Tunisia on a Holga
If you happened to be at the Ghriba Synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba for the annual Jewish pilgrimage this May, maybe you were overwhelmed by the variety of people there. Your eyes would follow the Orthodox women with sparkling hats that would suit a flapper, the old men chanting prayers over a shot of Smirnoff, the locals scrawling wishes on hard boiled eggs, the many members of the media scurrying around with giant cameras. Maybe you saw, tucked away on one of the dark brown benches, a girl in red leggings fiddling with a black plastic box.
That was me, reloading my Holga.
The Ghriba Pilgrimage is one of those special events that I will probably only have the opportunity to attend once, so it might seem like a strange choice to document it on a blurry, undependable toy camera that only shoots 12 frames per roll. (Okay, I also documented it in writing, for the Independent.) But it was a choice I made deliberately, thanks to one of the Holga’s best qualities: it’s really lightweight.
I was at the pilgrimage from morning to night for three days straight, and the thought of carrying my splendid and heavy Praktica all day made my shoulders spasm in protest. The Holga weighs nearly nothing.
Also, I wanted my images to be evocative, mysterious, and a little hazy– the textures of memories. I knew my experience would be well-documented no matter what; I was traveling with a brilliant photographer, and she was shooting everything with much better equipment and much more skill than I would ever have. I was there to write, not photograph. The Holga was a way of capturing the experience that was specific to me.
I stuck with the Holga for the rest of the Tunisia trip, as we explored Djerba and made our way back to Tunis. The images are dreamy and inexact, postcards to remember the highlight of my year, this trip through a country I didn’t expect to go to and can’t wait to return to.
As I sat in the Ghriba– or on the beach in Djerba, or at a cafe in the Tunis medina– I tried to observe as thoroughly as I could, scribbling notes and drafting my future pieces about all the people around me, all the rituals, all the joy. When I took out the Holga to shoot, I was preserving how the experience felt to me. The toy camera is perfect for that.