It’s become second-nature. Having a camera in your hand, around your neck, or in front of your face. Usually, you feel better with it than without. And on the rare occasions when you decide to leave it behind, you feel a little anxious about the shots you’re missing. So what I’m about to ask you to do isn’t going to be easy. I want you to…
Imagine your life, without a camera.
I’m sure you can come up with a quick, glib description of how things would be different: “My savings account would be a whole lot bigger.” “I wouldn’t waste all my time on Flickr.” “I wouldn’t have been to so many weddings.” But superficial answers won’t make this exercise worthwhile.
Think back to the beginning of your journey in photography.
Isolate the moment it entered your bloodstream. Maybe it happened on the day your dad let you take a few pictures with his old Instamatic — and you’ve still got the faded prints in a shoebox. Maybe it was during high school — 2nd period, Introduction to Photography, which you only signed up for because your crush was taking it. Maybe it was around the time you had your first child — you thought you’d just take snapshots of the baby, but suddenly you recognized life in everything and had to memorialize it. Rewind your personal history with the camera until you get to the seminal moment or choice…
And now pretend it did happen.
Unwrap the gift from your Aunt — inside is an iPod instead of your first digital camera. Try to sign up for that college studio course — only to discover that you’ve been wait-listed. Decide to study Arabic in your spare time — because it’s more useful than learning about ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
Sustain this suspension of disbelief.
Don’t allow a concept of fate to rescue you from this alternate reality — assume that you wouldn’t have had another opportunity to develop that bond with the art. Entertain the notion that there are no camera shops and no inspiring photographers on this other path to tempt you.
How would your life be different?
What moments might have passed by unnoticed? Who might you never have met? What would you be doing with all your spare time instead. How would your personality & the way you interact with others be different? When would you make time for yourself? Where wouldn’t you have gone? What else might you be motivated to do instead?
Really engage with this inquiry for several minutes. If it helps, grab a pad or open a blank document and jot down your stream-of-consciousness thoughts in response to these questions. The more effort you put into generating detailed and exhaustive answers, the more useful the exercise will be for you.
Why am I being so insistent about this process? Well, because it is often difficult for an artist, especially an amateur, to convey the source and expression of his/her passions without sounding either dopey, pretentious, or dismissible. For lack of good words, we have a tough time explaining the role of photography in our personal journeys in generalities. But if we do a subtractive analysis and consider what we wouldn‘t have if we hadn‘t become photographers, we can make the virtues concrete and accessible. Once you’ve shown yourself what the camera can do for a person…
Take a moment to be grateful for all photography has already given you.
Of course, not everything you unpack in this process will be encouraging. Maybe you’ll discover that if you weren’t so fixated on your camera, you’d actually mingle with other people at parties instead of being the designated documentarian. Maybe you’ll realize that you spend too many hours in front of PhotoShop when you could be reading to your child or holding your partner. If you expose a few negatives, don’t beat yourself up — just use the awareness to re-prioritize some and find a better balance. Then, appreciate the highlights, which will undoubtedly be more prominent than the shadows. Be deeply grateful for all the really good bits. This gratitude will sustain you on the days when you can’t shoot for shit. It will ease your irritation when you’re trying to make softly lit images at high noon on a windy day and everything goes wrong. It might even quiet the voices of doubt that proclaim “its a waste of time,” “I’m unoriginal,” “I have no point-of-view.” It will give you a personal, honest answer to the recurring question “why am I doing this?”
* * * * *
In the interest of open, honest discourse I’m going to share some of the notes from when I wrote about my life, without camera. But I’m not going to explain it. I’m just putting this paragraph of choppy, disorganized, free-writing out there. I’d be honored if you’d share your thoughts with the rest of our loyal readers in the comments below.
Without a camera. I’d be lonely. And less comfortable in my own skin. I wouldn’t be as aware of my surroundings. I’d still be hurried — and my frenzy would keep me unobservant. I wouldn’t have an escape from the doldrums of my job. But I sure would be less distracted all time. I still might not know what I want to accomplish in my life. I wouldn’t have preserved those tough images of my grandma in her waning weeks. Countless people wouldn’t have crossed my path (some for the better, some for the worse — most for the better.) I wouldn’t have nearly as many dear, true friends. Speaking of friends – I’d have less to give them. Many of their memories wouldn’t be represented and preserved as well. I might be less empathic. I wouldn’t have explored the far reaches of New York. I might still be in New York. I wouldn’t have joined Flickr. Or started this blog. I probably wouldn’t be in LA. I wouldn’t have an exhaustive record of my dog’s facial expressions. I’d be bored most weekends. I’d have continued my exclusive reliance on verbal expression, to my detriment. Weary of talking, I might just have withdrawn. Yes, I’d withdraw more. And in other ways, less. I wouldn’t have learned how to connect with others through observation first. I might be less empathic. Less courageous. Less adventuresome. Less aware. Less receptive. Chances are, I wouldn’t have found the man I love.