Why Photography Keeps Me Present

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In this age of everyone having a camera with them 24/7, photography is demonized by many, thanks to those who shoot randomly without consideration.

There are signs at monuments and parks now that tell you to put the camera away and just be present. I had to sit through a speech a couple months back with this 20-something talking about the virtue of travelling without doing photography and how “spiritual” it could be. Today I read an article about why someone travels with a sketchbook and not a camera, because it made them so much more “present” in the moment.

To these people, my advice is for free: Cork it.

Here’s the thing. Just because those people lack the ability to be “present” in a moment from behind a lens does not mean presence under duress of photography is an untenable state.

 

I shot this blue heron fishing on a Friday night after a long work week. I just needed to decompress and I had no idea the sunset would be so beautiful. I watched this bird fish for the better part of an hour. I shot maybe 30 photos. Was I not present?

I shot this blue heron fishing on a Friday night after a long work week. I just needed to decompress and I had no idea the sunset would be so beautiful. I watched this bird fish for the better part of an hour. I shot maybe 30 photos. Was I not present?

Photography, at its heart, is about two things: Light and time. Without light, you have no image. Without time, there is no photography. All pictures, really, are varying ways that time and light overlap.

Yes, there’s a horrific segment of society who just point at anything and shoot, giving no thought to composition or movement or colour or space, but then there are those of us who take the time to really see what’s ahead of us, and better yet, who can imagine the potential of what that scene will evolve into if we wait a moment or five or even hours.

What’s more noble, the person who actually pays attention to the sign at the Grand Canyon imploring people not to do photography, but to just be present, or Ansel Adams, who would sit there staring at the horizon for sometimes days until the right lighting spoke to him, all in the name of making the perfect photograph of that landscape? Time and light, my friends.

 

I passed this fragment of a wall every day for 30 days. One day, I stopped and photographed it. By stopping to photograph it, I finally realized how beautiful it was to pass daily. Photography often is about becoming present, stealing moments, recording passing experiences that might otherwise flit into the ether.

I passed this fragment of a wall every day for 30 days. One day, I stopped and photographed it. By stopping to photograph it, I finally realized how beautiful it was to pass daily. Photography often is about becoming present, stealing moments, recording passing experiences that might otherwise flit into the ether.

Me, I’m travelling the world for five years. I can’t even tell you all the incredible experiences I’ve had so far. Every day blends into a wild ride of unpredictable, weird, beautiful, annoying, or even life-altering moments, and for me to not record them with imagery, well, that’d be like simply throwing them all away in the hopes that a random few hold sway in decades to come. But, flipping through my photos, which are conveniently dated and ordered chronologically, helps me fill in the memory blanks. I can remember the walk I took, ergo the sunrise I saw, just before I snapped the photo of the Westie staring up at me for a bite of what I remember to be a sublime pastry eaten on top of a 1,000-year-old hill town. All that from one image. You see a dog, I see the culmination of an hour leading up to a moment.

I guarantee you, that 20-something who lectured me on the merits of unphotographing her travels Because Spirit, the day will come when she will loathe herself for not having recorded those moments from time to time, to cherish as she ages.

Travel fades away into a melange of memories. Was it this town I did that in, or that country? Am I dreaming I stood there, or did it really happen? There comes a time with age and passage that memories become shadows on the wall. Indistinct, a fragment of reality lacking in definition or meaning. Can you bear to see the most character-defining times of your life turn into a foggy haze at best? The idea of my remembering nothing but snippets from this five-year adventure is horrifying to me. Only a fool would give in to such idiocy.

Would my two hours spent all alone in a Roman coliseum in Croatia be more valuable had I never recorded the scene? Or do I better remember that amazing experience because I shot 60 or so photos during this incredibly fortuitous time when I had an ancient ruin all to myself for a whole morning?

Would my two hours spent all alone in a Roman coliseum in Croatia be more valuable had I never recorded the scene? Or do I better remember that amazing experience because I shot 60 or so photos during this incredibly fortuitous time when I had an ancient ruin all to myself for a whole morning?

 

This demonizing of photography even extends to processing. So many people shoot photos and proudly slam “#nofilter” hashtags on them, like it’s a form of authentic street cred, making the image somehow more “true” than what others are shooting.

Processing isn’t new to the digital age. Photographers have taken the time to process and develop their photos in specific ways since photography’s birth. Expose the image to light for a moment longer or a moment less; lighten or darken it. Slip in a red or yellow filter to boost or mellow the black/white contrast. Dodge or burn an area to create a specific effect in one part of the photo. I was taught all these tricks when I worked in dark rooms in 1991, and I guarantee you that Ansel Adams did them all in 1931, too.

How arrogant to think your photo is somehow more special because it hasn’t been “touched.” How ridiculous to judge photographers for “tricks” just because they edit an image. The camera is not the human eye, and we see things more vibrantly, often, than a camera can. And if we’re not making it duplicate reality, all we are doing is simply adding artistic license to something that is – wait for it – art.

I happened upon a Mardi Gras parade in the last two hours of my car rental in the Azores, and this was the scene that stands out for me. I remember their loud laughter and how everyone around me laughed too. Would this moment even be remembered in 20 years had I not taken the photograph? In fact, taking the photograph makes me remember the cobblestone that nearly tripped me, the family I had to ask for permission to budge through for the picture, the policeman I talked to in trying to find out why this parade was happening, and it even brings back my last attempts to photograph the stone fences on rolling hills with the ocean as a backdrop in the dying light of a cloudy evening in early February. A photograph doesn’t steal moments, it completes them like pieces of puzzles.

I happened upon a Mardi Gras parade in the last two hours of my car rental in the Azores, and this was the scene that stands out for me. I remember their loud laughter and how everyone around me laughed too. Would this moment even be remembered in 20 years had I not taken the photograph? In fact, taking the photograph makes me remember the cobblestone that nearly tripped me, the family I had to ask for permission to budge through for the picture, the policeman I talked to in trying to find out why this parade was happening, and it even brings back my last attempts to photograph the stone fences on rolling hills with the ocean as a backdrop in the dying light of a cloudy evening in early February. A photograph doesn’t steal moments, it completes them like pieces of puzzles.

I have sat by the seashore for 90 minutes as I wait for light to dance on the water and sink in the distance in just the right way. I’ve stood for 15 or 20 minutes as Scottish wind and rain and snow blasted me on a February day all because I wanted a particularly bright umbrella to enter the scene. I’ve leaned on a corner for a half-hour waiting for a delivery man to return so I could get the perfect photo of a mural in Portugal. I’ve enjoyed an entire afternoon on a Spanish plaza watching life ebb and flow so I could photograph dozens of Spaniards living life the way they do on a Sunday. I’ve roadtripped around the whole of the big island in the Azores, never driving for more than 15 minutes without stopping to take photographs, giving me countless chances to stop and absorb all sorts of spaces for at least a few minutes. Do that with your sketchbook. Oh, you don’t have the time? You don’t say.

Don’t tell me that not taking photographs is a more authentic way of being in the moment. Don’t tell me that memories last forever.

On this morning of February 3rd, I sat enjoying a coffee on an Azorean plaza with the realization that I hadn't been that relaxed in years. Literally. Right across the way was a beautiful church. After finishing my espresso and sandwich, I strolled over in the 20-degree morning light and found a priest praying from statue to statue over a half-hour. I watched him for a while and shot this photo, perfectly capturing his reverence. But, gee, I guess I could've been more in the moment, eh?

On this morning of February 3rd, I sat enjoying a coffee on an Azorean plaza with the realization that I hadn’t been that relaxed in years. Literally. Right across the way was a beautiful church. After finishing my espresso and sandwich, I strolled over in the 20-degree morning light and found a priest praying from statue to statue over a half-hour. I watched him for a while and shot this photo, perfectly capturing his reverence. But, gee, I guess I could’ve been more in the moment, eh?

If you want to sketch because you’re a great sketcher, then go for it, but don’t for a minute think that you’re somehow enjoying the moment with more authenticity than I am. My photograph literally takes 5 seconds to make, leaving me free for so much longer to just sit and stare while you’re there trying to draw a moment. My attention is less divided, and I may experience more of the moment you do.

Either way, whatever we choose to do to commemorate space, light, time, and movement, it’s all beautiful. We’re each of us trying to be in the moment. Your way does not have moral superiority to mine. Your choices do not dwarf mine.

Just look at the photographs I’ve shared here. Every one of them involved me really absorbing the moment, embracing the light, and framing the scene. All of them demanded I be present in the moment and cherish what was before me.

I guarantee you, my life is richer, and so too are my memories, for these moments I’ve stolen and memorialized. This lately-popularized concept of what dictates “being present” is, I’m sorry to say, bullshit.

Long live photography.

Showing 3 comments
  • Brenda
    Reply

    The camera as a companion invites me to open myself to the world — the multi-dimensions of the present moment – almost as if it is another set of eyes, silently waiting…quietly honest…patiently still. All for that moment of “yes”! I have wondered about family memories…how many moments of long ago faded away into a nothingness because there was no camera and without photographs what would I know of my father, my childhood?

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron
      Reply

      Yes. I lost my mother at age 26 and barely new my grandparents. I’ve had friends die too. And I wonder if I could remember them well without photographs? I think “I will always remember this!” is a foolish thought of the young. And I’ve had a head injury a decade ago that makes thinking I can remember things an act of arrogance and stupidity. I can’t. I won’t. My camera will do that for me.

  • fotostuf
    Reply

    Wonderful article! It made me realize that throughout my darkroom days, when I photographed, I was in the darkroom, thinking about processing, not in the moment in the field, creating images. I loved what I did then, but the more I look back, the more I realize it was about the darkroom, not about the expression, the interpretation, the creation of something more that the sum of its parts.
    Thank you for making me think!

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