“I'm roaming in Kabul's old city amongst the cool shadows of the early morning. In a tiny backstreet I pass a woman carrying a sack of rice, some cooking oil, and a balloon. She is not wearing a burqa. She sees my camera and whispers to me in Dari "take my picture". An Afghan woman has never asked me to take her photograph before. I imagine it is forbidden, Haram, but she looks happy and our surroundings are quiet, so I take a picture. I wander some more and spot the child who sold the woman her balloon. He is walking on a parallel street carrying a big bunch of them. I move quickly and catch the balloons in the sunlight before he disappears onto a busy street."
Throughout time, balloons have served as a symbol of hope, wonder, and possibility. In the children's classic, The Red Balloon, a French film from the 50s by Albert Lamorisse, a little boy named Pascal is on his way to school when he encounters a red balloon with a life of its own that decides to befriend him. The balloon follows Pascal around the streets of Paris — on the bus, to school, and to church. Soon, interest and jealousy arise, and a gang of boys sets out to destroy Pascal's balloon. For those who haven't seen it, I won't spoil the ending, but it's a brilliant tale that reminds us that while our ideas may be fragile and vulnerable, our imagination and dreams are the most powerful things we possess.
I'm struck by Ross' story of the woman, armed with balloon, asking to have her picture taken. I wonder if, somehow, the balloon gave her courage to do something out of the ordinary, if it gave her a sense of innocence to absolve her of any wrongdoing. I'm struck that while returning from the market with cooking oil and rice in hand, she stopped and spent money on a balloon.
But, why am I surprised? Because my mind harbors notions of what women who live on backstreets in places like Kabul must be like — how they must think, how they must act, how they must make decisions. But no matter where we're born or how we're brought up, we all grow up learning to associate balloons with occasions for celebration and the promise of a good day. And what logical explanation does one need to give for desiring joy, happiness, or hope? If there is one thing that unites us, perhaps it is this.
When I see Ross’ print, I think of Pascal from The Red Balloon. I think of Carl Frederickson's flying balloon-powered home in Pixar's Up. I think of Professor Sherman's adventure on Krakatoa in William Pene du Bois' The Twenty-One Balloons. I think of Banksy's iconic Balloon Girl. I think of all the balloons at every birthday party I ever had or attended under the age of 11. All the startling pops — intended or unintended, all the static clings, all the frightening clowns and their amazing animal balloons, all the times I went blue in the face inflating balloons with my measly breath, and all the helium intakes that would produce hours of hysterical high-pitched laughter. They were all good times (minus the clowns). Every memory, magical. And for me, that's what this photo represents. Magic. The magic of joy, the magic of hope, the magic of imagination, the magic of dreams. But above all, the simple belief in magic.