The Art of Looking

By Susan Fassberg

As I walked by this abandoned building, the words came to me: “I am home."

Seven years ago, I was hit by a truck.  This is not a metaphor. I was crossing the street two blocks from home when the driver, blinded by the sun, rammed into me.  During my nine-month recovery, I began to reflect upon my life. Lying on my back, watching the chandelier shadow traverse the ceiling day after day, I realized that for years, I had been stuck on an endless hamster wheel of writing deadlines and painstakingly-scheduled social engagements.  I remembered the joke about the airline pilot who addressed his passengers over the intercom: “Attention: I have bad news and good news:  Radar is down. We’re totally lost!  But you’ll be glad to know we’re making very good time.”  I knew I needed to make a change.

As soon as I was able to travel, I sublet my Berkeley cottage and continued an immersion into Mexican culture that I’d begun as a high school student fifty years ago. Yes, I packed up my life as I knew it and returned to a place that had always fascinated me: San Miguel de Allende, a desert town high in the mountains of central Mexico.

A few weeks after my arrival, the Covid pandemic shut the city down. Restaurants, galleries, and markets were shuttered. There were no street festivals, no parades, no cafes full of laughter and musicians. Unable to meet new friends or to hop on buses, I began to walk the empty streets. Water bottle and iPhone in hand, I made my way in total silence.

San Miguel is a visually rich World Heritage site known for its traditional architecture, intense colors, and endless celebrations. But it was not the skyline or the buildings or the public squares that caught my eye. It was always some small detail, a tiny slice of a larger scene.  Strolling along, I opened my eyes and heart to my new home and the city began to reveal itself to me.

On a wall near a neighborhood park, a colorful depiction of San Miguel’s hilly terrain and vibrant buildings

 I should confess I am a word person. I read voraciously and write for a living. I speak German, French and Spanish, and have produced a line of greeting cards based on words from other cultures — all concepts beyond the scope of English. I’ve always relied on words for solace and for humor.  Yet not everything can be expressed that way.  As I trod San Miguel’s  dirt paths and narrow stairways, I gave myself over to the art of looking. This time, there were no words; no conversation partners. Only birds….

Talented artists have filled San Miguel streets with murals

As I explored, I found myself looking up as well as down. In San Miguel this involves no small risk, as the cobblestone streets are treacherous.  I ventured in all directions. Every day I shared my discoveries online: a tiled archway, shadows of succulents on a high terrace, a lone figure sweeping an entryway.  Strangers wrote to me saying I allowed them to see the city in an entirely new way.  The town’s colorful peeling walls began to resemble maps, and the silent everyday life that people were living during the pandemic, revealed itself at every turn. (To view this gallery full size, click on images below)

My photographs are in and of the moment, fueled by serendipity. I turn corners following my nose,  marveling at the intricate construction of a brick wall that incorporates a gnarled tree, delighting in the over-the-top ingenuity of Mexican workmanship. A stone vessel in an abandoned courtyard feels like a portal to another time and space. A vibrant laundry line beckons.

Colors and shadows awaited on a friend's terrace.

Some days I choose particular themes or motifs, setting aside a day for plants, or altars, or tangled telephone wires.  As the city becomes more familiar, I walk further out, discovering elaborate metal gates with pink roses or a water spout in the shape of a rabbit.  Yet I return again and again to favorite haunts: my “thinking bench,” the place of worship now locked, a tree in the hills heavy with bright red seeds.    

My morning ritual has remained constant. I know where water gushes when it rains, where hairy spiders cross the road, where for five perfect minutes the noon light carves curly shadows on a bright pink wall. I know where locals gather medicinal plants, and where gardens lie fallow, parched and crusty. My relationship with this magical terrain is developing still.

Every day I take to the empty streets of San Miguel to observe my new home. I peek through archways, lift stones, and hunt for treasures in the shadows. What I find is reassuring; Beauty thrives in the most mundane places.

Woodcarver's front door
Wall made of recycled materials
Street murals often extend beyond the wall to embrace nearby telephone poles.

Through my photography, I share my delight in discovering a new perspective, the relationship between light and shadow, the dialogue between the man-made and the natural.  And, if I am lucky, I get a glimpse into the unseen whole.   Some suggestions, just for fun:.

Walk in silence. Shoot in silence.

Shoot in early morning, at dusk, in the evening.

Shoot at high noon if you feel like it. It’s a bear.

Walk backwards sometimes. 

And remember to look up!

Pay attention to shadows, angles, wrinkles, backgrounds.

Study negative space: what do you see there?

Capture motion. Capture stillness.

Notice what surprises you. What moves you. What makes you laugh out loud. Shoot that.

If you’re out walking with a friend, take different directions around the block, then share your photos over coffee.  

Susan Fassberg is a writer, photographer and jewelry-maker currently in San Miguel Allende, Mexico.  Happy imperfectionist, seeker of remarkable people, she loves to help ideas blossom into projects that have a constructive impact.  Find her on Instagram @connectingdotz or visit to learn more about her.

Angel face in wood at Atotonilco, a baroque church called the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.”
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