This moment, this light, in Cape Churchill last week: it didn’t last long. You can photograph it, or let it pass you by. But you may never see it again.
Last week I was sitting in a tundra buggy not photographing polar bears. The bears, driven by a months-long hunger were out on the sea ice, hunting seals. If we’d been there a couple days earlier we’d have had more time with them. But you can’t do anything about the weather, and you never know these things in advance. What you do know, is what’s in front of your face, and that – at least for one day on this trip – was polar bears. We had one day. And on that day conditions were not perfect. Bears were still few and far between. The light was flat. Most of the bears were a long way off. It was what it was, and I made photographs. Some, however, did not. And as the week went on they regretted not taking advantage of that one day. They thought they’d have more time, better light, more bears. They didn’t. And now they also didn’t have the photographs they might have.
Expectations are a funny thing, and this will be neither the first time, nor the last time, I talk about this: they blind us. If your expectations are that tomorrow the weather will be better, the bears will be closer and more numerous, or that the light will be different, you might be inclined not to photograph what’s right in front of you. And it’s not just bears. The same is true of street photography, and portraiture, and certainly weddings, and events. And if you wait for something better to appear, and that something never shows, you’ll have gambled away what you do have for something you don’t.
We have this time. That is all that is guaranteed. Whatever it is: making photographs, making love, making a difference, making good – whatever it is, make it now.
The other day I watched The Impassioned Eye, a one-hour documentary about Henri Cartier-Bresson. He talked about photography being something that happens in the present. You only have what you have now. Later may never come. So if you have a shot, make it. Make it now. That same morning reading I read Jay Maisel, in his book Light, Gesture, and Color, say almost exactly the same thing. Sure, be patient, and wait. But don’t do that at the expense of also making a photograph of what you have, right there in the moment. Tomorrow you may not have even that.
It’s a lesson well-learned as a photographer, and more so as a human: whatever it is, make it now. We won’t always have what we have now, these moments, these loved ones, this health, or these bank accounts. If there’s one thing certain it’s that life changes. Too fast at times, and too slow at others, but it changes. We have this time. That is all that is guaranteed. Don’t get complacent. Whatever it is: making photographs, making love, making a difference, making good – whatever it is, make it now.