I was talking to a photographer recently who said something I’ve heard, in so many different words, from so many of us, including myself. She’s taking a trip, going somewhere epic, somewhere she’s obviously been dreaming about, a place that’s already well lodged into her heart and imagination even though she’s never been there. She said she was worried it would be so amazing that she’d never be able to capture it. She’s worried she isn’t good enough yet.
And she isn’t. None of us are. She’s going to a place that will blow her mind: to Antarctica for the first time. She’s already thinking about deep water, impossible blues, and a vastness she’s never imagined. But this isn’t about Antarctica. We all have places we go, people we meet, experiences we have that are bigger than any camera can capture. Full of colour and emotion and the frisson of being alive. We’d be insane to think we could capture all this. The best we can do is interpret it, borrow a piece of it and set it aside against the day we begin to forget. And we can’t do that, can never come close, when we’re focusing on how good we are, or aren’t, or how good, or new, our camera is. We do that when we put those worries somewhere else and live the moments. It’s not about being good enough – though craft matters, it’s too late in the moment to do much about our shortcomings – it’s about being alive enough. Awake enough. Willing enough to risk, to play, to stop looking so damn hard for what we expect and instead open ourselves to the surprises around the corner and the moments unexpected.
And in those moments when we think ourselves good enough, what a shame if the moments aren’t bigger than that; how sad that the memories are so small that they fit completely within these little frames. Surely life is bigger than that.
I think the best thing my camera offers is not a record of this experience or that, but a way of opening the door to a bigger experience of this or that, and a chance to make something that in some small way expresses my wonder, joy, curiosity, and gives me slivers of memory enough to conjur them back.
Study your craft, then let it get out of the way. More important, I think, that you breathe life as deeply as you’re able, making the odd beautiful photograph along the way, than that you walk through life so burdened by gear and expectation that you miss the wonder and the beauty your camera can only imperfectly see.
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Last might my wife and I were headed west to meet friends for dinner. As we watched the sunset light the darkening sky with a fiery blaze, we passed by a pond with a fisherman silhouetted in his rowboat…I was thrilled that I did not have a camera with me. We drank in the image in real time and knew that the memory was as good as the photograph might have been.
Oh David, such truth written so well. I so appreciate how you continue to push, encourage, and point your readers toward a higher goal. Not just as a photographer, but as a whole person.
This is not referring to a “bucket list” trip, but I just took some pictures of my precious mother in law’s hands before she went home. It was hard to shoot pictures as the days passed. I wanted to remember her and grab as many pictures to savor all the sweet moments. That wasn’t the point. Those last days people always spoke of her hands. I’ve always loved her hands. When my husband asked if I would take some pictures of her hands with his sister’s hands and his hands, my heart pumped with gratefulness. This is what I wanted all along. And I didn’t even know it. My husband saw images I shot when I wasn’t so uptight and “professional.” He remembered images that poured out of my heart when I was alive, excited, open. And now, the market, the stress of being good enough, branding, etc. blah, blah, blah has done to me what others have experienced. I picked up my camera less and shot images mentally instead. I was missing the point.
My husband’s reminder and the images that poured forth has reset my course. I am feeling alive again. I’m so grateful for posts such as this that remind me to stay open, keep shooting, but by all means stay alive.
Wow, this really resonated with me. Like Mary above, I went on a long-anticipated trip earlier this year (to Costa Rica), and found myself on the losing end of this struggle. (Where was this post in January?!)
I’m actually currently writing up a short series of blog post/trip-reports going into some of this: how I struggled with trying to capture it all (when will I ever be back, if ever? Must get everything now!), battling unexpected weather that prevented photos I planned on taking, and generally getting so caught up in feeling frustrated that the photography wasn’t going as planned, that I missed a lot of the experience of being there. So your post is really timely, as I’ve been reliving all of these things the last couple weeks.
The irony is that this ideal of embracing the journey as you find it, not as you planned it, is something I discovered on a previous trip, but completely forgot this time around.
This post gets bookmarked, so I can re-read it before every future trip, near and far.
I wish I had read this before my trip to Ireland this last May. I was so hell bent on the places we were “scheduled” to go and making images that I became a little panicked that I would miss something in the short time we were there and I didn’t stop to smell the roses.
When we got home it felt like it was over so fast and reflecting back I feel like I didn’t enjoy just being there, sitting in a cafe sipping tea and eating a scone while watching the world go by. I feel disappointed by this and, more importantly, regretful. Lesson – just breathe, take it in, don’t rush and let it unfold naturally.
I hear you. I have done the same. I’m working hard at changing my mindset, and the last few years have been better. I’m not sure the photographs are better, but they sure ‘feel’ better…
I would think that if they feel better when you are making them the result would be better. I know for me when I feel like I am in the zone i make much better images.
Profound. A few days ago I wrote a post that was inspired by the same ideas you write about here, not expressing half so poetically as you, but coming from the same place, as a photographer. This was very meaningful, and resonates.
Over the weekend i was in a board meeting where we were invited to hold up an object that reflected something of importance to us, and explain its importance. I held up my iphone, and talked about my camera and why they so often see me shooting pixels during work events. It is all about seeing people & places differently, in context of our work together. One woman said, Oh I hope you delete all the ugly pictures of me. I was able to say: “of course I delete truly ugly pictures, by the boatload. But the big thing is: everyone is really beautiful if you find them in the moment, when their real self shows up…..and SOMEtimes i capture that moment. And nothing makes me happier than gifting back to someone a photo i was able to make that shows their beauty. ”
The advantage of being a true amateur is that I can have low expectations — shoot whenever and where-ever, without production or financial pressure — just for the delight of it. And because it helps me filter the experience of the day, whether exotic vacation in far off place, or the very mundane daily stuff in my workplace.
Suggested reading: Zen Mind, Beginner Mind.
What wonderful words about what to achieve, and when to say that it is good enough for the moment.
Finally still having the time to honour the big moments without thinking of a frame.
love the last sentence. Kind of a relief. But. If we’re not burdened with the desire / expectation to, say, …get to Antarctica (or pull whatever project), we’ll never get there, right? I find it hard to stay relaxed and always just enjoy and pick opportunities. On the other hand, sometimes all (self-inflicted) pressure takes you nowhere either. Oh well, it’s complicated =).
Very well said, David.
I live in Oregon and have a favorite little place I go to get away now and again in Cannon Beach. First time there I got some great images. Second time, I thought, well I’ll bring my camera, but don’t know if there will be anything “new” to capture.
Long story short, I’ve been there literally dozens of times, each and every time I’ve come away with something new and wonderful. Nothing is ever the same, everything is constantly changing, I go now with an open mind, with no expectations, and have never been disappointed. Sometimes I may only get one or two keepers, but that is enough…
I read an equation last week Happiness = Current Reality – Expectations. It made sense. What you are saying is to take that one step higher and set aside the expectations to fully live the moment. That is definitely worthy of pursuing.
David ~ excellent post, cutting to the heart of the matter.
Regarding your image, I really enjoy that you pursue alternate versions/visions of reality. Being a lover of the work of the French and American Impressionist painters, I find your impressionistic photography captivating! Have you printed any of these pieces on a large scale? If so, how did you feel about them on that scale? I would think that a group of these images, at large scale, would be particularly striking in a room.
I’ll always remember the experience of walking into a museum room filled with pieces by Monet on white walls and skylights above….it felt like sunlight captured! It was overwhelming.
You have poked hard at this in a number of ways, and I find this post particularly helpful – because it’s about a real-life situation.
I’ve been working hard at setting aside expectations and pressure to perform, and focusing instead on sketching what I feel, with my camera being the sketchbook.
Great post. Thanks.
There is only so much that the brain can deal with. It is only then that the ‘art’ of photography can bring your craft to an emotive (spiritual) level.