My senior year of high school, one of the art teachers offered an Introduction to Photography course. Due to my already-on-record overachieving, I had completed most of the courses that I needed to apply for university and was scrambling to find enough courses so I could take the requisite minimum number; I figured that photography would be fun. Unfortunately, so did most of the artsy kids attending my school and the instructor wound up having to give priority to kids who had already taken a certain number of art course (which, as a music geek, I had not) and I was shut out. I wound up taking Intro to Computer Science instead, which probably wound up being more useful over the next 15 years…
But I never forgot about my thwarted photography dreams.
When Tony & I started devising this blog, we had a very distinct division of labor: sticking to our strengths, I would focus primarily on the writing, and Tony—as a former professional photographer—would naturally be in charge of photography.
[This is not to say we don’t trade off tasks every so often, something I think the site is stronger for, but generally speaking, I write and he is our primary photographer.]
Before we left on our trip, however, Tony made it clear he didn’t want to spend our entire trip “stuck behind a camera”, something I think all of us can understand. When you’re constantly viewing the world through a viewfinder, it tends to skew your perspective a bit, and I know that I’ve gone on trips where I snapped hundreds of (lackluster) pictures only to find once I returned home that I had been so busy “capturing the moment” that I had failed to really experience my surroundings and—as E.M. Forster famously wrote—only connect. From the sounds of it, Carmel of The Journey Itself has felt similarly and struggled with this quandary herself.
Our solution was to use this trip as my crash course in photography so that this could potentially be something of a shared passion. The world would be my classroom and finally, after years of waiting, my time to finally learn the basics of photography was here!
As astute 20YH readers will have noticed, my photos have occasionally popped up in posts since the start of this journey, but it wasn’t really until we hit Tainan that I felt like the months of Tony’s excellent tutelage finally took root within me.
First, I began to feel like I was anything more than a dilettante whose camera was doing most of the work, because I started to take interesting—some might even say, beautiful—pictures, that I had worked for and executed to my satisfaction. I wasn’t mindlessly pointing my camera any which way and whispering a prayer to high heaven as I released the shutter that this would turn out. Instead, I was deliberately taking my time when it came to my photos, identifying items in the world around me that I wanted to capture, and then purposefully composing the frame, taking my time so that it was an interesting, yet accurate, reflection of my experience. When we started out on our trip, I would frequently get annoyed with Tony for dawdling and snapping photos while we were on the way to something or somewhere, impatient for us to just get there already. During our days in Tainan, I was frequently the one who lagged behind because I was always seeing one more photo I wanted to take! I would take my shot and feel a thrill course through me as it turned out exactly as I hoped. While I certainly have years of shooting ahead of me before I can hope for my photos to compete with Tony’s (and of course, this is not a competition, right?!?), I was on fire in Tainan, and we both agreed that most of the “shots of the day” came about through my eye and my hands. It gave me a huge sense of achievement to know that I had pushed myself and created something beautiful.
(Some of you might argue that Tainan is already very beautiful, a sentiment I would not wish to argue with, so I will simply counter by saying that at the very least, my photos did not detract from, and perhaps even displayed to its best advantage, the city’s particular beauty.)
Maybe it’s just that Tainan is a really visually interesting city where photography possibilities are endless and it’s practically impossible to take bad photos. Maybe I clicked with it for some intensely personal, idiosyncratic reason that helped me slip into The Zone. Maybe I simply got lucky and had a string of good days. All of these things are possible, but looking back, I can’t help feeling like Tainan was the turning point for me with regards to photography, not simply in terms of consolidating my skills, but in terms of what the medium has brought to my life.
Let’s rewind a few paragraphs. I want to focus on one line in particular: “Instead, I was deliberately taking my time when it came to my photos, identifying items in the world around me that I wanted to capture, and then purposefully composing the frame, taking my time so that it was an interesting, yet accurate, reflection of my experience.” It’s a fairly innocuous, seemingly inconsequential line, but I think that if this post were a treasure map, this is the line under which all of my life’s riches might be buried.
Central to that line is the notion of taking time and being deliberate in my actions. Several weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I discussed (amongst other things) how Mindfulness Meditation has in many ways not just given me back my life, but given me back myself as well. Although the practice has offered me so much peace, it is one I have had to work at (though, not as often as I should…), in part because the act of just being present in the moment and inhabiting each second, each breath, to its fullest just doesn’t come naturally to me. I am a planner, a dreamer, a worrier, a schemer, and I am more often fixating on the past or fretting about the future than I am content to live in the simplicity of the here and now.
I never would have guessed that developing photography skills would tap into many of the same fundamental tenants of Mindfulness, but I’ve found there has actually been a lot of overlap. Photography has taught me to focus my mind on the present moment, to attend to what is directly in front of me. It may sound a little cornball, but just as there is a huge gulf between being physically and mentally present, there is a world of difference between looking and seeing and I feel like photography has taught me how to really see. I have found that unlike looking, seeing does not happen in an instant, but only happens when we take the time to go slow, to pause and process deeply. Several times on our travels we have found that by simply being free to dwell in the moment and allowing ourselves the time to see how things unfold, the most incredible experiences have arisen and I think this is true for photography as well. My best pictures don’t happen when I have an agenda, but occur when I’m able to appreciate what is right in front of me, right here, right now, and the rest of the world falls away. Simply put, photography has both encouraged and allowed me to more deeply engage with the world, and rather than feeling trapped behind a screen, I find with a camera in my hands, I’ve actually been more capable of getting caught up in my life as I am living it.
Photography has also helped me appreciate that life is lived as a series of moments, each one fleeting, each heart beat life begun anew; every frame I capture is one lifetime. This is especially true when I work on street photography in which I capture people on the go. With time I’ve learned to read the mood of a scene, and by keenly watching as life plays out, sometimes I can even anticipate when a good shot is about to come my way. But like a lion in the Serengeti, good street photography is predicated on patience—you rarely get the best shots when you’re simply blazing through snapping pictures every which way as you bustle down the street. Instead, take some time, take a breath and get your bearings, because more often than not, you’ve only got one shot to, well, get your shot and so many of the good ones only happen if you’re really looking for them. If you miss it, the moment’s gone and there’s nothing to do but shake it off and wait for the next moment to find you.
I used to joke with friends who, when posing for photos, would cry, “Make me look good!” that a camera is just that, a camera, not a magic wand. And I think that’s true no matter what side of the viewfinder you’re on. Proud as I am of the photos I have taken and the skills I am developing as a photographer, I know my camera is not a talisman that anchors me in space and time. But I love that in working with it, I’ve inadvertently cultivated a headspace that follows me even when my hands are free or I’m not in a position where I can take photos. Even without a camera to guide my eye, I’ve found I’m better able to appreciate the unassuming beauty that infiltrates everyday moments in life that I’m sure I was blind to before. Part of it is that I’m taking the time to stop, admire, and purposefully pay tribute to the things that I see that are lovely and wondrous, whether it’s a beautiful detail, a striking interplay of color or texture or angles, a fleeting expression on a stranger’s face, or maybe just a subtle shift in the energy of a place. When we train ourselves to seek out beauty, we find ourselves more receptive to seeing it in places we never would have previously and I have found that it starts to follow us from place to place. Ironically, by picking up my camera day after day and trying to capture the magic of what I see, I have also started to learn which moments and scenes will never be accurately translated to two-dimensions. Instead, I simply languish in the moment and honor my present experience. So in that sense, photography has taught me to appreciate stillness at all times. Though I will never have a record of these moments that I can share with the world, in this way, they still make their imprint on me and in some small way, I carry them forward with me into the future.
All of the pictures featured in this post are ones that I shot over our four days in Tainan. If you compared these to most of the pictures I took while backpacking through Europe in 2005, you’d see what a long way my photography has come. There’s still more for me to learn and I still have years of shooting in order to refine my style and continue to build my confidence, but I suppose both my photography & I are works in progress. I’m ok with that and I’m excited to see where we go from here.