Rome Diary

My first memory at the British School at Rome was a loud bell ringing.

Fearing a fire alarm, I opened my studio door and bumped into a fast-moving artist, Candida. (Studio Four. One-year residency, Fine Arts). “It’s the lunch bell,” she deadpanned, sidestepping me and continuing down the corridor without slowing. Glancing back with a pitying look she called, “I’ve been here six months. I don’t do lunch anymore. There’s only so much pasta a human can eat”. I felt like Harry Potter at his first day at boarding school. I watched Hermione disappear into her studio.

Over the coming days and weeks there would be a lot of meals, and a lot time spent saying, ‘And what do you do here?’ Depending on whether one is seated with the ‘artists’ or the ‘scholars’, the answers can either be surprisingly short, or long and complicated, involving detailed explanations of a lifetimes investigation into very specialised facets of ancient Roman antiquity.

I have told my own story so many times that I’m actually starting to believe it myself, over-ambitious though it seems. I am making a film about a migrant boat trip that went horribly wrong: tracking down each and every survivor (there are nine out of a boat load of 72 people who survived the trip) and trying to understand our confused and conflicted attitudes towards migrants. But the question that continues to plague me is exactly how I am going to do it, and who is paying for this mammoth project?

The bell rings incessantly, for breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner. 8am, 1pm, 4pm. 8pm. (Yes, I did say tea). It takes time to develop the strength to resist these calls. Like a dog in a Pavlovian experiment, the bell rings and I dutifully go.

Being relocated and released into this new, unfamiliar environment represents a real opportunity. A three-month residency: time to think, focus, and create. But over the coming days I would ask myself, am I inspired? Am I thinking ‘outside the box’? I didn’t feel like it. Not yet at least.

One of the unfortunate realities of travel is that we send our body overseas, but our conscious ‘selves’, our personalities, stow away and come too. Alain de Botton wrote in the Art of Travel about being on holiday in a tropical paradise with his girlfriend, and having an argument in a romantic restaurant over a piece of chicken. He was upset at the unfairness of her portion being so much larger than his, and unable to let it pass unremarked.

Sometimes we do manage to escape from our ‘selves’ and adopt new personalities when departing for foreign shores – most notably in the cases of large groups of girls bound for Ibiza, or groups of lads going pretty much anywhere. I’ve seen it in middle-aged European women in India, and I’m sure I remember a Marie Claire magazine feature on similar women letting loose in Gambia. But I digress, and admittedly these are poor examples anyway. These are not actually personality changes, rather a loosening of inhibitions or the effects of a herd mentality. By and large I believe we arrive at our travel destinations the same person, with the same character traits, unanswered emails, and unpaid bills. Perhaps successful travel is the suspension of these daily chores and distractions and the temporary triumph of our better qualities, like inquisitiveness, good humour and a willingness to fully engage with our surroundings. The phrase “getting away from it all” comes to mind, but what is “it all” I wonder? I suppose it means different things to different people. For me it means an escape from the internet, work demands and constant distractions. A residency suggests an opportunity to do exactly this. But modern technology has conspired to allow life to follow you, wherever you go.

I used to fantasise that I was James Bond when I travelled. Unfamiliar hotel rooms, airports and air stewardesses with blue eye shadow made it easy. But occasionally I would be jarred out of my daydreams. Once, on a trip to El Salvador with my writer friend Gavin, I was photographing on a local beach and feeling like a well travelled ‘reportage photographer’, at one with the locals. I was surprised when a street-vendor approached us and asked if we wanted a Polaroid photo of ourselves. He snapped a picture, and I remember my shock when he peeled the image apart from the chemical backing and passed me the image. I looked with puzzlement at the two pasty white figures in the photograph. Was this me? We appeared as pale, bloated tourists, surrounded by lean, dark skinned locals.

Maybe a bit of self-delusion is a good thing. It’s probably no coincidence that the best-known artists and film directors have huge egos and think they are better and more important than they really are. As I get older I realise that actually I might not be as special and unique as I had previously thought. It’s just that I cast myself in a starring role in my own head, just as everyone else surely does about themselves.

At times of self-doubt I try and remember the worlds of one of my teachers at secondary school, who wrote in my final report, “Flippant, but will go far.” But I also remember another less charitable description penned by my religious studies teacher, who described me as “infantile”. I always thought that was grossly unfair. She was clearly resentful. I’d had a very casual religious upbringing (i.e. no religious upbringing) and my attitude was certainly irreverent. In class I used to bring the Bible to life through a series of cartoon caricatures of Jesus and his disciples. They weren’t purposely disrespectful, but they were designed to amuse, and everyone in the pictures had very large noses.

Now, years later in the institutional atmosphere of the British School at Rome, I hear gales of shrill laughter echoing down the corridor and it makes me wonder why I am not having such fun in my own studio? Instead I am immersed in reports of desperate migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean in perilous sea crossings. Reports of shipwrecks, drowning and imprisonment on arrival. Perhaps its pay-back time for those heady early years of infantile behaviour.

Published on 16 July 2013
Submitted by Zed Nelson
Edited by Photoworks

The British School at Rome
Related project: The British School at Rome and Photoworks Senior Research Fellowship

The British School at Rome and Photoworks Senior Research Fellowship for 2013 has now closed.
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