Choosing the Unknown: Behind the Shot with Forest Woodward
Adventure photographer Forest Woodward ventures off the beaten path in Spain for new experiences and discovery outside the standard classroom.
I fell in love with Spain in the spring of 2009. I was 22 at the time, finishing a Spanish degree while studying abroad in Seville, the capital of the country’s southernmost region, Andalusia.
A few weeks into my six-month tenure at the University of Seville, it became apparent that the class attendance policies were nearly non-existent in Spain compared to those enforced in the States. One professor went so far as to say, “If you don’t want to come to my class that is fine. Here is the date for the final exam: you can come that day and take the exam and either pass or fail, it makes no difference to me.”
I came to understand this to be the norm, and my interest in going to class—which was already at an all-time low when I left the U.S.—seemed to vanish altogether, granting me an abundance of free time to explore my new home. I did not know it then, but the time I spent exploring the countryside of Andalusia would have a far greater relevance to my future career as an adventure photographer than the time spent reading sappy 17th-century Spanish love stories, and trying unsuccessfully to spark up romances of my own with the notoriously uninterested Sevillanas.
There was much to appreciate about Spanish culture. Wine in particular. Many days were spent with feet dangling over the wall along the Triana river, with warm afternoons fading into fiery sunsets, the strange sounds and smells and sights rippling like heatwaves off the rooftops and through the palms. We eased into a rhythm that was distinctly Spanish—both in its adherence to the hours of siesta and its proclivity toward epicurean delights, subverting our deeply ingrained but hitherto unrealized Protestant work ethics.
We attempted to shed our Americanness, dressing as we thought the locals did, speaking to each other in vaguely intelligible Spanish, joining local pickup fútbol matches, rooting for Real Betis, and in retrospect, remaining entirely and obnoxiously American.
Months passed, and as the novelty of skipping class to share bottles of wine down by the river began to wear off, we searched further afield.
The Motorcycle Diaries had become popularized as a movie the summer previous, and though it was not widely viewed in the States, the film had a profound effect on my friends and me. We naturally gravitated to the mopeds of the city. On one fine warm spring day, the words, “do you know how to drive one of those,” answered with a devious and rather dishonest “yes,” found my roommate John R Stevenson III and myself sputtering out of Seville on matching red 50cc mopeds. We had no idea where we were going but knew we were “getting out of the city,” a feat that our classmates had heard us threaten to do for quite some time.
Laughing, we joked that we were embarking on The Moped Diaries.
Our trip was short (4 days) but impactful, as my journal entries attest:
March 12th, Day 1: Leaving Seville. Lots of questions. Following John as he strangely weaves through traffic. Weaving sounds too graceful—imagine the way a drunkard weaves. As we strapped on our space helmets and filled out paperwork for the rentals he confessed that he’d never ridden anything more powerful than a bicycle before. Watching him now I wonder if he had even ridden that. Just moments ago we had spluttered out of the garage at Vespa Sur. These were no Vespas. We’re talking bottom of the line gringo scooters. If they’d known what we planned to do with them I doubt they would have even given us these. Questions still churning. Amidst the jumble two resurface repeatedly: “Is John going to wreck?” and “How long until my moped breaks down?” Twenty minutes out and my moped is steadily losing power. We turn back and trade it in for a different one. Back on the road, John’s moped splutters as he frantically swerves out of traffic and coasts to a stop. Neither of us is mechanically inclined, but eventually, we manage to figure out how to unscrew the gas cap and peer into the empty tank.
Off the hellish freeway and still alive, we relax a little. Scooting into pastoral Spain, we can see the Sierras in the distance. Later tonight we’ll be in the foothills. The sun gathers speed as it slides toward the horizon. Golden light twisting through ancient orchards of olive trees. Long after nightfall, we splutter into the quaint town of Arcos de la Frontera. Dinner is red wine, fried egg, bread, potatoes, sausage, chicken, salad, and flan. Street lamps guide us through winding cobble streets and the whitewashed houses situated atop the rocky tore rising out of the foothills. Friendly people, good food. We’ve arrived in the first of Los Pueblos Blancos.
March 13th, Day 2: Winding up into the mountains, the country soon loses its soft pastoral feel and is replaced by rocky tores and gnarled trees twisting into dark tunnels. Chasing the last of the light up the mountain we emerge from the forest and out into the high tundra. Pulling out the camera for the 100th time, I convince John to drive back and forth along a winding stretch of road, leaving a trail of light through the dusk. Below the valley is in shadow. Ridges fold into one another, velvety shades of blue against the pastel horizon. We’re nearing Grazalema, the next pueblo blanco, and our destination for the night. Stars are out now. Mountain stars, desert stars, call them what you want, they’re the stars that are always there but can only be seen when you leave the lights of civilization and find those places where the air is clean and dry.
March 15th, Day 4: Coming back down out of the Sierra Beticas the night is a swirl of smells. some familiar, some completely distinct and exotic. The ambiguity of the road at night brings back memories. Splashes of brightness in the pool of night. I’m a kid again, swept back along roads traveled with my family. The cool sweet smell of evergreen brings back the canyons of Colorado and Utah. A mix of exotic smells I can’t quite place sweep me through the mountains of Chile and Peru…one memory connects to another, branching tangentially in the pool of light splashed out across the racing asphalt. Vague memories hide in the silhouettes of old drooping trees against the night sky. iPods off; I breathe in the night. New memories tucked greedily away. Mind clear and open. Midnight finds us back in Seville. Still vibrating from the road we stumble off of our mopeds and attempt to regain feeling in our limbs. Looking at each other across our scooters and from under our astronaut helmets we begin to laugh. It’s a good laugh. The shameless laugh of one friend enjoying how ridiculous the other is, knowing full well he sees in him his own reflection.
Looking back, I mark that trip—that experience of leaving the classroom and the comfort of the city, choosing the unknown over the expected—as a point that defined the beginning of my career as an adventure photographer. I felt a joy in photographing our journey and the people we met—a joy that was raw and life-affirming, in every sense alive, and alive in every sense. For the first time, I was able to see the threads of light and story clearly, to weave them in a way that was my own. I realized there was a synergy between my desire to explore the unknown and my desire to create photographs and tell stories.
Returning to Seville, I managed to pass all of my exams, even finishing my degree with “honors,” (an accomplishment which to this day makes me chuckle).
Upon graduating that summer, I held close the feeling of freedom I had experienced during The Moped Diaries and knew that I would not soon return to the dusty pages of Siglo de Oro literature. Rather, I would spend the next eight years traveling the world in search of off the beaten track experiences and more importantly, people, with whom I could continue an education that began outside the classroom.
Along the way, I have returned to Spain many times, and have come to the realization that the final exam is neither graded nor final, but rather is lived every day, an assignment limitless in the infinite opportunities of self-realization and human connection.