For some reason or another, yesterday I started my day wondering why I kept going out with my camera to endlessly roam city streets in search of photographs. What is the purpose when you are not really earning any money from it, and fame is something that is surely something for someone else to enjoy. Tired feet, too much sun, dehydration, and lots of bad photos on top of it. Really, what’s the purpose of this obsession? The endless search for a masterpiece? Boredom? What? After all, I plan to do nothing with most of the photos I take day in and day out. They will lie dormant forever in my computer, hidden from the world in order to save me some well-deserved photographic embarrassment. Why then?
The answer may be depicted on the photo above. That is because no matter how tired I am, or the number of photographic disappointment awaiting me, or all the negative energy being generated in the world each day, there will still be an endless amount of wonder left for us to discover. It may not be the stuff of our every day, but in your heart, yes, very deep inside your heart, you know that nature, and human creation will still surprise you with their incredible creations. I know this because after having spent a life traveling with a camera on hand, I still look at the world around me with the same sense of awe as the lady in the photograph above. The search for that feeling is why we travel, because no matter how good photography is these days, nothing can substitute for the feeling experienced when standing in front of a natural or artistic masterpiece. Photography merely allows us to record that moment, to remember, and to thirst for more. As photographers, then, we really don’t invent anything, but rather freeze, in a fraction of a second, the beauty and wonder that was already there.
Do you take the time to see? I mean, to really see. You alone can answer this question, but I have to guess that most of us in these time-starved days simply don’t have the opportunity, or willingness, to slow down enough to “smell the roses,” so to speak. After all, time, with all its virtues and detriments, plays games on us all. There’s simply too little of it available for creativity and inspiration after factoring in all the “must do’s” in life. Work, family, personal grooming, chores, wait time, you name it and we’ve all been there. In fact, and as much as it pains me to say it, I’ll go as far as to say that such demands on our time are simply unavoidable. They are an integral part of the weave of life, at once detracting from and enriching our short journeys on planet earth. But if these time demands are inevitable, how is it possible to find time for creativity and inspiration in this journey. Was Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) correct when he said in that it is not that we have so little of it, but rather than we waste so much of it?
Perhaps the answer lies not in the effort to create more free time than what we have (although this is always a good thing), but rather on increasing the “quality” of the time we have. And yes, I’m talking about he old “turn lemons into lemonade” argument (which admittedly Seneca described much better), but with a twist. This twist has to do with the difficult process of accepting that in this finite world, there are simply a lot of things we must choose to do without. Want to concentrate on truly discovering every intricacy of a work of art? Then you will have to consciously accept that you will not be able to get to other parts of the museum. Need a healthy amount of solitude to create your masterpiece? Then you will have to dispense with the company of others for long periods of time. Want to really get to know Croatia and the Croatian people, but only have two weeks of vacation? Then you must accept that Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland are journeys for another day.
This sort of acceptance is primarily a mental one. And while there are spacial constraints there too, they only seem to play a minor role when compared with our willingness to “accept less in our pursuit of more.” Looked at it this way, the road to personal fulfillment could very well be paved by our individual abilities to do without. It is the feeling that comes from waiting for the sun to go past the horizon during an incredible sunset. Stillness and divestiture of worldly concerns and impositions, while short-lived, are the building blocks of indescribable joy. Call it “being in the moment,” or whatever, but they are moments when nothing else matters but what is in front of our eyes, immediately present in our reality. Fireworks on a moonless night. Forever in a minute. But what a minute it is.
Don’t you love people? No question that art evokes many emotions from people, and not all of them revolve around deep introspection. Yes, there’s that, but I have to admit that there’s something refreshing in seeing a different type of reaction from visitors to an art exhibit. Like many other visitors to the National Gallery of Art East Building this weekend, I was totally fascinated by this simple sculpture of four young women dancing. I must have gone around it ten times with my camera trying to find the right angle for my shot, but considering that I was shooting with with 50mm lens, finding the right place proved to be harder than I though. My primary interest was to capture people’s reactions to the sculpture, but this also proved to be quite challenging because most people simply stood there next to the art piece looking as if in some sort of a trance. After a while, I gave up and walked away, only to return later to give luck another opportunity to show its kindness to a struggling photographer.
Fast-forward a few poker faces and a few minutes later, and there was the photo I was waiting for all along. Two young women not yet affected by the sclerotic effect of time, suddenly became one with the joyous scene before us. With disarming innocence and cheer, they broke into dance as if to join the celebration that was taking place before they arrived at the scene. The whole thing didn’t last more than 30 seconds, but I was glad I stuck around waiting for something to happen. In some way, what the camera captured had to do with much more than the recording of a simple photograph. The scene revealed the endless wonder of youth, the disarming effect of a moment of happiness, and the sheer beauty of unencumbered spontaneity. Who knows, maybe that’s what the sculpture was all about.
Let’s face it, not everyone can live in Paris. Sure, come can, but this post is for the rest of us mortals who sometimes need to struggle with our familiar surroundings in order to overcome photographic paralysis. For the creative in all of us, the numbing effect of the familiar can easily lead to a condition where the sights that are right there in front of us have become transparent to us. We just don’t see things any more. Think back and retrace everywhere you’ve been this week and you’ll know what I mean. Most of us will simply not be able to describe everyone we met or everywhere we went. To a large extent, the familiar has become transparent and has stopped registering in our consciousness.
The same with our attitude towards photography. It is very easy to convince ourselves that there’s nothing new to photograph in the neighborhoods, towns, or cities where we have lived for so long. It all looks the same, and probably ceased to inspire us a long time ago. In fact, the thought of prepping your gear to go photograph something you’ve photographed many times before can be outright debilitating. Too familiar. Too transparent. Ever been there? Well, I have, and nothing good photographically comes out of it. However, it really doesn’t have to be this way. With a little effort on our part, we can easily overcome the negative effect of the familiar. Convince yourself that the world around you is nothing but a huge photographic opportunity waiting for someone like you to find those photos. Make it a point to stop and visit a place that caught your eye at some point, but which you never took the time to explore. Find the new in the old by walking around a building instead of in front of it, by sitting in a garden and observing, and by looking all around you as if you were expecting a Mafia hit at any time. Slow down, use your feet, dare to walk into empty spaces, and imagine. If anything, you’ll have lots of fun in the process.
This happens a lot. You are walking down the street and suddenly, out of the blue, something catches your eye and you just can’t help but to look. Granted that in many cases these neck-twisting impositions involve something bordering on perverted, but this is not what I’m talking about here. No, what I’m referring to are those incredible visual curiosities that break our train of thought, or at the very least stand out from their seemingly mundane surroundings in such a way that it becomes virtually impossible for us to ignore them. In fact, these visual curiosities are what most of us tend to remember about a certain street, or alleyway, or neighborhood. These visual landmarks become the mileposts of our lives, the stuff of memories that place us in a particular place on a particular time. They are life’s double takes, the kind of memorable visual events we don’t have to struggle to remember. In their quiet, detached, and unassuming way, they become the story of our lives–the record of where we were and how far we have come. A mental album of our individual journeys.