“Why do you have to take pictures; just be present.”
This comment came from a dear friend as we walked along the beautiful Atlantic coastline at sunset. I had pulled out my cell phone to take a photograph when she blurted out her admonition. She was no doubt well intentioned, hoping to save me from what she imagined was a superficial experience—one that she believed prohibited me from being fully in the now.
I remember feeling somewhat shamed by her reprimand. Maybe she was right, I shouldn’t put a lens between my self and my experience of the world. Instead, I should simply experience the moment with my awareness.
I made a mental note to resist the habit of taking photographs of my day-to-day interactions with life—an intellectual sticky note of sorts, posted in the back of my mind. Taking photos of random occurrences was a habit, one that apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic encourage. But in reality, my love affair with photography goes much further back, and began by happenstance.
Soon after graduating high school in the early 80s, I had taken an entry-level job as a clerk in a Wall Street investment firm. Having been raised by a civil servant father and a stay at home mom, the only real expectation they had for me was to marry a nice boy and have his babies.
My days on the job consisted of checking things off of lists, separating carbon copies, and filing them away. It was mind-numbing work, and the prospect that I might spend a lifetime filing papers—with only two-weeks of vacation to call my own—snapped me out of my lazy suburban daze. I became motivated to go to college to pursue a professional career, but had no idea what I wanted to do.
Around that same time, I had agreed to take photos for a friend while she performed in her high school talent show. As she took the stage and began her dance routine, I had what could be called a “Come to Jesus” moment.
Looking through the viewfinder of the camera, I was mesmerized by the act of capturing the fluid motion of dance. Being in the moment—deciding the exact millisecond to press the shutter, forever capturing the movement and form in time—it was a transcendental experience. I became a part of the dance, and it captivated my spirit.
My father had been a photo enthusiast, which was something I hadn’t paid much attention to. Now that I had been bitten by the photo bug myself, I borrowed his camera and began shooting everything in sight—the shadows on the wall, my dog, the rose bush in the back yard—and suddenly, everything was fascinating.
When Christmas rolled around, my boyfriend bought me a 35mm SLR of my own, an Olympus OM1. The camera soon replaced him as my constant companion and the world became the subject of my affection. My daily commute via the Staten Island ferry to Manhattan provided me with a plethora of exciting visuals to capture.
I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life! But I still had no idea how to do it. Becoming a photographer was a concept as foreign to my civil servant upbringing as learning to speak Swahili.
One day during my lunch-break, I slipped into a local pizzeria, the question of how to go about pursuing a career in photography ever-present in my mind. On the counter, I noticed a small brochure from a local educational organization. I flipped open the booklet, and as serendipity would have it, it opened directly onto the page offering photography classes.
Along with my slice with extra cheese, I had been delivered the next piece of the career puzzle: Basic photography 101. I signed up that day.
Upon completion of this class, I found my way to The School of Visual Arts, a fine arts college located in the heart of New York City. Four years later, I graduated with a BFA in film studies.
Fast-forward 30 years, past a career in television, and the raising of a family, to a moment last spring where I once again walked along the shore, this time of the Pacific coast. I had been attending an Eckhart Tolle retreat at Asilomar National Park, and was presented with many opportunities to practice being in the now.
When I arrived to the retreat, I realized I had forgotten to pack my camera. I interpreted this slip up to be divine intervention. Not having my camera would assist me in remaining present to the moment, and allow me to directly experience the world around me without a lens separating us.
It was a glorious, bright and sunny day. As I walked along the beach, I was mesmerized by the extraordinary seaweed, rock formations and wedding parties that appeared along the way. I began wishing I had my camera.
As I journeyed on, I continued to fluctuate between pining away for my camera, and resisting the urge—telling myself it was simply an old pattern of relating to things that I needed to let go of. Eventually, the desire to capture the moment became stronger than my interest in practicing presence. I took out my iPhone, and began to take photos.
The sun caused significant glare on the screen of the phone, making it difficult to frame my shots. I became frustrated, which lead to the repeated admonitions that I should simply allow myself to be in the moment and stop fussing with the phone/camera. Unrepentant, I crouched down, clumsily trying to compose a shot. At that moment, I had a great realization that filled my heart with delight.
I realized that rather than distracting us from the present moment, the act of photography creates a deeper awareness—an intimate connection between our self and the object of our interest.
To shoot a photograph requires not only the act of looking, but of seeing. Capturing an image is an active dialog between the seen and the seer.
It is a creative, alive relationship. As we allow ourselves to become enraptured, we honor what we see by capturing it, in our own unique and loving way. Given the same subject, two photographers will undoubtedly produce distinctly different images.
Photography reminds me that all of our experience is a matter of perception—what we choose to focus on and what we choose to leave out of our awareness.
This insight brought clarity to my relationship with photography. I reclaimed my passion for the art, and flashed back to that moment, decades ago, when I first looked through the viewfinder and experienced the thrill of capturing time and space.
I have since reached back in my mind, pulled out that useless sticky note and replaced it with a new one. It says, “Keep Calm and Carry your Camera.” I know that I am never more fully present than in my joyful capturing of the moments of life.
The Gift of Presence.
Author: Roseann Pascale
Apprentice Editor: Sarrah Chaouki / Editor: Travis May
Image: Flickr/Eddy Van 3000, Flickr/EladeManu
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