Under all the pressure of doing the perfect thing on New Year’s Eve, I end up on a photowalk that has me appreciating the simple moments.
The night is cold, and I’m alone. It’s New Year’s Eve, which is the only part that makes being alone seem unacceptable. Like most other people, I’ve gone through the anxiety of trying to find the best possible party to attend, the most exciting social event that doesn’t charge $50 cover. The fear of missing out courses through me.
Most events I’ve heard about or been invited to involve clubs, dancing, DJs, raves, loud noises and purely-physical communication. None of these really appeal to me. Neither does a party, to be honest. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood.
I think of where I’d like to be. I have a few ideas, but one image comes to mind: in a mountaintop chalet, perhaps, overlooking the city, with a hot cup of coacoa and a pretty woman playing jazz in the corner – and there’s people, friendly people, some familiar and others not. I talk to them and we laugh and it’s effortless. As the new year approaches, we count down from 10. People embrace and share eyes and ears. The city lights glow distant underneath a blanket of fog.
There’s cheer and exuberance when the ball drops on the small television that nobody is watching. The pretty woman at the piano and the band behind her break into a jazz cover of Auld Lang Syne. There’s someone there to embrace, just to honour that strange tradition of starting off the year with human connection.
Searching Google for mountaintop New Year’s jazz events returns nothing much. That idea might just exist in my head. Oh well. Nothing ever lives up to how you imagine it anyway.
I take a bath, which is weird because I never take baths. I tell myself it’s to wash off the past year and to start fresh. Really, my apartment is just cold. I’m cold.
Night falls and I’m still in my apartment. From the street I hear laughter and chatter from crowds moving over to the Convention Center for fireworks, or to bars on Robson Street, to meet friends. My backup plan is to attend the fireworks as well, so at least I’ll be alone around people, and to be honest I’m okay with that.
What I can’t do is stay inside my apartment. Time is standing still in here, but the world is happening outside. I need to go out. It’s below zero, so I put on my long underwear and layers of wool. I grab my camera and a few lenses, which is the tool I use to make long walks tolerable. I document them. I suppose it gives me something to do with my hands, and something to look for.
I step outside and the cool air blossoms in my lungs. People traverse the sidewalks to go about their plans. I wonder where they’ll be in an hour or two. A couple smiles at me. “Happy new year,” they say. I almost forgot. “You too.”
Robson is what Vancouver likes to call its “shopping district.” It’s lined end to end with clothing shops, bars, perfume shops and Asian restaurants. Year-round, the trees are strung with Christmas lights, prettying up an otherwise bland looking street. This is the path I decide to walk.
Through foggy windows people share drinks. I snap some photos, getting a cozy but distant moment, lit by candlelight or dim crimson incandescence. After the first few photos, it becomes the purpose of my night, to document how others are spending theirs. My lonesome meandering becomes a photowalk.
All the way up Robson, through restaurant windows, I capture moments; brief, simple, effortless. I’m surprised how many people are getting meals in restaurants as midnight approaches. I wonder what made them choose that restaurant, I wonder who’s the host, how they know each other, whether they want to be there or if they’d rather be someplace else.
Most people don’t notice me. I’m anonymous, a wallflower, which is just what I want. Like a scientist, I want to capture this human experience of a very human event without influencing the moment, without changing it. I want to remain invisible. At first it feels weird, I try to be quick with the shot, but soon realize I can take my time to get it right, to frame, to get focus, to make sure the light is right.
Some stood out to me. At the bar of a low-lit Izakaya sits one girl, alone, on her cell phone. I wonder if she’s really there alone, or if her partner is just in the washroom, leaving her in that awkward blank space of being alone at the bar, an unexpected solidarity that leads most people to pull out their cell phones. I snap a photograph.
A young man sits on a stool in a Pizza Hut, brightly lit by hot whiteness. It’s around 11pm. He could be getting a pizza to-go, to bring back to a party someplace. Or he could be eating there. Then there’s the staff – the people making that pizza under fluorescent lights on New Year’s Eve. The people who will hear muffled fireworks through asbestos walls while they sweep a tiled floor. I snap a photograph.
Through the window of a health-food restaurant, a young woman shuts off the lights and puts her jacket on. She’s done just in time to make something of that special moment less than an hour away. I snap a photograph.
It becomes enthralling to search for these moments. They’re all over. It’s overwhelming. I hardly know where to point my lens, which moments are worth capturing, and which aren’t. Through every restaurant window there is an inviting warmth that draws my eye and my lens.
I pass a late-night Japanese restaurant I quite like, decorated with bamboo shoots and dark oak tables. I consider going in for a shot of New Year’s sake, but decide against it. For some reason, drinking alone on New Year’s seems too lonesome, even though I’d be surrounded by people.
As the moment draws near, I make my way to the fireworks. My camera battery is running low, and my card is almost full. As I get closer, block by block, I’m surrounded by more and more people. It’s like a migration leading to the water’s edge in wait of celebration, as large colourful explosions are promised to fill the sky.
I weave through the crowds. New year’s wishes are tossed back and forth between strangers on my way. Placing myself behind some spectators, the countdown begins. I aim my camera and get my focus. The roar grows, and I can feel the vibrations that only a crowd of this size can make.
The moment arrives, and it’s momentous. There are cheers, the colourful explosions fill the sky. People kiss and embrace and cheer. And it’s funny – I don’t feel so alone. I don’t feel alone in the crowd, and I don’t feel so anonymous. It’s strange to me that this completely manufactured, arbitrary, human event, this strange reading of an entirely man-made event, can feel so real to me, like it’s part of the universe.
And all of the people around me, all gathered together in the cold to watch these colourful lights, they all feel closer than they would as just passers-by on the street. I guess it’s because we’re sharing this moment together, and there’s nothing but joy in the air.
It feels a little like the climax of some romantic comedy film, the part where the estranged love interest decides to look past the gaffes of our stumbling hopeless-romantic protagonist, pushes through the crowd, and kisses him just as the clock strikes midnight. It feels like a wonderful dear-diary moment.
I snap some photos of silhouettes, anonymous, contrasted with the smoke of gunpowder in the sky, drifting like fog. After twenty or so minutes, the show ends, people clap, and the remnants of this feeling of togetherness begin to unravel. People turn around and the crowd, thousands of people, begin the pilgrimage home.
Happy-New-Years are shouted and vuvuzelas are blown. I can hear the noises of celebration even when I’m back in my cold apartment. I take off my gloves and warm my hands. For me, the night is over. Others continue on to bars and house parties and suitable festivities to ring in another year on this planet. But I turn off my camera and take off my boots, my feet sore from the long walk.
Before bed, I import the photos I’ve taken, and these moments come rushing past me again. People at bars, in restaurants, with family and friends, awaiting the new year in their place of choice. Those moments, captured in pixels, came and went so quick, as did the new year and that feeling of connection. And then it was gone, they were gone. Evaporated.
I smile and shut my computer. Of all the options, and despite that intense fear of missing out, I think I chose the right way to spend the night. And, alone again, surrounded by people, I feel okay.
Hello, new year.