Monday, 1 February 2010

The art of getting lost

There is something very seductive about the idea of getting lost in the city. In this world of satellite navigation systems, personal GPS tracking devices, not to mention ubiquitous CCTV systems, it would seem that the very idea would be impossible. Not only do we feel the need to know where we are at every moment of the day, we are conditioned against the aimless wander of the flâneur or the undirected drifting of the dérive. We are positively encouraged to follow the signs, heed the warnings and avoid any ambiguous or potentially unsafe detours through the city, keeping to the straight and narrow way, hurrying along, pausing for the most part to linger only in officially designated leisure spaces.

Literature and film are full of tales of people who have strayed from the path and ended up lost in the wilds, at the mercy of the elements or worse. But take a wrong turn in the city and all you have to do is stop the nearest passer-by and ask for directions (assuming you can find anyone willing to stop and talk). Getting truly lost in the city surely takes more effort and may assume a metaphorical meaning. Philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin wrote:

"Not to find one's way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance - nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city - as one loses oneself in a forest - that calls for quite a different schooling."

In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, author Rebecca Solnit discusses these very questions. According to Solnit, the word lost is replete with different meanings and connotations, and it is important to differentiate between losing something, which encompasses the lack of the familiar, and getting lost, which revolves around the idea of the unfamiliar. Losing something, whether it is a person or an item means that an element is missing, but you still know where you are. Getting lost on the other hand, means a trip into unfamiliar territory, where the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Both losing and getting lost involve a loss of control, which is at odds with the prevailing ethos of modern life.

Referring to Benjamin's words, she argues that "to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery." Benjamin's choice of words to lose oneself implies a conscious choice, a kind of surrender, or what Solnit terms a psychic state achievable through geography - or psychogeography. I view this idea with a certain amount of ambivalence. On the one hand I, like most people, tend to err on the side of caution, naturally seeking out the comforts of familiarity; on the other hand, deviation from the known path into unfamiliar places and situations, an abandoning of will and allowing yourself to be at the mercy of chance occurrences, have certain attractions as well as hazards. As Solnit maintains Never to get lost is not to live....

There are of course, many other definitions of losing and being lost, including loss of your past self. Solnit views this as a kind of transformation by loss:

"Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were... Without noticing it, you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar, if not strange, at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment."

In one of those bizarre instances of synchronicity, shortly after reading these words, quite by chance I came across an old photograph of a more carefree and innocent self, unaware of what future lay ahead of me. As I looked at it, I wondered whether my need to trudge the city streets, photographing as I go, my desire to get lost amongst the crowd, stems from the loss of this old self? Is it because, as I do so, I am shedding my past identity as a snake sheds its skin, freeing myself up to make new memories as I go?


  1. An excellent essay of philosophical quality (I learnt much!)- and a very essential aspect of experiencing a city like London, Berlin... It is interesting to compare the ways/methods of the different arts in order to give a feeling and a description of getting lost among the crowd, among the overflood of impressions all around, of the attacks to all our senses...!
    I recall the famous novel of Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (congeniously set into film by Faßbinder), in a Joyce-like style the autor is able to evoke and create such a feeling to lose the orientation and to get lost while you are reading the endless staccato-like descriptions and enumerations summing up all impressions you ever can recieve while you are strolling through the city... or I recall the film "Death in Venice" by Visconti following Gustav Aschenbach's ways through Venice who seems to lose himself and to get lost in the confusion of his emotions and desire ...- It may be interesting to ask how may a photographer cature this feeling and experience of getting lost... I very like your little pic- a blurred look out of a window through raindroplets- but I wonder -I thought you would choose city elements - for example houses- subject- it is rather a landscape picture, but I tink you have your reason to show that!

  2. An interesting point of view - I agree it is probably easier to convey the sensations of getting lost using words rather than photographs. With words you can be much more specific, but I think the photographs could be capable of giving a more emotional interpretation. The picture I have used to illustrate this sensation is actually a city picture - a view of a park taken from the top deck of a bus at the end of the day - the spots of orange being the glow from street lights.

  3. oh yes, I forgot: London is a green city- so many parks - a place on the top deck of a bus is always the best one as I remember in London, too!