Taking Refuge on a Photowalk
Almost thirty years ago to the day, I remembered watching in horror something unspeakable unfolding on the television about a series of events cumulating into a mass human tragedy. At the time, I coldly rationalized the outcome as predictable. It had to happen. Order must be restored, lest we forget the chaos from the decades of fevered passion. And so during the decades that followed, prosperity flourished under the watchful gaze of state planning. Clearly, the means justified the ends - and thus it was never spoken of again.
There are events that we all remember happening. I was at school when I heard that John Lennon was shot by a “crazed fan”. I was also at school when I witnessed the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger. And when the second plane hit the twin towers, I was having Korean barbecue with engineers from BMW. I also recall where I was when a plane crashed in Queens, just a few weeks later. I was in the business class lounge at Charles de Gaulle - delayed - with all flights around the world grounded because of security concerns.
The world is an unforgiving place. Decisions are made by the powers to be. Each and every morning, as I pour through the daily news, I am reminded by how cruel real life really is. Yesterday (as of writing this entry), twelve innocent people were killed by yet another gunman. And today, our president has decided to double down on isolation by threatening tariffs against India, in addition to Mexico (for failing to stem the flow of migrants), and of course China. None of this is going to end up well for the multitude caught in the crossfire.
Often, it takes mental fortitude to live in a world that is too real. Conventionally, many blunt the pressure of real life with material distractions and virtual reassurances. Accumulations of short lived pockets of happiness that make us feel good in the moment is the remedy we self-prescribe to drive away the blues. But always, there is a costly reckoning from the emptiness of wanting more stuff and likes because none of that alleviates the pain inflicted collaterally upon us from systemic indifference high above our pay grade.
Indeed, “I read the news today, oh boy”… and it is always the same. And when I open my eyes to see the world around me, I see more of the same - indifference in addition to inequality and inhumanity made palatable with a helping of rose colored blinders. But the smell is never so sweet as roses when I walk in their shoes. I do feel what numbs them, which is helplessness in dealing with rising prices, stagnant income, and the threat of time chipping away at their will to continue with dignity and any real expectation of hope.
I often wonder how we got ourselves into this mess. I mean, if we really do subscribe to the teachings we hold most true, then none of this should happen. But the righteousness infecting the masses has never been about mercy or forgiveness. It is about entitlement and self-interest. And if that requires more isolation, then so be it. With fear at the vanguard blocking the advance of unity, hate rears its ugly head in defiance. Facing it head-on is just so emotionally exhausting, that my only recourse is to find a temporary escape.
However, the relief I seek is not real. Over the last couple of years, I have come to accept the Buddhist outlook on existence - that life is suffering because happiness is an illusion. Given such dreary beliefs, what then is the point of even trying? Why even seek for those pockets of happiness, when they really amount to nothing more than a figment of our imagination. After the initial rush of dopamine, that momentary respite from reality fades into oblivion, which invariably leaves us feeling empty inside and wanting more relief.
I have never been a person of faith. But in being raised in a largely Judeo-Christian world, one cannot help but be formed by its teachings. I have always been more of a New Testament than an Old Testament person in the way I gravitate to the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the selflessness of his example. If I were to imagine what he would think about our world today, I truly believe he would be disappointed by how we received his sacrifice - especially by our outright contempt towards the suffering of those he wanted to save.
All the teachings which we have been given point towards some shared communal empathy. However, all the facts would show that our biases point towards apathy - separated along defined lines of productivity. In other words, if one fails to contribute, one is neatly categorized as obsolete and rendered redundant - plain, simple, and fair. But, there are lives at stake. Real lives. Lives of people who relied on a system. Who truly did not know any better that the world would turn against them, hoping they would quietly go away.
Much goes through my mind when I deal with the reality of everyday life. And it is not like me to burden others with my problems. Instead, what I do is go on these two hour photowalks. I find them deeply therapeutic. They nourish that part of me that enables me to maintain perspective. For me, going on these photowalks may very well be the most selfish undertaking I permit myself. It is an indulgence that frees me from the responsibilities of living where I can lose myself upon an unplanned route and forget for just a moment.
So for a while, all the nonsense of everyday life - however important and material - are put on hold. My mind is only focused on the task at hand. And with my trusty camera, I immerse myself in the time honored process of practicing proper shooting and compositional fundamentals. I open my eyes. I imagine possibilities. I take the initiative to realize a photo opportunity. Then with all the visualization completed, I proceed to the next step of the undertaking. I bring the camera to my eyes to begin the process of metering the shot.
To ensure the accuracy of the selected exposure, I bring the camera within inches of the subject’s face. Then I determine whether to expose for the highlights, midtones, or shadows. That depends on the light of the photo opportunity. Upon making that decision, I then turn the shutter dial to the desired speed and the aperture ring to the desired opening. That depends on preventing camera shake, motion blur, and focusing error, as limited by the film speed. With that determined, the next step of the process is the actual framing.
Since the metering process is performed inches away from the subject’s face, I will need to reposition myself. So, I take a couple of steps back - or more depending on the focal length of the lens - in order to find the most optimal position in capturing the subject relative to the background. When that is determined, the next step is to turn the focusing ring to confirm focus. Thereafter, the next step is to reposition the camera along the same plane of focus in order to compose the image without shifting the camera out of focus.
Only after all that is completed can I at last click the shutter for the image capture - unless if the light changes. If that were to happen, I can either take my chances and guess the change in exposure or start this process all over again. That depends on my shooting distance and whether there are obstacles making difficult a second attempt. In other words, if I am very far away or if I have to climb up multiple steps to meter the exposure once more, I will defer to chance and the magic of post to correct any error in judging the light.
Regardless of the outcome in metering, the objective has never been exclusively about accuracy. The images I take are merely an excuse for me to go on these photowalks. In reality, it is the photowalk that is meaningful. I mean, the process of operating a fully manual film camera is immensely meditative in how it compels us to be more involved in the practice of image making. However, two hours of this is exhausting - like a good workout. After every photowalk, I always feel refreshed with a renewed sense of vigor towards life.
I know my approach may seem rather unsatisfying. After all, the world is still an exceedingly unforgiving place. It is not as if my photowalks are going to change the world for the better. That said, it has never been the point of my photowalks to address the world’s problems. That would take real sacrifice. In the end, all my photowalk is supposed to do is offer temporary refuge from the world. Maybe, that is all anyone needs in order to remain strong enough to fight another day.
A healthy mind is the strongest tool at our disposal. With effort and commitment, we can move mountains and make waves. And if a photowalk can help me gather my thoughts, then it is the best possible remedy for me.
With that being said, a camera is the second strongest tool at our disposal. Once a photo is taken, it cannot be forgotten. So, go on a photowalk. Practice makes perfect. You just never know when you will find David staring down the barrel of Goliath.
All images were tweaked on Adobe Lightroom and digitized on a Fujifilm S5 Pro + Nikon AF-S DX Micro 40mm f/2.8G + Bolt VM-210 + Nikon ES-2. Some images were leveled and cropped for the sake of presentation.