Photography takes you out of the moment

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I used to write half truths in my teenage diaries in case they might be discovered. Propped up under my bed covers, I’d write about the popular girls who I’d pretend were my friends, and miss out the stories of the boys who teased me for looking like an oompa loompa the first time I tried to wear fake tan.

I was reminded of those journals when I attempted to photograph a Canadian road trip from Banff to Vancouver on my boyfriend’s iPhone last week.

I wanted to see if photography was a medium I could enjoy. After all, who ever heard of a travel writer who doesn’t take photos? But I felt awkward asking my boyfriend to pose, vain for getting him to take my picture in an alpine meadow, silly as I photographed oranges at an Okanagan fruit stand while the jolly stall owner laughed at my fumbled attempt to capture the everyday. A good photographer would have used the camera as a tool for opening up communication with that fruit seller. I shied away.

The moments I snapped just seemed fake; the idyllic images that would have made for the perfect photo were too good to shatter with something as intrusive as a lens. How could I commodify our friends’ baby, Amber? She was perfect as she toddled naked through the sun-dappled trees, picking thimbleberries by the creek. I couldn’t ruin it all with, “Just a second, Dylan, can I borrow the phone? What’s the pin again? Ok, smile!” So I let the moment pass, content that this child’s laughter would be shared only with the forest.

At other times, I felt frustrated because the landscapes refused to pose. The mountains especially were too grand and impervious to even deign to be reduced to 1250 pixels x 1250 pixels, and on the iPhone they looked small and far away, nothing like the jaw-dropping peaks before me. Then there were the moments too fleeting to capture — the hummingbird in Victoria dipping its beak into a tigerlily, already gone by the time I remember the phone’s pin, already gone by the time I’d committed the moment to heart.

Frustrated with photography and my lack of natural talent for it, I began to tell myself that writing is a superior art form anyway: a camera takes out out of the moment, for what? To reduce a beautiful experience to a 2D image? When you write, I said to myself, you get to experience each humbling, beautiful moment fully, capturing it from memory only later, at a writing desk while the rest of the world sleeps.

Bullshit.

When I write, I’m still not fully in the moment. I’m still seeing the world through the eyes of the audience I’m writing for. Once I can let go of my ego and walk around in pure, silent meditation, then things might be different. But the truth is, writing isn’t better than photography or videography. There are no hierarchies. You just have to do what you love. And that was the beauty of fumbling around with a medium I hated. It reminded me that I see the world through metaphors and similes, can’t help it. It reminded me that while I may not find joy in searching for the perfect filter or the right light, I could happily spend hours searching for the right string of words to capture the Rockies. It reminded me of what I love.

This article was originally published on Thought Catalog.

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3 Comments

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  1. Nice thoughts here. I’ve often felt frustrated by the way my photos seemed to “cheapen” moments. I’m a little shy asking someone to take photos of me and my boyfriend is not exactly a ham in front of the camera, either. I do my best to take photos, but realize that my talent lies within the written word. I’m glad someone else understands!

    • Totally! I guess that, so long as we can scribble down our thoughts before they day’s done — that’s pretty much as good as having a camera to capture the moment.

  2. As a photographer, and a writer – though a photographer first, I might speak only for me, and my own relationship with photography. I myself find photography (at least Thoughtful, Intentionful photography)(which, I will say, I don’t do all the time . . . some of my photographs are just “notes” for later) can get me closer to moments within moments. Thinking back now to one particular moment – a sunrise reflecting orange off the water, silhouetting a saddhu on shore – got me on several levels. First of all, the quiet intensity of the moment . . . the stillness of my subject (who I’d watched for some time before considering a photograph) . . . the ripple of orange sun on the Ganges and what the moment was saying to me, and how-best to try to share that moment with anyone viewing (and without my being with them when they did). I’m not a click-monster, don’t shoot everything I see (in fact, on a recent 16 day Grand Canyon raft trip, I shot less than 50 photographs). I am also a trained photographer, having spent almost two years at Brooks Institute of Photography . . . so I am no stranger to a camera. I find also that a photograph aids me in my own writing, as I said earlier, much of what I shoot are less photographs to stand on their own than notes for my writing. I am also a (very)(VERY) slow traveler. I don’t arrive somewhere and start shooting. It serves me and my photography to keep the camera locked up at first . . . walk around . . . ramble . . . wander . . . get lost . . . looking at light, and whatever else is around. Then go back. And again . . . again. Only then will I approach things with my camera.

    As you alluded to . . . it serves us to concentrate on our strengths . . . and not to let anything get between each of us and The Moment, whether we are making notes with a pen, our minds or a camera.

    P.S. I also read that you’re putting a book together of women travelers. Bravo! So many fine ones out there. Might I suggest someone – Bruce Chatwin’s wife. She was in many ways – and Bruce attested to this – a more hardy traveler than he. I wish you the best with that project, and all of your projects – Scott

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