Bearing Witness

I imagine I look odd walking through the park with my dog, me carrying whatever toy he’s dropped, my camera, a loupe, and a pair of binoculars.  Probably even odder when I suddenly and without warning drop the leash, step on it, pull up my camera and line a bird in my sights all while talking to the dog, encouraging him to stand still while I attempt to capture a bird that is probably backlit, behind layers of leaves, and likely perched on a tree limb blowing in the wind.

I asked myself the other day why I do this.  I mean, what is it about photography I find so appealing that it’s now been a consistent pursuit for enough years I’d rather not add them up?

I think it comes down to this: photography is a recreation of life. There is in any given image a combination of fact and fiction. A bird, for example, looks the way it looks in a final image based on an endless combination of variables. Some of them I control.  Many of them I don’t.  In the end, any image represents one interpretation of a single moment and the odds of getting an identical image ever again are minuscule–just like the rest of life.

In this act of controlling what can be controlled and dealing with what cannot, there are lessons photography offers.  For example, you can see the same thing a multitude of ways and they are all correct.  And then there’s the expansiveness that results from constraints:  you see more looking through the blinders of a camera frame–it’s as if restricting your view causes better vision.

There’s also the inherent paradox of time.  You capture a moment by being completely in the present with a vision of a future image.  But by transforming that moment into an image, creating that vision of the future, you’ve brought with you a moment from the past. It is the only actual form of time travel that I’m aware of.

Most importantly, when I shoot, I am listening, looking, feeling, tasting, and smelling with the concentration of a hound dog in the hope of gaining a clue about where my next subject will unfold. Thoughts about the past and future get pushed aside, making space for the possibility contained in the present.

Ultimately, photography is an act of gratitude.  Gratitude for having borne witness to something remarkable–whether it’s a weed being struck by the sun, a puffy cloud that happened to show up just when I was looking, or the sudden appearance of a rare bird.  The desire to capture each of those moments requires appreciation of them as subjects worthy of attention.

In this way, photography gives gifts.  It hands me moments I would not have noticed had I never picked up a camera. Never mind the endless struggles and failures at getting exactly what I envision.  Just having been there, fully there, to witness those moments is enough.

Showing Up

I remember once, many years ago when I was teaching for a community college prison program, having a conversation with another instructor who was telling me about advice he’d given a student.  He’d told the student, “Just show up.  Showing up is half the battle.”

I was reminded of a student in one of the classes I taught during my teaching certification field experience.  He showed up to class, sat down, put his head down on his desk, and promptly fell asleep.  I asked him if he was feeling OK and he told me he’d been up until 2AM that morning playing video games.  When I asked him how he expected to succeed in school if he didn’t sleep at night so he could stay awake during class, he replied, “I’m here, aren’t I?”

I think this requires considering what “showing up” means in this context.  It doesn’t mean physically moving your body from one point to another and not actually being there mentally.  Showing up means paying attention, watching and listening for opportunity to present itself.  It implies both an awareness and recognition of opportunity.

Even with this revision of the definition, I don’t know if I agree that just being there is 50% of the battle.  There’s also preparedness.  It doesn’t do much good to realize you have an opportunity if you’re not in a position to take advantage of it.

For example, I walk my dog in our neighborhood park 3-4x a day.  I spend this time mostly looking for birds.  I am aware, paying attention, watching and listening for the opportunity to see interesting birds present themselves.  However, I’d really like to get great images of these birds.  Yet, in spite of this desire, 9 times out of 10, I rush out the door with the dog but not my camera.

The opportunity to photograph birds presents itself nearly every time I walk, but only 10% of the time am I prepared to actually capture an image of a bird.

Yet, oddly, I seem to be less likely to see birds when I am most prepared.  This is like seeing that the weather forecast is for rain, taking an umbrella, a raincoat, and wearing waterproof boots only to have the weather turn sunny against all odds.

If we apply statistics to this equation, I think it comes down to this:  I’m going to see birds I could photograph 90% of the time I walk.  If I carry a camera only 10% of the time I walk, the odds that I will actually capture an image of a bird drops to 9 times out of 100.

Like everything else in life, showing up, being present, and being ready have to come together with luck.  The more frequently we do our part, the more frequently our readiness will connect with good fortune.  So, I guess that means I will be carrying my camera a lot more often in the future!

Meet Tom Turkey

Meet Tom.  Tom is a Bourbon Red heritage turkey who is free-ranging it on a farm in Wildwood Georgia where the grass is green, the sun is bright, and the hens are . . . well . . . at the moment, scarce.  Tom’s Tinas are off sitting on about 20 eggs they laid in a secret hiding spot where the two hens share incubation duties of a combined nest.

What’s remarkable about this story is that Tom and his Tinas participated in the act of procreation without assistance from humans.  That happens to be one of the criteria for a breed of turkey to be considered “heritage”–they have to be able to breed on their own.

But what exactly is a “heritage” turkey?  Perhaps the best way to define a heritage turkey is to say that it is a traditional turkey from back before tradition became to factory raise turkeys who can barely walk, let alone breed.

The criteria to be a heritage turkey are:  mate naturally, have a long productive lifespan, and grow slowly.  By “long” and “slowly,” I presume what is really meant is “longer than” and “slower than” the dominant breed of turkeys used by factory farms.  You can read about it from a better resource at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website, which I was paraphrasing.

Tom takes the first item on that list quite seriously.  However, after spending about 15 minutes trying to convince Tom that I am not a turkey hen and only being able to divert his attention by offering the distraction of my husband, I wonder if there might be a criteria missing?  I suppose the approach of attempting to mate with anyone and anything until one of those things turns out to be a turkey hen will work as long as the hens are close, but it seems a bit inefficient.

It also made Tom a challenging model when I was trying to get pictures.  It’s hard to hold a DSLR with a heavy lens and press the shutter button with one hand while holding back a horny turkey with the other.  When I squatted down to try to get an eye-level shot, Tom rushed me.  Thankfully, Tom is persistent but not violent.  He just keeps pushing his puffed chest up against whomever has attracted his attention over and over again in this crazy dance of you pushing him back and him pushing forward.  It’s a dance with only one step in two directions.

When we got ready to leave, we pulled an empty Styrofoam egg carton out of the car only to have Tom pull it out of our hands, drop it on the ground, and proceeded to jump on top of it as if it were a Tina.  It was the most remarkable display of species confusion I’ve ever seen.  I guess it’s a good thing that how many attempts it takes a turkey to figure out who to breed with isn’t part of the heritage criteria.