Tonight, as I contemplate a rather successful day with my camera, a thought occurs to me…
When I began clicking the digital shutter a few years ago, after a lifetime of latent interest in photography, my main reason for taking photos was very simple.
Aesthetics. I simply wanted to indulge in a visual medium, aesthetically.
Even my concept of aesthetics was limited in this sense. All I really had were vague aspirations of taking beautiful pictures. Nothing more.
It was well into my third year of camera addiction that I deliberately took a photo of something that did not fall into my ideal for beauty. A photo that challenged my natural bias towards optimism, justice and order.
I was doing a photo hunt with a online photography group and one of the categories was Sleep. I was feeling dead-ended, unsure of how to express that category with anything more original than asking a friend to pretend to sleep so I could photograph them. Unwilling to concede defeat I put off that category for a long time.
Then, on my way to work one dreary wet Vancouver morning, I stumbled across what would become the subject of the photo. Asleep. In the doorway of an unopened business.
Anyone who lives in a big city is familiar with the sight of homeless people huddled, awake or asleep, in available dry public spaces. We know the rule; walk by, don’t look. We may feel a tug in our hearts, a momentary thought might cross our mind. There but for the grace of God…
But we do not stop, and we certainly don’t miss our bus while we fumble for our camera and record the image.
Still, I knew I had to. I wanted that photo. It meant putting aside very deeply ingrained social training that dictates that we do not trespass into someone else’s misfortune and pain; not without being clearly invited. But, I wanted it.
There was nothing easy about obeying the instinct to take that photo. I’m Canadian. Polite.
But I knew that in order to develop as a photographer, in order to be true to myself, I had to reach past that comfort zone. Safe has never gotten me very far in life, and this situation was no different.
I took that photo.
(Well, let’s be honest here, I furtively clicked the shutter when I thought I wasn’t being watched, sidled back to the bus stop, and hoped like hell the photo would turn out. I was fortunate. It did.)
I finished the photo hunt with a few more photos that took me beyond my comfort zone after that first step. It was truly a learning experience.
I’m still not particularly comfortable taking photographs of strangers, but what I learned that day has helped me move many steps in the right direction. I’m capturing more spontaneous human moments involving strangers. I’m learning to ask people to allow me to point my camera in their direction. I still feel that sense of encroachment, but it’s getting easier.
I’m becoming a more versatile photographer because of it. A better one.
I relayed this story to the man who’d organized the photo hunt and he told me that he was happy to see that the hunt had served its purpose.
I hadn’t thought about the purpose, beyond fun, really, but at that point I understood. To be an artist you have to look beyond what you already think you know, look past what you feel comfortable doing.
Since then I’ve taken many beautiful photos. Sunrises. Kittens. Children laughing. Flowers. And I treasure them. But more importantly I’ve taken pictures of homeless people, a baby crying, bare trees, broken down houses, a friend’s face in pain.
I’ve learned that aesthetics isn’t simply a synonym for beautiful.
And I’ve learned that there are many good reasons for picking up a camera, and I want to explore them all.