I know that I am not a very good photographer, so I don’t own a camera and I don’t take many pictures. This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the beauties of nature, or the sights of interesting places, or that I don’t want to remember good times with friends and family. It just means that I am not good at recording these things in photographic images. I have noticed that this doesn’t stop some people.
When people I know visit lovely places like Paris or Hawaii, they often come home with their vacation photos, including snapshots of the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, of palm trees swaying beside blue waters. These photographs do not compare favorably with professionally done images of the same things, and I wonder both why they bothered and why they think they would interest me. As a tradition, taking travel photographs is a hand me down from a time long ago when photography was new, cameras were rare, and most people had not seen images of the Eiffel Tower or the landscape of Maui. Nowadays it’s mostly just tiresome: people think they are supposed to take photos of their travels. I know a few people who are excellent photographers, who bring some verve and artistic sensitivity to the images they choose to share. But they are all too rare.
In working on this blog, I am often seeking images to use. Here’s a picture of spring; here’s a picture of winter. But what’s the point? People with cameras can’t seem to avoid recording images of the seasons, especially of seasonal change: the first forsythia to bloom in spring, a maple tree glowing with bright copper leaves, snow piled on anything. I mean, these images are beautiful and all that; but do I really need another photo of any of them? I also wonder if the mere act of snapping a photo is too facile a way of recording that image: if by taking the photo, we actually put it out of mind. Are we taking the time to think about the changes our cameras record?
There is a cliche you often encounter in movies and books (it was even lampooned in a funny scene in the movie Crocodile Dundee), that superstitious native peoples do not like to have their photographs taken, because they believe that it robs their souls. It seems a fitting metaphor for how I feel about taking a snapshot of something rather than spending a little more time experiencing it. Often when someone I know comes home from a vacation somewhere nice, they will ask, Do you want to see my pictures? Usually, my answer is no, but I would like to hear a good story. That always gets them thinking. Some people are a lot better than others at telling stories, but anyone who has truly experienced a new place should be able to tell me something interesting about it–unless they were too busy snapping pictures.
Once I was reading a book about birdwatching. It had hundreds of colorful and precise images of birds, to be used in identifying them. The introduction to the book contained tips on how to be a better birdwatcher. It advised that when you see a new and unknown species, you should not immediately pull out the book and try to find it on a page. You should instead spend as long a time as you can watching the bird. After all, the activity is called birdwatching, not bookwatching. And the longer you watch the bird, the better you will know it: does it have a crest on its head? A pointed or rounded beak? Long tail feathers? Are there unusual colors on its tail, head, throat or the tips of its wings? Only after you’ve observed the creature for a while, or after it has flown, should you open the book and seek a picture that matches what you were watching. But remember the key point: it’s about the experience, not about correctly naming it.
So I guess I’ll include an image in my blog when it is truly helpful or instructive, when it really helps to explain something. But if it’s just there so I can say I used a picture, then why bother? You haven’t seen enough pictures of daffodils? Of gathering storm clouds? Of rain?