Fellows' Reflections: Tonia Bartlett

My Grandpa is the Coolest Guy I Know

Right before I left for Egypt, my 91-year old grandfather and I sat down and looked at pictures from his earliest explorations of the world, some of which dated back to the late 1930’s. Pictures from when he taught in Istanbul with my grandmother in their earliest years of marriage, his traipse through Central America back when a Jeep was not a stylish accessory but the only practical means of crossing the terrain, meeting my grandmother in a coffee shop in France, and time spent in Egypt on sabbatical. My grandfather is one seriously adventurous guy, and was always years ahead of his era when it came to photography. His lifelong passion for documenting his experiences has been a brilliant blessing in my family, because it has helped give us a sense of our history and the legacy he and my grandmother have left for us.

I vividly remember leaving that day thinking to myself that my grandpa might be one of the most adventurous people I’ve ever met. How many people can say that? But I was beginning my life of adventure in a very different era than my grandfather. His travels across the Atlantic involved a multi-week boat ride -- mine would be a less-than-24-hour plane commute. To communicate with his family, he would use an international telegraph, write letters, and perhaps in the most necessary circumstances might access an intercontinental phone call. On the other hand, I can Skype my family less than 15 seconds after the idea crosses my mind.

In a world of digital noise and with his legacy in mind, I was left wondering: How am I going to document my experiences in a way that, 70 years from now, will be meaningful for my potential grandchildren?

Like my grandfather, I have always loved the craft of storytelling, but have never felt the same pull toward photography that he has. In an internship after my sophomore year of college, I was introduced to the world of videography, and have been captivated ever since. I love the way it challenges me to take the setting I’m in and figure out the story it’s trying to tell, rather than the other way around. Much like photography, it requires a creativity of its own -- authentic storytelling requires a willingness to look at our daily moments through a new angle and lens. I’ve found videography helps me to make sense of my experiences, and offers insights I didn’t notice in real time. It’s my way of reflecting on where I’ve been and what it meant to me.

In my October blog post, I talked about how strongly I wished I could capture the sights and sounds of Egypt to share the brilliance of daily life here. There really is no way of capturing what life anywhere looks like through a medium beyond memories and the human experience. But living and working in Egypt over the past 6 months has given weight to my videography endeavors. Shooting footage and creating features isn’t only a way to reflect on my memories anymore; it creates pathways for sharing and documenting the world we know in a way that did not exist 70 years ago. What started as a desire to document my life in Egypt for something to show the grandkids has become much more. Now I see video as a way to build bridges and take down walls between the East and West, through adding to the narrative. And frankly, I think that’s an adventure my grandfather will be quite proud of.

Here’s a video I recently made from my trip to Fowa, Egypt, a small village in the Nile Delta with a rich history of artisans, trade, and agriculture, and a brilliant passion for sharing their city with visitors.