The majestic palaces and cathedrals of Europe tell the history of the great patrician families and aristocrats, of richly robed religious leaders, and the reckless builders of the empire who shaped Western Europe for the better or worse. For the veteran and newbie traveler to Europe, Lisbon has plenty to offer, so while many will take Paris and Rome, it’ll be Lisbon for me.
Located on the estuary of the Tagus River in western Iberia, the peninsular city has a storied past. But then again, I confess I am biased. I am fascinated by stories. The language of this Portuguese city is written in the thrilling vernacular of sea farers, poets, musicians, paupers, shopkeepers, beggars, and holy men. Lisbon may seem to pale in comparison to more touristed cities, but its emotive history rivals any of them. If you could run a core-tool through the foundation of this ancient city like a geologist, it would reveal the vast sediments and strata of the human experience.
For photographers, bereft of a drilling or excavating tool, the camera lens reveals what the naked eye cannot. Lisbon is cradled in seven hills with stunning vistas. The distant echoes of spent passions, half-remembered grief, and wine-drenched laughter permeate its narrow, winding streets. Lisbon is also a city of churches. Its gilded devotion remains raw-edged and stubborn in the face of mounting secularity.
T.S. Eliot wrote:
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.“
— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Lisbon is also where I first felt the weight of love. Over two decades ago on a rainswept winter night, my hands cupped around a cigarette in a doorway where I took shelter, I dissolved into tears, thinking of a young woman thousands of miles away in Buenos Aires. Two years later, we would share a narrow bed in a cramped room on our honeymoon.
In Psalm 36, the psalmist tells us that:
“In Your light we see light.” (NIV)
Lisbon is a place of testimony to God’s tender mercies and goodness. As a young child, I’d sequester myself in the local library and pour over picture books and atlases, my head full of dreams and wanderlust. I’m not one to proselytize in the public square like an old-fashioned street preacher. I feel a closeness to God when I am photographing in a place like Lisbon. As a photo-journalist by trade now, it is in the ordinary streets of faraway places that I find His presence strongest with me.
Some of my favorite images stem from these journeys. I have a set of Lisbon prints on display in a prominent spot in our house, not for praise or adulation, but in testimony. They hang as visual reminder of God’s steadfast love for a small boy in Missouri. He saw my dreams. He sifted me and assessed my longing. He weighed my needs and my reasons. He heard my childish prayers. He gave life to them with His answer.
When I feel glum or burdened, I’ll go and look at these prints shot on 35mm black and white film. Each one tells a story: The silhouette of a mother with her young child at play. Her arm is positioned in such a way to catch the child from stumbling. A candid shot of two kitchen workers, deep in conversation and sharing a cigarette on their break in a graffiti filled alley, lost in the intimacy of the moment. The last one is of two businessmen walking down the city’s famed and intricately designed limestone calçada walkway. Slightly hunched over with their collars turned up against the bitter cold, beyond the Arco da Rua Augusta memorial for the victims of the 1755 earthquake, you can almost catch a glimpse the harbor facing Praça do Comércio. The prints are not tack sharp and show the imperfections of film photography.
Yet these and other images remind that if God can choreograph the physics of light and location, with the mechanics of camera aperture, shutter speed and film sensitivity, so can He with our daily lives.
God has not spoken to me in the whirlwind or in oracles. But there is a part of me that believes He has been present with me in the unvarnished and upstaged beauty of the vernacular world. I am content to keep company with Him there.
The featured image, “Morning,” is courtesy of Tommy Darin Liskey and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.
Tommy Darin Liskey was born in Missouri but spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The Red Truck Review, Deep South, Driftwood Press, Biostories, Spelk, Heartwood among others. His narrative and documentary photography has been published in The Museum of Americana, Change 7, The Blue Mountain Review, Cowboy Jamboree, Literary Life and Midwestern Gothic, among others. He lives in Texas with his family.
“I take a more documentary approach to photography, using the camera to explore faith in images, and hopefully, the human story, through unplanned street portraits of people I meet in my both my travels, and everyday life. As both a writer and photographer, I believe my calling is to be present. I pray that God choreographs the rest.”
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