act of doing it, simply for the act of doing so.

Life, just like photography, is fleeting, this much I know. So if something brings you joy and others joy, then that in itself is enough to justify it. The why of photography no longer needs to be a means to an end, but rather an end itself.

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On the road to nowhere — © Mike Best

So I happily snap a couple of pictures of these old beat-up trucks, until I am aware that it is time to get back to my hotel room lest they send out a search party. I start making my way towards the hotel entrance, back to quarantine, back to work and late-night TV, and the unpleasant realities in store for me when I finally make it home. But my spirits are lifted, and I am in a much better place. I think I might have even got a half-decent picture or two, maybe something I could share with my dad if he is still lucid when I arrive. Maybe nothing that is going to make the front of Time magazine, but that’s totally ok. It was nice to stretch my legs and do this thing which brings me joy.


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