What is that?

by Gabriella Sonabend

They crowd around me by the dozens peering through my arms and over my shoulders, breathing heavily as we all attract more and more dust from the road works. They are divided between those who watch and try to decipher what is going on and those who pose hoping that somehow this moment will make them some kind of celebrity, that it will elevate them from their dusty quotidian day. I am bound up in metal, wearing my body mount, which supports my video camera. I am tall and wear men’s clothing. I stand confidently with my feet wide set, my short hair is tied tight off my face – I must appear to them like a futuristic cyborg, half androgynous female, and half machine. They are torn as to whether they should be watching me or whether they should be watching what my camera focuses on. Every time I move or change subject they frantically readjust themselves around me. When I am filming a worker he simply stops what he is doing and holds his tool midair; he stares at me. These stares can last up to five minutes. I do not move. I do not speak. I allow him to stare and capture each moment thinking what a peculiar documentary I am making, where bizarrely I seem to be the subject.

Even when I film in London people seem perplexed by my camera gear. Every time I wear my shoulder mount, people act like they have never seen such a thing before and can’t conceive of a woman using such a piece of equipment – so you can imagine how bizarre I must seem to an Indian man who is unaccustomed to seeing women in public, let alone a large white woman with heavy equipment.

The children are enthralled. They want to demonstrate their most bold, beautiful and personal poses to me. One sees me from across the street and assembles his family together in front of their crumbling house. The house has large hole, which has been knocked out of the facade revealing two workers who are slowly demolishing the building from the inside. They crouch in the old bathroom; brick falls to the street below as they continue their work. As debris falls, dust leaps and bounces from the ground; the family is blanketed in the thick grey particles as they pose in height order, tallest at the back and shortest at the front. They look at me triumphantly, as if they have somehow tricked me into this situation. The young boy who has assembled the crowd has an eye for composition and climbs onto two nearby donkeys, he places one foot on each and stands erect, hands on hips. The animals are oblivious and docile, they do not move. They have also become frozen in this strange on-going snapshot. I press “record” and simply stand on the other side of the street, bemused and fascinated. We watch each other; the men sitting on the top of the building hammering away at the brickwork pause their work to watch the spectacle. They stand in a row hands on hips, looking down at the tableau beneath.

Still more passersby gather behind me and peer into the monitor of my camera asking ‘What is that?’ I spin around to film the people who have encircled me, some jump back in surprise; others have been longing for this moment and award me with their best poses. I am unsure of what I am actually documenting. I can scarcely compute the complexity of this situation.

Throughout the afternoon I look through my footage and can’t get to grips with what it is I am doing. I try not to let this worry me; time will reveal all.