Something changed today for me today and I know exactly what, when, and how.

Shortly before lunch, I took an hour long walk to explore Štôla alone. Snow fell last night and, as it is a sleepy little village, most of the wintry blanket lay yet undisturbed. I wandered the streets and enjoyed my first opportunity in a couple weeks to take photos at my own pace. I wondered at the forest that extends from the rear of the village and climbed the Tatras’ slopes. I made a mental note to ask my host father if the woods are officially included in the Tatra National Park.

Time ran out shortly and my host family had business in Poprad. So, I retraced my steps, stopping to take only a few photos along the way back. As I attempted to frame a shot of a stark blue water-pump, an elderly lady called to me. After a stream of words I couldn’t quite follow, I explained to her that I was an exchange student living in Štôla. She was awed and we actually had a pleasant chat.  As we spoke, I felt new-found assurance welling up. I marveled to myself, “I am in a foreign country. Speaking with someone who doesn’t know a speck of English. An exchange isn’t always pleasant, but this is the payoff.”

Before the moment could pass and she continued on by, I remembered what I had learned from the various professional photographers and travelers I follow and look up to;

Every travel photographer has a subjects they naturally tend to shoot and subject they find difficult. Perhaps you think architecture is boring, maybe you don’t like venturing into nature to get a few landscapes, or you are too shy to photograph strangers. Yet, without one you lack the whole of the experience.

I asked if I could take a photo or two of her. She lifted a few fingers to her lips in embarrassment and insisted that I didn’t want a photo of someone like her. “Som stará babka! Len stará babka.” (I’m an old grandma! Just an old grandma.) I told her that I wanted to know all the people and streets of Štôla and she softened, allowing me to capture her in that moment. I do not know her name, but she is 88, she works at the village post office, and she is my first portrait.

Until today, I have always been content to stand on the sidelines and let my shutter close on an oblivious world. While there is beauty in such distance, I now know how wonderful it feels to have the subject you care about care back about you. That is an euphoric feeling. One that has profoundly changed my perspective on my exchange and travel as a whole.


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