past and present tense by stephen voss



I try to account for myself in the early morning, walking down a damp paved road lined by crumbling walls. Roosters crow behind those walls and smoke rises above the coconut trees. Their fronds turning faintly orange in the hazy morning sun, like a fire being coaxed to grow. The old political campaign posters on the walls have nearly faded into the whitewash. Unable to read any of them, I think of the person who stood in that exact spot, a few feet from me, holding a stack of posters and some wheat paste. The heat and the humidity always come out ahead.

A call to prayer comes from a mosque, but the sound seems to echo around me and I can’t trace it back. I repeat to myself the route I’d taken so that I might find my way back. Right, right, then left at the abandoned house nearly swallowed whole by what looks like honeysuckle. It would be an unlikely and foolish place to be lost and makes me think of all the unlikely and foolish places I’ve been— knocking on a door somewhere distant, unexpected, talking myself into a situation, all the while projecting a feeling of normalcy to soothe myself and the person I was meant to photograph. That sense of unbelonging, my own presence an intrusion. It took me years to quiet that part of me and I still think people catch a whiff of it. But I do the work, I see the images, and I make a right at the abandoned house, swallowed whole, then two lefts to return home.

Photo: Cochin, Kerala

Stephen Voss