Dispatch from Roatan

In News & Stuff, Pep Talks, Travel, Vision Is Better by David69 Comments

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.

Fernando GrosMy friend Fernando. (I can hear the drums…)

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.


  1. Wow, superb blog layout! How lengthy have you ever been blogging for? you made running a blog look easy. The total glance of your website is magnificent, let alone the content!

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  4. Growth is hard. Change can be brutal. The trick is to use the challenges to develop new facets of perspective. The more facets in a diamond, the greater the sparkle. The same is true of each person.

    Shine on.

  5. David, I know you have suffered but your photography has not! Your images are still amazing. I know first-hand how physical pain and sudden physical limitation can dampen the creative spirit, but I have no doubt that you will emerge from it even stronger. As beautiful as your images are, so are your words!

    I used to think I had to hike many miles into the woods to get those amazing shots, but now that I can’t, I have to look for images right in front of me in commonplace areas, and they are there, just waiting. Wishing you continued recovery, minimal pain, and lots of photo ops where you don’t have to bend, squat, or walk too far to get them!!

  6. “Honest photographs matter. Hard-drives full of images don’t.”

    Well said.

    I know you have a certain “look” about your work…but, I would love to see you shoot 5-10 rolls of your favorite film stock with a simple Rangfinder like the Olympus RC or Contax G2.

  7. I can’t say anything more than has already been written in these comments, except to echo those words about how you inspire us. Now if I could only find a mentor as inspiring…;)

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  9. The way you share your thoughts is so refreshing and I thank you for it. You speak from the heart and offer all of us an honest conversation that we can take within ourselves. Enjoy the adventures!

  10. One of the things I find most comforting about this blog is how honest you are David, and how I don’t feel like you’re trying to pull wool over eyes in an effort to come up with some blog post that means something, but instead you deliver a piece of you in the post that I have no doubt is true. You can feel it. When trying to be creative we all go through bouts of doubt and lack of vision, but there’s more to this than just not finding the shot and I appreciate that. I also appreciate that there’s hope in your words and not just disappointment in the current state. Keep up the good fight my friend, you are an inspiration!

  11. Diverging a little from the blog itself, I love your images of the woman. If those were your intent – bravo. They made me smile and want to know her. If you were intending to create a composed portrait, I don’t think I even want to see it – I prefer the “outtakes” and get more a sense of her personality and a feeling of happiness. I feel a connection between you and her. I do not feel she is someone that you just approached in the street and sniped but someone who you had a conversation with. She looks like she feels slightly uncomfortable posing but is likely laughing a little at herself for feeling uncomfortable but also laughing with you. I also like the composition of four images and the relatively quiet tones. The photos are not busy, so I can focus on the woman, but you give it a slight sense of place with the architectural detail in the upper left.

    I wish my bad days were as good as this.

  12. David,

    Thanks for your candor. I can empathize. Welcome to “old age,” though in your case it is temporary as you work through recovery.

    I’m in my 60’s and can tell you that learning to live with declining physical ability, as a permanent part of life, isn’t fun. Your temporary state is my new normal. No more rugged hiking. Personal stability is always an issues on uneven ground. You know the drill.

    I’m learning/forced to think and see differently as I get older. Different perspectives, focal lengths (for practical reasons) and a much slower pace. Some of it good, some of it frustrating.

    I suspect there are many of us out here in the same boat, who have vicariously followed you wander the world and make lovely photos, remembering our halcyon days – or perhaps lamenting lost opportunity.

    Hang in there . . .

  13. Thank you so much for your honesty. I strikes a chord with me and it makes a difference on those days when I feel I will never be a “real” photographer or artist, or that I’m a fraud, because none of my frames have turned out the way I want them to. It helps to know this is something that all artists feel. Hey, maybe I really am an artist if I have those feelings!

    I know what it’s like to by limited physically. I use my LCD a lot when I cannot get my body to be where it needs to be.

    Just keep truckin’ David. So many people here are inspired by you and get energy from your words. Don’t let the exhausted guy ruin it.

  14. Hello David,

    Nicely written post. Very very few photographers have your gift for the written word. Your comments regarding slowing down are well received! It is very hard to slow down in today’s world of digital capture, instant feedback, instant this, instant that…. Push a button here, click a mouse there….
    Film photography is a great way to slow down and smell the roses, think about what is around you and capture it in your mind first, film second, make a note or two third. Then have patience to evaluate the film you have processed over time yourself. A truly beautiful way to SLOW DOWN.

    You are an inspiration!

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  16. David,
    It sounds as if perhaps the frame might have moved, but your vision is intact. Embrace with all of your abundant creativity and humanity. The perspective may have changed but as a soulful, gifted artist you will adapt and thrive!

  17. Hi David, it’s been a while since I replied to one of our blogs, i’m not sure why, but as I struggle through my own troubles these days I felt compelled to throw a thought into this one.

    That thought is partly to echo your own “Honest photographs matter. Hard-drives full of images don’t” and the thoughts that precede it, but also to add my own conclusion that whilst it will always be right to strive for better things and to improve, the most important thing is to enjoy life doing the things we love. To be able to take pleasure that we are doing something we love, photography, rather than to be unhappy things aren’t quite how we imagined them the night before. To be able to go home with no ‘keepers’ and still have a smile on our face that says “Well, I had a great day out in the countryside!”.

    There was a famous guy in England I don’t know if you’ll have heard of called Jimmy Saville and he did a couple of days ago. I read today that he’s going to be buried at an angle so he can look out onto the sea, and on his gravestone will be inscribed “It was good while it lasted”. I can’t think of a better way to look at life or to try and live it.


  18. Another inspiring blog, thanks. My “Photographically Speaking” arrived from Amazon UK today, I’ve forced myself not to open it as I’ve an 11 hour flight on Thursday and I’m saving it. Not looked forward to a long flight for many months!

  19. Love the portrait of Fernando and the one of the older gent with the cane is pretty wonderful, as well. You didn’t come away empty handed.

    Don’t fret, keep on trucking’ and get someone to carry your gear for you for a while…

  20. David, your being transparent allows the rest of us to acknowledge that there’s still no magic potion for being great at what you do, it’s hard, hard work all the way… for the craft, and for ourselves. I’m inspired by every one of your posts guy. Don’t give up!

  21. Thank you for another honest, teaching, blog post. It’s a relief to hear someone so far ahead of me still understand what the beginning process of learning photography feels like. Rather than discourage me from thinking “oh no, it never ends, even when you’re good at the craft”, it made me feel like I am in good company and simply in the process. whew. hallelujah. Gracias!

  22. Hey David.

    No ribbing today. Just to say that “Photographically Speaking” pre-ordered through Amazon.de landed with me today.

    Looking forward to getting stuck in.

    Kind regards,

  23. Hey there, I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and just wanted to say how much I enjoy it.

    Despite being in my early thirties I’ve developed a rheumatic condition in the last couple of years that has seriously affected my mobility and energy levels. Even doing something as simple as crouching down to get a shot is a challenge for me these days. Your blog and your experiences have definitely helped keep things in perspective for me, especially on the bad, self-pitying days.

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  25. Thank you for being honest and open in a world that needs more of both. My wife just handed me a note of all the things she appreciates about me (wow, what a gift!) but the first on the list was the ability to be vulnerable. Go figure that art wasn’t on the list; that just flow from an open heart. All the best!

  26. “Honest photographs matter. Hard-drives full of images don’t.”
    Very true. A lot of the time, I feel like I’ve failed if I haven’t taken tons of photos at one event, but I should worry more about taking a few that actually mean something. I have to start thinking more about why I’m taking a photograph. Sometimes I shoot things just because I think I should. And then I don’t even like how the image comes out!

    Thanks for the constant inspiration. Even on your off days, I think you’re an amazing artist. I also want to thank you for all of your books. They’ve been a huge help and, I’ll say it again, inspiration to me. I own each one except Photographically Speaking, but I’m waiting for that to be delivered any day now!

  27. As a physician, I am allowed to watch with intimate detail as ill or injured people (usually) recover. Although it’s a different process for each person, one thing I consistently notice is that our current culture of modernity teaches that we should recover quickly. Sadly, it’s almost never as quickly as we wish. My advice, unsolicited (you get what you pay for), is to try to be happy with forward progress, even if the pace of that progress is slower than one would wish.
    I am personally trying to apply that advice to my photography, with your help, David. Thanks!

  28. Thanks for another great post David. I think anybody who wants to accomplish anything significant in life has to adopt a motto for life: “No Matter What Happens, Never Give Up!”
    I recently returned from a trip to Nepal (bringing some good photographs from there by the way) and had to live up to this motto every day of my treks up the Himalayas there. If I would give up and go down, I never would’ve made the photographs I made.

  29. Have an amazing time in Roatan. My wife and I were in Utila in 2006 and had one of our greatest travel experiences to date. If you can I highly recommend getting certified in scuba, you will never look back. Also I know they send a boat to Cayos Cochinos which is pretty amazing for snorkeling or diving. Thanks for the honesty, your POV is always appreciated.

  30. Oh David – I always relate so well to what you have to say – since I first got WTF I await your comments. Last week my HD crashed and I lost 4000 images. I do have RAW on disc but not the edited. My fault – not prepared. But my feelings are – I start again – I get better as I read and learn so who needs the older shots anyway! I have been out shooting the beautiful fall leaves in crisp, cold, sunny Vancouver.

  31. Open and honest are your hallmarks David, and we’re all here because we respect and admire that.

    I’m sure it’s tough for you right now but, thinking about what could have been, every painful, tentative step is a step that I’m sure you/we didn’t expect so soon, so consider yourself ahead of the game and every step is another step of progress.

    As you say, you’ll change and have been changed; that’s what makes each of us uniquely special. All of it – even the difficult times – is part of life’s rich tapestry! 🙂

    Good luck with your ongoing journey.

  32. Isn’t support from strangers one of the most uplifting things? We don’t have to care. Most of us don’t know you. WIll never see you. Yet we read. We type. We care.



  33. David,

    Thanks so much for your honest sharing. This last post was a great encouragement to me. I think anyone working in photography has doubts and confidence issues at time. It’s comforting to know that someone with your abilities struggles some as well. I certainly don’t see any negative changes in your images. The portrait of Fernando is outstanding. Keep sharing, encouraging, and photographing. Ron

  34. Author

    Randall – Your comment was read with only humour. Don’t sweat it. And you get bonus points for the reference to the chrysalis cracking…

    Thanks, all, for the kindness. 🙂

  35. Pardon my initial flippant comment above. I made that having read only the intro and I have now read the complete post. David, I don’t think there is one person who reads/ participates in your blog who doesn’t know beyand a shadow of a doubt that you will eventually ‘re-invent’ yourself’. Maybe not as drastically as going from Divinity school to comedy to photography, but in dealing with your present situation, becoming a stronger photographer and more importantly, a stronger person. You do a lot and mean a lot to many people around the world and we send our thoughts and prayers, and we will all celebrate the inevitable cracking of the chrysalis…

  36. Thank you for confronting a lot of my fears head on David. I appreciate your candidness and willingness to be vulnerable…

    Just over a month ago I lost a loved one and I am struggling to be honest. I know there’s some perspective around here somewhere though and I am looking for it…

  37. David, It’s good that you recognize that these imparments are just speed bumps in life. We all have them, just different for different people. We are changed and our perspectives become more eternal and less selfish. We can empathize with others struggling and over coming. We have choices and that is our outlook. I am sure that everyone has times of “why me?” but when our attitude is more looking out than looking in we don’t get caught in that cycle. I see that in your writings and photographs – you are a looking out person. You may not have come away with the photos that you expected or wanted but the three you posted – the bed, the vase, and the food showed strongly about where you were.
    Keep striving, keep going. Your photographs still speak strongly.

  38. David,

    I just wanted to thank you for being so open and vulnerable and sharing your heart and soul with this community. It is a rare gift that not many are comfortable doing, but by being so honest about your struggles it helps the rest of us by realising we are not alone. Sometimes life creates limitations for us to overcome, and the mark of our character is how we navigate these obstacles.

    I love your honesty and your deeply personal posts and I think that as long as you remain true to your vision and continue to shoot from your heart then we will all be enjoying your art for many years to come. I for one do not believe your best work is behind you! I think there is a simple and beautiful truth and honesty to the portraits you have taken.

    I wish you all the best on your ongoing recovery and the journey that is life and hope you realise how much of an inspiration you are to me and many others in this incredible world.

    Warmest blessings

  39. Your best work isn’t behind you David because, like all of us, your work will be richer and more insightful for the experiences you encounter as life passes.

    I wish you well as you continue your recovery and adjustment.

    Thank you for sharing and for the inspiration you continue to spark in me. For my part, I’ll keep fanning those sparks 🙂

  40. David, you were an inspiration to me before your fall in Italy. I’ve read two of your hardcopy books and all of the digital ones. Your writing after the accident was likewise very personal for me. But little did I know how personal it would become. On October 1, after a very full week of shooting, I became quite ill from an 8cm liver abscess and subsequent lung infection. After surgery and 17 days in the hospital I’m now home and recovering. I can lift my D700, but I can’t hold it for very long. Still regaining strength. Finally got all the tubes and drains out. I will have a full recovery, it’s just taking time. So I can relate to almost everything you’ve written about your own recovery and what it means to you. I wish you a continued rapid recovery as well. And please continue to write from your most-personal perspective. You’re connecting with a lot of us out here. …doug

  41. David, you should have have that T-Shirt re-embroidered to ‘Conquistador of Life’ instead of ‘Light’. Because that’s who you really are and I know very few people who do such a great, albeit sometimes struggling, job at it!

  42. Photos are easy. Art is hard. Your sentiment about making perfect exposures resonates for me. There are so many great photos out there, but finding my own,unique voice in the maelstrom of online photos is tricky. Sometimes I produce an image that brushes up against what I envision. Other times (like now) I need a break from the camera and making images. Enjoy the nuts and berries.

  43. We went to Roatan for a week 2 years ago – absolutely beautiful place. Took the PADI diving course with an Italian Group at the Henry Morgan and obtained my Open Water diving at the young age of 55.
    Good luck David in all your travels and love your stories…. and Photographs

  44. Slower. But still moving. Less gear…but still looking and adventuring and seeing. Just a different way of being for you…which will translate into a new way of working and embracing your passion. It will b interesting for you to look back a year from now.
    My kid is going to roatan in February with his class fir a science trip / volunteering experience. It looks wonderful.

  45. I’m just going to add one quote, from Aikido teacher George Leonard: “Learn to love the plateaus.”

    That is, of course, the worst, most annoying advice I have ever received. And the best. Dang it.

  46. Step by step – it’s the only way we can do it. One of the things I found after hurting both ankle and knee in a MINOR fall was loss of body confidence. Before, I used to run up and down stairs, jump blithely from low walls etc. But even a small accident can create a distrust in our bodies. It’s been at least 3 years since I did my leg, but I am only just starting to jump from small heights and move faster up and down stairs, and not stay close to the rail. 🙂

    You’ve had a major accident, and it will take a long time for your ‘nerve’ to come back, if ever. Even when you feel you are fully healed, that distrust will remain and make you more careful, a little more cautious. Your body doesn’t want to go through this again.

    The disparity between what we see in our minds eye and what we produce is enormously frustrating!! You don’t need to be a pro to suffer that one!!

    I’m reading “Photographically Speaking” and for the 2nd section, I ‘read’ one photograph a day – think about it carefully and look minutely. I discuss it with myself (it’s an interesting conversation! 🙂 ) and when I’m finished, then I read your analysis. I’m so pleased if I get some of it right!! I’m learning one step at a time, with a more intense focus – you are now taking images one step at a time, and with a more intense focus. The joy of this achievement is really motivating!

  47. What a great artist you are!You’ll go better and better.Very inspiring indeed!

  48. “Nothing good is ever easy.”

    Just remind yourself that you’re out there, doin’ it, and sometimes the process is more important (valuable) than the product!

  49. Thank you David. I jut don’t know what to say. I loved it. Thank you for your honesty and openness and for sharing it with us, the rest of the world. You truly are a master – because masters are not the ones who have it all together but those who are willing to take the leap and let the rest of us learn from their struggles and mistakes. Lots of blessings to you on your journey. :c)

  50. David … New chapters are always challenging … but nothing in your journey did not go through God’s hands first. He has used you inspire so many through your journeys, and I am sure that this will be no different. Eight years ago my life died to cancer … it has never been the same. At first, all I could see was what was different. Nerve damage in my hands and feet, achey bones … none of which are helpful traits for a photographer … but, then I cam to realize that cancer birthed in me a spiritual appreciation for the subtleness of nature … the simple beauty of just being … and that has brought me to new places in my art … and my life. Trust in Him to bring you through the threshing floor that your injury has brought you to … there are better, although different, things ahead.


  51. David,

    Thanks for this post.

    I can’t think of many things more frustrating than coping with the increasing limitations (and pain) that come with age and/or injury. All the things we used to do with ease and can no longer!

    If some people mistake honesty and realistic appraisal for angst or self-pity or self-depreciation, that is a shame.

    I love the shots – and the writing. 🙂 Glad you are on the mend.

  52. A couple weeks ago I took a workshop. It was my first workshop focused on shooting people. I’ve always photographed landscapes or architecture so I was out of my element, everything was new. I came out of the week with a new passion for the camera and a desire to continue photographing people.

    Circumstances change, we change. But as long as we have passion for what we do it will come through in our photographs.

  53. Author

    Matea – No, he went with some very shiny black ones. But the pink shirt remains. Or did until he and an enchilada blow-out. Now I think the pink shirt is to be buried at sea in a sombre (sombrero?) ceremony 🙂 Was great to travel with Fernando again!

  54. Thanks for another great post David. Glad to see that you are still on the mend – in body and mind 🙂 I am sorry I missed out on getting into your next Italy workshop, but alas, a time will come 🙂


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