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Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything

for Jodi

I reread this post, about long term travel not being able to fix everything, over at Legalnomads, and thought, that sounds familiar. Last summer I took two months to travel to Burma and then Bali, thinking I needed to get away for some quiet time. Travel for me is a way to get inside my head and de-clutter; I wrote to Jodi the other day, I travel “to get away from my nine to five when it becomes too loud with worry that I can’t hear myself.”

I go away to listen, to remove the white noise that is other people’s needs, and find the voice that’s mine. I need very little really, to be happy, just a lot of silence and space, time to make photographs and write. But sometimes, I get caught up in work that is separate from my passion; more and more of this dislodges me from myself, and I float, an untethered balloon full of nothingness.

That’s when I want to get away. Being away brings a new reality. It reminds me of very early memories when every thing I learned seemed momentous, bright and shiny things I could gather and hold close to examine.

I’m not a sophisticated traveler. I don’t have the brave body of someone who climbs volcanoes or rides on rooftops of buses. Yes, I’ve been stuck in Europe because of an ashcloud, but hey, I was in Paris. Being stuck in Paris did not make me suffer. True, I was caught in a flashflood in the Philippines, but I was ten or eleven years old; it was an adventure full of floating refrigerators, bamboo rafts afloat above city streets, and ignorance about water born diseases. And yes, I live in Bangkok, the center of several coups d’etat and colorful politics. But last May, the closest I got to the burning of Bangkok was through Twitter apart from the days when the redshirts were still partying at Rachadamnoen. No, I’m not the Indiana Jones type of traveler.

What I do have, though, is a camera. I lug sixteen kilograms of equipment across all sorts of terrain, and I build my travel day around making photos. When I’m with my camera, composing images that tell stories of places, nothing can touch me. Words cease. You could speak a whole dissertation to me and think I am the rudest companion; the act of making an image fills me, engages me beyond any other experience.

This is flow, a state when a person is so engaged in something that time and space seem to disappear.

The problem is, you can’t stay in flow indefinitely. When I return to reality, I realize a few things.

Cold and dusty in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan.

1.     Not everything is beautiful.

With the camera in front of my face, everything is a matter of design. The chaos of lines can be organized into a composition using other things, like point of view, values of light and dark, framing. As a photographer, I can move and things get a little bit more harmonious in the frame. Not so in life. Moving around a problem, I can’t recompose a better image, I only postpone dealing with a mess. I can’t freeze moments that are beautiful and take them out when things get ugly.

2.     Light doesn’t change the way things are, just the way they look.

If the light is bad one day, I can always pack up and go somewhere else, then go back to the landscape when the light is ‘right.’ But in life, things don’t always look better in the morning light, or at sundown. Sometimes things look the same for days, weeks.

A few hours before the first snowfall, Paro, Bhutan.

3.     You can’t Photoshop it out.

In Photoshop there’s a Clone Tool, and it helps the photographer get rid of distracting spots and other things in the image. You just sample one area of the photo, then click over the area you want gone.  If only it were that easy for the little things that distract us in our lives. Countless times I’ve wished for a clone tool to stamp out the little demands that keep me away from my photography.

The closest I’ve come to complete irresponsibility is traveling, especially alone. I love to wake up earlier than the sun, feel the nip of dawn air as I hurry out to Kusumba to catch the sun rising over the fishing village. There is no schedule, there are only images to make, people to study, expressions to savor through a viewfinder.

4.     You can’t just crop.

Similarly, I can’t just crop. Things in my life crowd into my focal point and want to be in the line of sight. No matter how messy, how utterly unphotogenic something is, life doesn’t have selective framing. Unwanted elements seem to find their way into the experience, and I just have to deal with them.

Holding down the roof with stones, Punakha, Bhutan.

5.     Your batteries run out at some point.

Nothing frustrates a photographer more than being unprepared with extra batteries, and there’re lots of pictures left to make. On very good days, I shoot thousands of photos and have to change the camera battery once or twice (especially with the early digital Nikons, whose batteries lasted less than a thousand shutter clicks when I used a Vibration Reduction lens on them).

I work a lot, seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. I have to; if I don’t I can’t do this photography thing and the other things I have to do. So I plod along, and most of the time, I get enough sleep and have time to watch a movie or read a book from cover to cover, for pleasure.

Other times, I feel like I’m standing on a barbed wire fence, looking out over a vague landscape, and although my hands hurt from clinging to the barbed wire, I can’t let go or I’ll fall off.

Hanging on a barbed wire fence, near Thimphu, Bhutan.

It’s not that I’m into self-inflicted pain though others would argue; I just have obligations to fulfill, and I also have a passion that feeds my soul. I cannot run out of batteries, because I must always find strength for one or the other.

When I wrote to Jodi the other day, I said, “the Balinese are so talented at balance, and that was something you needed, and something I craved. So here you are again, ready for more surprises. I hope the basket stays on the head, even when you’re dancing.”

Maybe I was also talking to myself.

 

 

 

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About Aloha

I am a photographer and writer currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. My work has appeared in CNNGo, Canon's PhotoYou magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, Thailand Tatler, and a few photography books including recently Blogging for Creatives, a book published in the UK. I believe there is nothing you cannot imagine that you cannot do.

4 Responses to “Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything”

  1. Love this post :D. Can’t wait for more..

  2. Hi Davis, thanks for stopping by. The images here were made with a Canon 60D, which I find converts into monochrome or duotone very well. I sat down to process these shots last night, and the story just flowed. It was, characteristically, quite delicious. What kind of stories would you like to see here? :)

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