Following the metaphor that “life is a journey” (think also of all the famous haiku, aphorisms, and other quips about earthly travel which can be read as statement of life, not locomotion through one’s chosen landscape) and look at what happens when you pack a camera – whether snapshooter, view camera, or something more portable that is in-between these extremes. My uncle once confessed his decision against carrying a camera: that to always have one’s finger on the shutter release leads to a certain kind of tunnel vision, hunting always for the next cliche or trophy subject, or otherwise blind to anything that does not fit the narrow frame of ‘photogenic’. And yet there is some value in carrying a camera daily, whether as tourist or in one’s daily grind of the routine orbit of a work week.
When viewing one’s surroundings, whether it is a spontaneous visit or an itinerary carefully scripted, the person immersed in capturing photos and accustomed to viewing other’s photographic results naturally sees the scenes in terms of color, shadow and patterning of light on surfaces and the textures that show up. By customarily carrying a camera, no matter how fine or poor the resulting image file, this same person engages with the landscape or streetscape differently to the person who has no camera device, or simply points and shoots without reflecting on possible angles, timing of release and the many other decisions that an experienced photographer brings to the act of interpreting a moment in time, according to the limitations and quirks of any given medium, lens and software. The result of an excellent transposition from original scene to something reproduced in the camera for others to see can be very well done, but oftentimes something is lost in the translation from the mind’s eye to the lens’ likeness.
Suppose you are serious photographer, one who looks closely and deeply at light and shape, pattern and relationship. Something catches your eye. Next you ponder – what is it that I am responding to (quality of light, curious composition, thrilling juxtaposition of ideas or colors or meanings, ironic word found in a given location, something that speaks of the place or people or history or culture, other; or combination of several of these strands)? Finally you pull camera into view and prepare to compensate for the gap between human eye with assist of imagination on the one hand, and precision optical instrument for exposure and focus of photons onto sensor comprising today’s technology. You take a few shots at different settings and perspectives; possibly trying different focal lengths, or even stitching together several frames into a panorama. As a result of the time you’ve taken to stop, to reflect, and then to execute, the location now has a little more personal meaning than it would if you merely paused and jotted down some thoughts without the exercise in photographing (not to mention the possibilities for sharing, repurposing, compare/contrast, including in sequence or visual essay, and so on). Thus there is some blinkering that comes in the moment after stopping and reflecting, while one’s mind is encumbering by technique and related considerations. But also there is value in the whole process; not skimming through a cultural landscape, but scrutinizing it; not for shape and color, but for deeper meanings of social experience, historical moment and the (poetic) winds of change, or the human condition, for instance. Granted, though, most photo sharing sites seem to demonstrate that most contributing photographers are satisfied with eye candy (visual delight), clever techniques, or dramatic moment (natural or man-made) rather than something deeper or more comprehensive.
And so, leaving aside the worth of the photographer’s results, the fact that she or he is looking deeper than the average person means that the person’s engagement of the place will be richer. Likewise a person steeped in history will see a place through that lens, a cultural anthropologist or linguist through that lens, an engineer or epidemiologist through that lens. No matter what preoccupations one carries along, they will affect one’s vision and subsequent understanding of opportunities (or dangers) in a given scene. It is just that a serious photographer, amateur or paid professional, is preoccupied with light and also possibly a narrative (if telling a story in a sequence of photo essay images). As such the work is accessible to others, either fellow enthusiasts of composition and light, or less dedicated people whose only qualification for embracing the captured images is the habits of seeing they bring to everyday experiences of navigating the social and physical landscape.