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.

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