|I'll come right out and say it: I have a foot photo fetish.
But I can explain. In 1997, I spent three months backpacking around the South Pacific and Southeast Asia with a couple of my best friends. Our trip began in Fiji, ended in Thailand, and included many far-flung stops in between. By the time we were ready to part ways in Bangkok, I was not prepared to call it quits. So I did something uncharacteristically spontaneous: I booked a flight from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City and, three weeks later, another flight from Hanoi to Hong Kong (to pick up my original itinerary, which then carried me home to Los Angeles).
I had long been fascinated by the history of the Vietnam War and here was an opportunity to see its abandoned battlefields. The country had just opened to tourism in 1994, and was therefore virgin territory to the community of low budget, adventure travelers to which I belonged—a fact that made it all the more alluring.
My first impression of Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City is affectionately known, came by way of its traffic. From the seat of a cyclo—a combination carriage and bicycle taxi that is ubiquitous in Vietnam—my experience on the roads proved considerably more visceral than expected. An entry from my journal explains why:
The traffic here reminds me of a billiards game. Bicycles, mopeds, buses, cars, cyclos, and ox-drawn carts all roll toward each other in apparent disregard for street laws, or at least the street laws to which I am accustomed. The driver, a whiskered, deceptively frail-looking Vietnamese man, sits behind me. How convenient, I think. In the event of a crash, I'm the one in the death seat.
Vietnam was my first significant solo trip and I wanted a photograph to prove that I'd been there. In the midst of the traffic, I glanced at my feet perched on the footrest in front of me, with the game of pool as a backdrop, and realized that using this angle, I could include myself in my own photo without wasting film in a vain effort to capture my face.
From then on, photographing my feet became a ritual, my signature, proof that I'd stepped around the world. When I want to recall the places I've been, I pore over the evidence.
In this one, it‘s 2004 and I am on the deck of a boat cruising down the River Neva on a white night in St. Petersburg, admiring the lavender light as it reflects off the grand facades of the Winter Palace. I'm wearing my Finding Nemo shoes, a pair of baby blue suede flats I bought that year in Switzerland of all places. On the right shoe is an image of Nemo in colorful glitter; on the left is Nemo's Dad.
Here I am at my friend Leah’s 2006 wedding in Healdsburg, in the heart of California wine country. I'm in my dark pink ruffled skirt and matching peek-a-boo sandals. Drunk on Riesling, I peer at my toes and snap a photo that I later turn into a series using different digital finishes: watercolor, solar, saturated, soft glow.
This one shows me hanging off a speedboat cruising up the Mekong River in Cambodia. My friend Martin’s feet dangle beside mine. It’s 1999 and I’m on my way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, the starting point for trips to the sacred temples of Angkor. Look closely and you can see the funny way my toes have been painted: each one waves a different national flag thanks to a memorable pedicure on the rooftop of a party boat in Vietnam, but that’s another story altogether…
(Not coincidentally, I have rocked colored toes ever since, and rarely do I discriminate: silver, tangerine, mint, 24-karat yellow, rust, sparkles, and all the shades of blue, to name just a few of my favorites.)
Here’s me in 2000 on the balcony of my hotel room in Darwin, Australia. A bottle of Victoria Bitter beer sits next to my feet and beyond the sun-striped balcony, the Arafura Sea—so blue they named a color after it, Arafura blue—stretches forever into the distance.
Susan Sontag wrote, “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs.” Sure enough, I can hardly distinguish the gauzy memories of my travels from the feet photos that come to mind when I think back to them—as if my feet have traveled the world without me.