I loaded my gear into my truck last week and headed 12 hours north to the mouth of the Chilko River, my first trip since the amputation. I drove the same route a year ago, through towering mountains and golden aspens, my mind less on the bears I would photograph and more on the looming surgery. If I didn’t change my mind, I’d have my leg removed below the knee in a few months. I spent that entire drive trying to calm the voices in my head, the ones asking if I was crazy, the ones wondering if I’d ever drive this kind of trip again or actually do the things I was replacing my foot to be able to do in the first place. What if you can’t? What if you don’t? What if you are?
Today, almost four months to the day since my surgery, I’m in my definitive socket. I’m off to the gym this morning so my trainer can work out some of her aggressions. And as I made that 12-hour drive last week, I camped along the way and climbed the ladder to the top of my truck to sleep in the rooftop tent. This year, the voices were saying, you can! You will! You aren’t.
Like so many things—photography, even—success is a journey of small steps. Many, many small steps. And how faithful we are with them is more important than that we take big steps.
For example, I’ve photographed bears for years, and I’m beginning to look for new approaches and ways to avoid repeating myself. On my last trip to Kenya, I photographed rhinos low and close, my camera protected in a borrowed cage and triggered with a remote. I found some success with that and wondered if I could approach the bears in a similar way. I had a cage fabricated from aluminum to protect the camera (mostly from rhinos and elephants, but I thought perhaps from bears chomping down as well). I bought a smaller Sony camera (a6600) and a cheaper wide-angle zoom lens, mostly just in case the bears were to knock the camera into the water—better my a6600 than a much more expensive a1. And then, I showed up at the river and got to work.
The learning curve was discouraging. The range of the signal needed to trigger the camera from my phone was almost unusable. I’d worked around this in Kenya, but in this setting, it was even more challenging as we fought against the current to keep the boat in one place while waiting for bears to walk past. And when they did, the camera didn’t fire because the energy-saving settings had turned it off. Pull the camera back and change settings. Reset the camera. Bears approach, then they turn away because the shutter freaked them out. Of course it did. Pull the camera, put it into silent mode, and reset. Again. Then the bears approach from the wrong direction. Then the light’s wrong. With each reset, I took a small step forward.
Those small steps were not victories themselves so much as the lessons I’d need to learn to get to that victory.
Eventually, we found a spot to set up on shore, tucked into a curve in the river only meters from our tents, and with no need for a boat. Other problems solved, I could sit and wait all day as bear after bear passed by. I could retrieve the camera, check my results, and then reset it, perhaps changing the composition or exposure settings. And in the long silent moments between bears, make notes about how I can improve this process for next time. Bear after bear went by until I finally had my moment, quietly calling to the bear to let her know I was there. “Hey, bear…” She looked up at me, waited a beat, and I pressed the shutter. She ambled on.
Every effort towards something new and untried is fragile. It can fall apart the moment we don’t take the next step, the moment we don’t learn from the previous one and build upon it.
Frustrating? To be sure. But not a failure. A lesson. “Oh, so that’s what I need to do!” And we hit reset and try again. New angle, new setting, new moment, new light. A great photograph is a precarious thing, at risk of never happening should we stop too soon or think, “This isn’t working” rather than, “How can I work this?”
In the end, I got a couple of images I like, but only one photograph I LOVE. One photograph out of 10,000 frames. But it’s enough. It thrills me with the encounter it represents. And it gets me excited about my next efforts. One of the biggest problems was the range of the connection between the camera and my iPhone. That’s not something I could solve in the moment, but in the days since, I’ve researched, ordered, and now tinkered with a Cam Ranger 2. Much better. One more problem solved; one step closer to a process that works. If you’re considering any kind of remote work, the Cam Ranger 2 seems worth looking at.
Writing it out, this all seems so simple, so step-by-step. But in the messy middle of the creative process, it is anything but simple. It’s exasperating. And the constant setbacks are often heartbreaking.
In the time I’ve taken to write this, I’ve been to the gym and back. Perhaps I pushed myself too hard, because my right leg is so sore I can’t get it into my prosthetic without a lot of pain and cussing and being on the verge of tears. So here I am, reminded that for all my romantic notions of embracing the process, it can be really f*cking hard to put your whole self into something and feel like it’s all three steps forward and two steps back. Keep at it. It’s still a net gain of one step forward. That’s progress. Sometimes you can’t even see the progress because you’ve taken two steps back, and it’s only on the strength of the next lesson learned that you’ll take three forward. The important thing is that you not give up.
You don’t need 100 great photographs. You need one that proves you’re getting closer—one photograph that gives you hope when things feel anything but hopeful.
Feeling frustrated? Stalled? Stuck? Take one step, see where it leads, then take another. This is a craft of a thousand single steps, not shortcuts. You’ve got this.
For the Love of the Photograph,
P.S. Comments, questions? Leave them below. I’d love to talk about it.