Hello from Roatan, in the Bay Islands of Honduras. I’m limiting my movements to snorkeling and reading in the hammock and foraging for nuts and berries at the bar, so if this is all you hear from me this week, that’s why. Please don’t send search and rescue, I like it here. Yesterday I left Oaxaca far earlier than I’d have liked to. Here’s the stuff I scraped off the inside wall of my heart while I reflected on this trip.
Last year I traveled back to Kathmandu, a place in which i feel very much at home. Despite this ease-of-being in that visually rich place, I wrestled with finding anything remotely close to a vision of the place. I wrote about it publicly here on the blog and was flogged by at least one reader who felt my angst was exhausting. Generally that kind of feedback discourages me, can even flatten me for a day while i regain my perspective, but in this case it’s given me something to laugh about for over a year. Man, if my angst exhausts you, you should try being me. I need a nap just writing about it.
I don’t do angst. I do hope. But I understand, too well sometimes, what it feels like to be an artist. If you pick up a camera in order to simply play with large lenses, make perfect exposures, or gather material for your latest cookie-cutter over-texturized HDR photographs and this week’s Flickr love-fest, then I understand why you might find my honesty about my own life as an aspiring artist a little wearying. But I hope to one day be a visual poet whose work echoes more clearly the voice in his mind and heart. And that journey isn’t easy.
In the six months since my fall in Italy I’ve had high moments. My photography is not among them. I’ve now been back in the field, walking through the world with tentative steps, in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Mexico. What I had hoped would be journeys of renewal have been anything but. I’ve had long days of pain, fallen over gravestones during the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, had my cane stuck in the mud of Laotian rice-paddies. Mostly I’ve just laughed, because I get a little stronger every day. What shows no evidence of strengthening is my nerve. I’m slow. I can’t move the way I once did. I can’t squat or kneel on one knee without looking like a slapstick performer and falling over. I can’t get where I want to be to make the photograph, or easily carry the gear I need to make it.
But if this sounds like a building storm of pity, it’s not. It’s simply the recognition of a new reality. A reality, like yours, that is full of constraints. But while art flourishes in constraints, it does not do so easily. I am slowing down. I am back in school. And like many of my own students, having a melt-down on the first day of a workshop, I’ve come back to that place where nothing – nothing – comes easily. What has this new reality given me? Time. It has slowed me down. It has forced my hand to the making of the photographs I truly want to make, and while I’m still failing in those efforts, I’m learning.
I was in Oaxaca last week for the Day of the Dead. I don’t think I emerged with a single photograph of the festival. Instead i made some still-lifes, and a few portraits. I shot less than 500 frames, almost none of them even close to my hopes. In the past, I might have judged this a failure, but in the face of feeling like I might not be able to do this anymore, like my best work is behind me, or that I just won’t make the same photographs again, these few portraits are new, faltering steps back towards my art. And I’m right: I won’t make the same kinds of photographs. They’ll be different, because I am. And as long as they’re honest, I’m hoping they’re also going to be stronger. Slowing down isn’t a bad thing. Less so-called “keepers” isn’t a bad thing. Honest photographs matter. Hard-drives full of images don’t.
Everyone I know rides the ups and downs of creative life, beaten around by our circumstances, our failures, the latest work of that photographer whose talent we secretly envy. Sometimes it’s just the disparity between what we see in our mind’s eye and what we’re capable of creating with the camera in our hands. I don’t know a single so-called pro whose work I respect that finds this always easy. Rewarding? Profoundly so. Difficult? Also so. Your work will be judged on what it is, not what it isn’t. It will resonate beautifully with people who don’t know how hard it was for you to make it, and even more for the few who do.
Huge thanks to the amazing people and new friends who shared last weeks adventure in Oaxaca with me.