Proof of (a) Life: the photography conundrum

I bought my first Pentax SLR camera when I was 16 years old. I was thrilled to hold that little piece of magic in my hands and quickly enrolled in a photography class at the local community college to learn everything I could. I didn’t start out with much skill to be honest; I had the eye but kept getting tripped up on the technical components of developing and processing prints in the dark room. But with simultaneous enrollment in Video Productions, I quickly picked up what I needed to know about “capturing” a moment. Looking at the world through that lens was a certain kind of intoxicating and I longed for the day when I could get a digital SLR camera to fully explore what I could do.  

birds     In 2007, my husband bought me that camera in a single, sacrificial, expensive gift of love.  His hands were shaking as he presented the camera to me—we both sensed the significance of taking my photography to the next level and how momentous it was to finally own a camera of such high quality.  And I dove right in. I read that manual back and forth and quickly put ads on Craigslist for cheap portrait shooting in order to build up a portfolio and to gain some people experience. I loved that camera. I took it everywhere. I subjected my children to spontaneous photo shoots all the time. I absolutely HATED when we’d be somewhere or witnessing something beautiful and frame-worthy and I didn’t have my camera with me. I have thousands and thousands of photography files on my computer(s).

     Never before have we seen such a proliferation of photographers and wanna-be photographers in our world.  It used to be a fairly expensive hobby but when film turned digital and costs were driven down—and the novelty of a phone camera burgeoned— everyone got shutter-happy! (Great news for eager amateurs… terrible news for professionals.) I read a very astute observation on the modern phenomenon of taking pictures of EVERYTHING (be it your dinner, outfit for the day, or workout sweat) that said “Proof of a life is now more important than having a life.”  And I see this every day at the park across my house where moms chase their kids around with their phone in hand, trying to catch the happy smile or perfect angle on the slide antics.

     So what started happening with me is how I experienced life—not necessarily always savoring it, living in it—but capturing it.  Trying to keep “the moments” from running away from me. The wake-up came on a hike through the island hills of Washington a few years ago. The boys had run up ahead and found a really cool stump. When I caught up to them, my oldest was bossing his brothers who were trying to poke at banana slugs, “Stop it! Guys get up on the stump so Mom can take a picture!” I felt startled and sheepish that the camera-happy Mom had influenced her children to such a degree that they now stopped their playing and enjoyment of nature to pose for pictures. Sheesh. Let it be, Ellie.

     I feel something of a disconnect from “the moment” when I have my camera with me. Maybe it’s my production training, always looking at the angles and lighting and trying to foresee great shots, so I can be there when it happens. This changes the way you experience something. To me, it seemed like the very act of shooting something became just as important as living something. Pumpkin patch visits?!  A day at the beach?!  Baseball games?! Corpus Christi processions?! CHRISTMAS-TIME?!  All of these found me with  the camera in my hand, frantic to get it on film (err… hard drive).  

     Now I say, “Enough.” I want a balance.  I want to employ my memory again.  It’s great to look through bursting photo albums (or online files that never get printed) with the children. But more valuable to me is just soaking it in. I get so distracted when I lug my camera around with me… or worse, when I have the ease of the iPhone to quickly snap some shots that I often forget to savor these all-too-short moments. And it takes a lot of discipline to allow myself to do nothing but experience the present.  

     Yet, I’m a realist. I recently upgraded to a newer, quicker, sharper DSLR and some accessory items. I’m not going to STOP taking pictures. I just struggle mightily to balance it out. Despite having a fuller, busier life and more children now (read: excellent photo ops!), our camera gets taken out less and less often. I do deliberate portrait shooting with the kids of course as needed. But I’m not concerned about dragging the gear (or whipping out the phone) every time a child does something cute or my dessert looks especially appealing. I love the quote Sean Penn’s character gave in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  As a professional photographer, he was hunting the elusive snow leopard and once he finally found it and had the perfect shot framed up, he didn’t take the picture. Ben Stiller is confused and asks him:  “When are you going to take it?!”  Sean responds: “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

     And that’s what I want. I want to stay in the moment. I want to be here. I want to live a rich and full life, not prove I have a rich and full life. And part of that means sometimes leaving the camera at home and being okay with missing a killer shot or sweet moment. I think in the end, it’ll be worth knowing that just because something would make for a great photo, doesn’t mean it should…


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