Bringing the Future into Focus
By Ella Lurie Tollman
Having been born a Tollman, I suppose it’s no surprise that travel has been such an important part in the first twenty years of my life. Though I grew up and currently live in Los Angeles – while Zooming into college at NYU – my earliest memories are of time spent with my family exploring the bush in South Africa, then later visiting cousins around the world and on family trips like the one above, in Paris.
This picture is one of so many photographs from our travels, which my parents compiled into the beautiful albums that I pore over time and again as I relive those adventures. It has been through these albums that I discovered my love of photography, which has so influenced my experiences of the places we have been and will shape those to come, in places I dream of discovering.
While I love photography of all kinds, my passion is film photography – the kind everyone did before digital cameras came along. You remember – rolls of film you would load into a camera, keeping them safely from the light? You would wind between shots and think carefully about the pictures you took, as each one used up a 35-millimeter rectangle of film. And while you might plan out a shot, you would never know exactly what you got until you either developed the film yourself or picked it up from a lab. It’s so different from a digital photo, which you see instantly. But there’s something about that waiting period that brings a sense of anticipation, which is so key in photography and travel.
Photography has taught me so many lessons that shape how I view life, travel, and the future. One I have been thinking of lately is about “depth of field.” Though a technical term, it’s something we all recognize, about which objects are in focus, those that are close or those that are far away. I love photographs where the foreground is a blur while the distance is sharp and, right now, that pretty much sums up how I feel about travel. The year 2020 has been about the blurriest and most challenging year for travelers since my great-grandfather, Solomon Tollman, opened the Paternoster Hotel in a fishing village on the coast of South Africa, launching the family business, exactly 100 years ago this month.
With a global pandemic that has brought travel screeching to a halt, we are just now beginning to take our first steps forward, looking for clarity on the road ahead. And yet, blurry as the present moment may be, I feel the vision for the future has never been clearer. Far from diminishing my interest in travel, this pandemic has made me all the more enthusiastic about experiences that await, discovering new places and meeting new people. My friends feel the same way – there’s a sense of urgency and excitement. Why put your life on hold? Quoting my Papa – as I call my grandfather – who is so very wise and has seen so much, “The world will keep on spinning, and there is a time in the not too distant future when it will be full speed ahead.”
He also says to make the best of this time, so I’ve been looking back at some of my photos, thinking about lessons learned that will shape my future travels.
In 2017 my family went to Kenya with Me to We to help build a school in the Maasai Mara. I took this photo with my new Pentax (well, new to me, though already old when I got it). When the photo came back from the lab, I could see that there was some light bleed, but I just loved this group of kids, with whom I really bonded while I was there. With all that’s going on in the world there is still such a desire to connect, and in the photo, you can feel the real warmth they sent us off with as they said goodbye.
My father often quotes a Maori saying “It’s the people. It’s the people. It’s the people.” Like my grandfather says “You can’t do anything without people. It’s what makes the world go round.”
For the past three years in December my family has traveled to stay with friends in Carayes, Mexico, about two hours down the coast from Puerto Vallarta. Part of that trip includes helping newly hatched sea turtles find their way to the sea. They’re an endangered species, and very few of the ones that go into the sea survive to be the magnificent sea turtles we know. The scramble from their eggs on shore down to the water is one of the most perilous parts of their journey, and by giving them a head start by carrying them to the water we’re helping the species to recover.
I had intended to take a picture of the turtle, but when it came back, I saw that the focus was on my brother’s hands. But the more I looked at it, the more I liked it – the shape of his hands, and the way you can see the individual grains of sand. To me, this picture echoes the message of TreadRight – that it is people who make travel matter.
One of the greatest gifts of travel is the chance to step into in someone else’s shoes. In 2018 we went on another Me to WE trip, this one to Rajasthan, India. As we had done in Kenya, we went on a water walk, seeing how far the women carry water each day.
Later, we met this woman who so kindly brought us into her house to teach us how to make naan, the traditional bread of that region. She was quite proud of her dog and asked if we would take a picture of the two of them. That’s what I love about this picture – while it’s the picture of her and the dog, it is also of my mother taking the picture, as you can just her see on the left. Afterwards I went downstairs and outside where I saw this girl sitting. She was kind of shy, but flirty, too, and I asked if I could take her picture. I love the composition and whatever she was sitting on. It’s nothing I could have planned, just a found picture. There are lots of travel experiences like that, moments you could never expect, but turn out just right.
While my last name is Tollman, my middle name is Lurie, which is the maiden name of my grandmother – you know her as Bea Tollman, president of Red Carnation and guiding spirit of Uniworld. I know her as Nana, and it is from her that I’ve inherited my love of design and fashion, which are shaping my studies at NYU. It’s a love that runs throughout my family. I see it in the way my Aunt Toni works with Nana to design and furnishe all of Uniworld’s ships, and in all the countless ways my Aunt Vicki works with her to make Red Carnation Hotels so beautiful and welcoming. I also see that same aesthetic spark in my cousin Andrew, Toni’s son, who is Global Creative Director for The Travel Corporation.
I suppose this passion for design is the source of my long-time fascination with Japan. I love the aesthetic. The sense of presentation. And the sushi. I had long dreamed of traveling there, and when my family went there in 2019 it was all I hoped for and more. Once again, however, it was the surprises that struck me. I remember traveling to Kyoto to see all the things one might hope to see, which we did. But then my brother and I took a detour from the temples and found the most amazing Vintage Western Cowboy store. Though I have no picture of it, it’s clear in my mind, and was absolutely perfect. It was also a wakeup call for me, a lesson to keep my eyes open for the unexpected.
That’s what happened with this shot in an art museum in Tokyo. When we went in they told us I could take pictures but not use my flash. At first it was a disappointment, as I thought of the shots I’d miss. But then I saw my brothers and mother framed against this window with the Tokyo skyline in the background. They were looking at an exhibit of miniature doll houses, and there was this wonderful way, for an instant, they all became part of the exhibit.
More than anything, these photos help remind me how fortunate I am, and what a gift it is to be able to travel and discover the world. The more places I travel, the more connected I feel. That comes from my family – here we are in Jerusalem, for my Bat Mitzvah.
We live in a truly amazing time. It seems like yesterday that we were free to travel the world and discover how we all are connected. Currently, having to put that on pause for now, merely makes me appreciate it all the more. I hope to give the same to my children some day, the chance to discover the world, to open doors for them that my family has opened for me. I can see that same drive in my friends. They’re hungry to see the world and have experiences, excited, willing, and eager to tie service and travel together, and there’s no better way to see the world than while having a positive impact.
Philosophical as I may be about this pause in travel, I have to say how much I miss visiting my grandparents. I love this photo I took of them in France. There is truly no one like them, and I would give anything to be able to snap my fingers right now and be with them. For now, I hold on to our weekly zoom conversations, as well as those with my mother’s mother, and treasure every word they say.
Looking through my photos I came across this one, on my dad’s shoulders, taken on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, which has always been a favorite of mine. Looking at it, I can see that my attitude toward life now is very much the same as it was then, with the same Tollman outlook: I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I’m excited, nonetheless.
Ella Lurie Tollman