Mar 022015


I’ve been fasting from writing for approximately three months now. This very post is my “break fast”. I did it because a purge was needed to reset my developing maniacal attachment to a having a story when I should be busy having an experience. I’ll try to explain it in terms of photography.

Long long ago I ceased and desisted the activity of taking pictures when I’m out and about on a adventure. It happened all of a sudden in a moment when I was in a very spectacular place in Scotland. I had worked hard to get there with a friend of mine and was overwhelmed with the joys of both endorphins and the unbelievable beauty I was standing in. So I took out my camera and began clicking away from every possible angle and aperture, clearly irritating my companion. Eventually he couldn’t keep his mouth shut about it.

“You know, if you google this mountain in images you will get at least 4,000 pictures of this exact location you’re standing in right now and they will all be better than yours.”

Point. I put the camera away.

On the hike back down the mountain, I thought about it more. Not about the pointlessness of scenic picture taking for the non-professional. That was an epiphany derived in totality from a single sentence. But I thought about why picture-taking was my first impulse when confronted with beauty and what it did to my experience of it. I came to understand that picture-taking for me was likely an expression of whatever consumer mentality lived in my brain. I wanted to own some of that beauty, bring it home, keep it, identify myself with it. Turns out I had an outright agenda with beauty, and photography was going to be my tool to achieve it. Without photography, I was just, well, IN it. And being IN it was exactly what I was avoiding by being a passionate picture taker. It made me approach each expanse, each mountain, each vista, each fellow hiker, each experience as a potential photograph, something capture-able within a frame, seen through a selective pointing of the lens. It separated me from where I was, almost as if I had surrounded myself with a wall of opaque bubble wrap and then carved a 35 millimeter hole to look out from. What I really wanted was to figure out how to BE with beauty, you know, just hang with it, so I started leaving my camera at home and haven’t picked it up since.

But many years later, I made the discovery that the “story” is really another camera lens. I love writing. I’m passionate about it. I truly wake up in the middle of the night because yet another metaphor for beets is dying to be born through my hands. But like a camera lens, it narrows my focus. Approaching an experience with the agenda of having something to say about it, keeps me from actually having that experience. I am “selecting” the best story and steering my perceptions accordingly. I’ve then stepped out of the experience and into the frame of my “story”. I’m a firm believer that a writer should genuinely have something to say, something authentic to share, or not write. A writer has to have experiences, be IN them, be changed by them in complete surrender to them. Approaching them with a consumer mentality, a story “neediness”, undermines their impact. For me. In my mind there’s nothing necessarily wrong with having an ability and a desire to share life experiences, perspectives, and beauties with others, through photography, writing, art, whatever.  It resurrects it within ourselves to do so. It’s joy. And it’s what I’m passionate about. But I won’t sacrifice the actual beauty or experience to do so, and so an occasional purging of a perceptual agenda is necessary.

So letting go of the “story”, I just did nothing but sit IN a whole whollop of living for the past three months. I lost family, gained family, found a new “Canada” for myself, did a whole bunch of putzing all over the place and …  well… really I don’t have a damn thing to say about it.


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  6 Responses to “The Story and the Lens: Why I Put My Camera and my Pencil Down”

  1. I understand all those impulses. I’ve not pulled out my DSLR for a long time, as I too found that searching out the “right” photo was taking too much time and preventing me from doing things. Now I carry a phone and take phone snapshots. Sometimes without stopping. And it’s great. My friends get a little insight into what I’m doing and I don’t have to carry a heavy camera. I love photography, though, so sometimes I take the camera and go looking for photos. When the photo is the goal I take better ones anyway…

    As for writing – I hardly ever have anything to say. We misanthropes are like that. 🙂

  2. On the PCT, I limited myself to *only* 1,500 pictures as an effort to “be in the moment” a little more. Although I still think taking pictures of people is important. 🙂

  3. This echoes… I find taking photos to be a poor substitute (for me) for sketching where I do become absorbed in the place/experience. And I sometimes find myself narrating my journey as I walk, rather than being in the moment.
    While it’s great to be connected (after all, it’s how I met you, and my husband :D), with Social Media there can be a pressure to share, share, share – bragging rights or something? It’s sometimes hard to escape peer pressure. I’d rather think about taking photos as a peripheral activity to re-jog my memorie to maybe re-live the experience in the future, but not as something that sucks the life out of the now. That balance of capturing a moment against actually enjoying the moment and letting it go, is a challenge…
    By the way, please write more 😉

  4. !! we all do need a new canada. damn.

  5. You are being too hard on yourself. You were almost certainly far more in the moment than you realise. Years from now, if your brain is anything like mine, you will be doing something mundane when a flashback to one of those parts of the PCT you thought you had failed to give full attention comes to visit. There never seems to be a link between my task and the specific memory surprise. It just arrives.

    It is also OK to admit that some sections of trail are a little bit boring. John Hillaby, who wrote a sequence of great Journey through… books, admitted to running a skull cinema while walking and he also used to plan letters of complaint about things he had seen while en route. Hamish M Brown and, I think, Chris Townsend, read while walking, which is getting so far out of the moment that they have to be bored by their surroundings.

  6. Hi
    May I please take your permission to use this photograph (of the camera lens) in one of the posters I am making for a photo contest.
    It will be very kind of you to allow me to do the same.

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