A couple of weeks ago, I confessed to you that I hadn’t picked up my camera for six months. The replies I received by email and comments on the blog were like a big collective sigh of relief from so many of you—like we were all holding our breath, thinking we were the only ones who had lost some of our previous motivation.
It made me wonder where we all got this sense of obligation to our cameras. Or perhaps it’s the feeling that to be a “real” photographer or artist, we need to feel the passion for this craft 24/7.
I think highly of discipline, and I’ve always risen to challenges well, which is the direction in which I was hoping to nudge you in the last email. But listen, we all do this for different reasons and it might be that what some of us need right now, in these unusual times, is to rekindle the joy and the magic we once found with the camera in hand, and I’ve never found that happens easily when we’re also trying to dodge feelings of shame or obligation or to work when it’s time to rest.
If you haven’t picked up the camera in a while, you aren’t the only one.
And you’re definitely not the only one who might be wondering what’s wrong with you, and what this temporary lack of discipline says about you.
The answer is nothing. Nothing is wrong with you.
And while some of us might need a challenge right now to shake off some of the dust, it could also be that what you need most of all is a reminder of the joy you find in this craft, a reminder that finding that joy doesn’t always mean creating a photograph, and the permission to find that joy again.
I used to lie on my belly in grass wet with dew just to see the brilliant little worlds created when the light hit the drops of water.
I used to be so broke that I’d go out with my Pentax Spotmatic and photograph for hours without a roll of film in it, just to see what the world looked like through the lens, and to feel the camera, still new to me then, in my hands.
Honestly, I used to read through the magazines and go straight from one ad to the next, imagining what it must be like to use gear different from mine. And yes, in this case, it was better gear and I’d wonder what it must be like to be the kind of photographer who used that kind of gear. Sure, vision is better, but gear is still good—and there used to be such magic in it.
I used to find such joy in the few books of photography I owned. Several of them were written by Freeman Patterson, a man I credit with so much of who I have become. On the days I can’t photograph, I still find great joy in sitting with a book of images and enjoying the experience. My imagination, it turns out, was well-trained by my camera, but doesn’t need it to play.
And I still do. All of this. On the days when I forget to take myself seriously, the way a “real” photographer should. When I’m just playful and allow myself to pick up my cameras just to hold them, or open one of my books of my own photographs just to relive the memories and tell myself the stories again, without any need to be critical or overthink things. I go back to the resources from which I learned my craft and recall lessons learned the hard way and marvel at both how far I’ve come and how far I’ve yet to go.
Your creative life, like mine, has a rhythm to it. It has ups and downs.
There’s time for discipline and challenge and a time for play and wonder. The best days are when they coincide, though it can’t be all magic all the time for most of us. And that’s when the dry times happen, and it’s the reason I’m sending this letter to you instead of something that’s much more obviously practical.
Photography as a way of life is so much more than just making photographs. It’s learning, and imagining, and sparking the imagination. I can’t go to Kenya right now, but I can spend the morning looking at my favourite photographs and recalling the memories and feeling something like the secondhand joy that comes echoing off those memories. You might not currently have any desire to make photographs of your own—it just might not feel like the time—but you can still feel the magic by looking at photographs. You can still be present and observant and savour life, as Marc Riboud said, one-hundredth of a second at a time.
Your passion for this craft doesn’t have to be a roaring bonfire all the time.
There will be days when there’s not even a flicker of visible flame. That doesn’t mean the fire has gone out. It doesn’t mean there’s anything at all wrong with you. The embers can still be white-hot under those ashes, and they’ll be there the moment you decide it’s time to throw some fuel on the fire. Until then, remember the joy that this craft brought (and still brings) you when unencumbered by all the seriousness, the desire for mastery, and the necessary effort of doing the work.
It’s OK to put the camera down; just don’t let go of the joy.
For the Love of the Photograph,