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  • Jai Morton

Longing wander

Saleem Ahmed is a photographer and photojournalist. We met in Thailand, I actually don't remember the year now. But there was a wonky, dark bar lavished with Bob Marley paraphernalia, and an even wonkier ladder made of bamboo that led to a sort-of loft space. I think we talked there, my friend Kate and his friend Sarah too.

I do know it was 2016 when we met again in Philadelphia. I was on a road trip with Sarah then – she and I had stayed in touch sending handwritten letters. The three of us had lunch together, walked through Fishtown, passed 'The Rocky' steps, and hung out in a lush park for a while. I remember he took Sarah's picture. The backdrop was a tall green shrub brimming with pink (or white?) flowers. Later we took a ride around town in his pickup truck.

Since then, I've mostly been connected to Saleem by following him on Instagram. I always liked his photographic work. He often captures the seemingly mundane – a wilting plant by the windowsill, old signage, a front door stoop, harsh concrete baking in the midday sun, a shadow casting in from one side, broken down cars (and pickup trucks), or lonely looking trees. But each image is considered – look closer and there's alignment, contrast, pops of colour, stunning light.

Saleem found that shot he took of Sarah by the flowers.

I've always found it interesting to learn how I respond to others' photography. What is it that I see and feel in their work, and does it have anything to do with what they saw or felt when they shot it?

To me, as the outsider, place and home are recurring themes in Saleem's work. Whether that be of Philadelphia, or of his family members in their homes and spaces. Little moments appear to be snapped throughout their daily lives, or perhaps as Saleem strolls or commutes. There's a softness and a sense of nostalgia that I feel as I understand that he chose to capture these particular moments, and not others. These moments were the ones that asked to be distilled. And often the words alongside his images amplify that feeling for me.

"There seems to be a unique sense of comfort and peace whenever I return home to visit my family. I find myself in silent rooms, filled with scattered light and symbols of my childhood," he says of his ongoing series hamara ghar (our home).

Maybe, in a way, the sense of comfort I feel stems from a feeling of familiarity in Saleem's point of view. I'm not much of a photographer, but I am constantly snapping pictures of street corners, front facades, dappled light and long stretches of highway.

Saleem recently shared some images with me from a film he'd forgotten about.

"I've been going back through old photos and ideas — and I remembered that I had two sets of images from a broken camera. It was a 35mm camera that I found at a thrift store, and brought with me around Philadelphia and also on a road trip. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized it had light leaks."

The light leaks add a nostalgia for sure – this time for a kind of freedom, a literal open road that hasn't felt too familiar lately. I'd been reflecting on some old road trips recently – a few stretches of road in particular keep coming to mind. Roads between coasts I grew up on and visited frequently the last ten years or so, and one road with Sarah, somewhere during our trip, a broad sunset ahead of us. And when I see Saleem's photographs, his own trips and adventures, there's a relatability and I long to revisit my memories.

I feel like I can recall so many tiny moments from these adventures – songs, meals, light, temperature, fresh air, even conversations. In fact, I get memory flashes frequently, often at times I find completely strange and unrelated. They're usually vivid and kind of glary flashes, not unlike Saleem's pictures, and I often wonder whether other people receive memories in the same way. They hit hard. Sometimes the feeling that comes with them seems to reach out and take hold of me, for just a second. Is it common to have all of that feeling so graspable?

But those stretches of highway, while alluring, are also strikingly empty. It's eery. We're a year on from covid, but these photographs could have been taken during the heart of lockdown. And then I feel a kind of distance, looking at them. Reminded that I'm far from home.

Sharing this with Saleem, his response was similar.

"When it came to revisiting those photos, I kept thinking about the feeling of freedom they had. I couldn’t help but think about how different the world was then, even if these photographs are just as quiet as the current world we live in."

"These photographs made me think about how much I used to wander, whether on a walk in Philadelphia, or a long drive to wherever I felt like turning next. Wandering is so essential to my photographic process. It forces me to see things I wouldn’t have normally seen. It forces me to navigate without a specific route. It opens me up to the unexpected; the things that I simply love to photograph."

"This past year hasn’t made the idea of wandering easy. My walks to work were replaced with trips down to my basement studio — a.k.a. my virtual classroom. And my creativity and desire to make new work slowed down significantly."

"Luckily, I do see the light at the end of the tunnel. Things are starting to open up, just as the weather gets warmer and warmer. I’ve been pushing myself to block out time in my daily routine to wander and I’ve realized that despite all the shutdowns, lockdowns, and quarantines, this world is still moving along, albeit at a different pace. The places I see in these photographs keep on evolving. Change is constant, whether it’s new or slowly falling apart."

Thanks for sharing Saleem.

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