To Live or to Photograph


Sometimes life gives us a reminder. When we get distracted from what is important in life, it has a tendency to come back to tell us not to lose sight of what really matters. It certainly did so for me a little more than a week ago when I was travelling in Thailand.

For those of us passionate about photography it’s very easy to get caught up in thinking that we have to capture every great moment in life. Sometimes this mind-set goes so far that if we don’t manage to get a photograph to show for afterwards it’s almost as if the experience itself has been diminished. We get disappointed. At times we might even think or feel that the moment actually didn’t occur at all if we weren’t able to capture it.

I have seen too many photographers being caught up in this way of thinking, myself included. Obviously, this is heading down a misguided path. What happens is; we end up living through our photographs rather than the other way around; that is living our life passionately and then photograph it. I strongly believe in the latter. We should not get so caught up in the photographic process that we end up forgetting to actually take notice and experience our life as it unfold for us. Indeed, sometimes we should just put down the camera and let life itself get all our attention.

I remember clearly the first time I learned the lesson. This is more than 30 years back in time. I had been travelling for about half a year in Asia and was going to finish off the trip in Nepal with two weeks of trekking up towards Mount Everest’s base camp. The second day of hiking through the mountains my old trusted camera broke down. I had just gotten out of bed and wanted to photograph the beautiful mountainous landscape that was bathed in a gorgeous sunrise. I took one picture and immediately heard something went wrong. Like something snapped in the camera. It did (it latter turned out that a little spring had broken). My camera would not take any more photos. It was dead (and back then I didn’t bring a second camera or body). The feeling of devastation was complete. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to take a single photo during the rest of the trekking, I decided to turn around and end the trip right there and then.

Now, just a couple of weeks ago something similar happened to me in Thailand. However, this time I had learned my lesson. We were spending three days paddling on Khao Sok, an artificially created, huge lake in southern Thailand. I used my underwater camera housing when paddling around, simply to protect my gear from the water. Khao Sok is a beautiful place with the lake spreading into various parts of the rain forest like the arms of an octopus. In some parts the mountains surrounding Khao Sok close in on the lake. It creates a dramatic landscape with elegant limestone formations and steep rocks throwing themselves into the lake. Our guide, however, was more interested in showing us the undoubtedly rich animal life along the shores of the lake. He took us into bays and remote corners of Khao Sok, thus, never paying any attention to the majestic landscape further out.

I got more and more frustrated. Yes, tapirs and monkeys are fun to watch, but I hadn’t gotten any photos of the dramatic landscape I hand envisioned beforehand. Maybe it was exasperation or maybe just pure assertion. At the end of the second day I carelessly jump in the kayak, not taking the usual precautions. I lost balance and capsized the kayak. No problem for me, but I had made a big mistake that you are not supposed to do: I had put my camera in the kayak before getting into it myself. When the kayak capsized, the camera rolled out and sank to the bottom of the lake. I was told at 40 meters depth. In other words: no way to rescue the camera.

No need to say that I was crushed. However, while people around me were upset about the value of the camera, that wasn’t really my concern. I bewailed over the fact that I had lost two days of photos and also lost the tool I was planning to use a couple of days later going diving off the coast of Thailand. The gear itself I was quite sure the insurance would cover.

So, yes, it was shattering. But as mentioned I had already learned my lesson. Instead of growling, I put down any thoughts of photographing and decided to just enjoy the last day at Khao Sok. While I was frustrated before the incident because that I couldn’t get the photos I wanted, now I suddenly was able to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, the calm water, the paddling, myself and my companions. I was living my life in full awareness and momentarily instead of trying to live it through my photographs.

Life itself seemed to have intervened. I was rumbling about the photos I wasn’t getting, instead of enjoying what was there all the time. So my camera was taken away from me. And I started to live again. Of course I had other photos from the area, taken with my regular camera when I wasn’t kayaking. And of course I rented an underwater camera for the diving off the coast of Thailand later on. No big deal.

As photographers it’s so easy to think that anything that we can’t capture is not worth anything. But it’s actually the other way around. It’s a fully and enriched life that we live that is worth capturing. And if we aren’t able to capture it, it’s still worth more than any photo in and of itself. I learned that after Nepal. To this day I still regret not taking the opportunity to keep trekking to Mount Everest base camp. With or without photos.

76 thoughts on “To Live or to Photograph

  1. Even though I’m a very new photographer myself, I’ve been around enough photographers of every sort to have seen the reality you describe. I think of a recent visit I made to a museum. Photography was allowed without flash, and nearly everyone in the crowd was staring at their phones as they took photos of the art, rather than looking at the art itself.

    Two of the places I like to explore and photograph are very near to my home. I’ve begun taking a couple of hours a week to go there and walk, without a camera. It’s a good way to get “the larger view” of what’s happening: seasonal changes, and so on.

    The naturalist and writer Annie Dillard talks about two ways of seeing, comparing them to walking with and without a camera. As she says, when she goes into the world without a camera, she herself becomes the film, on which life impresses its images. I’ve always liked that way of thinking about it.

    1. Your observation at the museum is spot on. It’s almost embarrassing for those more concerned about take photos of the art work instead of enjoying the art work itself. I like the way Annie Dillard describe seeing. Thanks for sharing, Linda.

  2. >> now I suddenly was able to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, the calm water, the paddling, myself and my companions. I was living my life in full awareness and momentarily instead of trying to live it through my photographs.

    >> But it’s actually the other way around. It’s a fully and enriched life that we live that is worth capturing. And if we aren’t able to capture it, it’s still worth more than any photo in and of itself.


    Take care

  3. Finding the balance between living the moments and capturing them is something I strive for every day. How amazing that you were able to use a lesson learned to move forward and enjoy yourself. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I think sometimes the most important moments happen when we don’t have the camera. It is like life is forcing us to have the experience not photograph it.

  5. Gosh, I guess I will not see your underwater images 😦 I am so sorry that happened to you. I admitted that I am a worrier about missing the opportunity to capture the moments, especially when scuba diving. I do bring a backup camera and its uw casing. But during our scuba holiday, I always had one day diving without my photography gears just to enjoy the diving moment and the underwater scene. I have never regretted it! Thank you for the reflection, Otto!

  6. This speaks to me. There are times when I will go walking, or hiking, and think I don’t need my camera there won’t be anything to photograph. And almost always I see something great. I feel the twinge of regret for not being able to photograph it, but then I have to just get over myself and enjoy. It becomes an internal memory instead.

    1. What you describe is also a good training for you visual eye. You may not get the photo since you didn’t bring the camera, but you sharpen your perception. Thank you for the comment, Mary.

  7. That was a harsh reminder to truly live in the moment rather than get caught up in documenting it. I recently read the autobiography of photographer Sally Mann. She remarked that for her, having a photograph actually took away the experience itself…that the photo itself becomes the only memory, rather than her being able to recall the details and feelings of the event. It doesn’t work that way for me, actually the opposite, but I thought it was an interesting viewpoint.

    1. I think Sally Mann has a good point. The desire to photograph and experience, does take away some of the experience itself. On the other hand, when looking for something to photograph, we sharpen our visual sense and attention. So it can work both ways. 🙂

  8. A very good reminder, Otto. Everything in life is best when balanced. And balance is often a very difficult position to find. I’m glad the loss of your camera didn’t wreck this experience for you. Always learning, eh? 😉

  9. I’ve been going through all my old film shots and reliving my trips away through the photo’s, so agree with seabluelee, for me the photography and the experience are conjoined, though it never worries me to be without a camera when having a good time 🙂

  10. it seems the life of a photographer is doomed to be full of such regrets regarding magnificent photos missed… you take the picture with your eyes and it burns into your memory forever a photograph only you can see on the inside of your head… it can wrench your heart at times… that’s why i get angry at peeps who say (when i’m angry that my photoblog gets no traffic) that i should only do photography for MYSELF…. i’m thinking WHAT??? if it’s just for myself, i can take pictures with my eyes and let my heart break a little with each one.

    1. Of course no one like to live or create in a vacuum. So we want our work to be seen by others. But I still think we need to take the photos (or do any creative work) foremost for ourselves. That’s the only way it will become a personal expression. 🙂

  11. I can totally relate to this post. From past few weeks, a lot of new and fascinating birds are showing up on the trees around where I live, but I do not have a DSLR and I feel terrible that I am not able to capture them. Mobile camera is often useless when it comes to clicking birds. But then I tell myself – ‘Someday I will. For now, just enjoy watching them play.’


    1. Better to experience the moment instead of being filled with sadness because you can’t capture it, no!? And you are of course right, it’s hardly possible to capture birds we a cell phone.

  12. Sorry to hear of the loss of your camera Otto! I am always at pains, wherever I go with my camera to put taking pictures to the back of my mind until I have really taken in my location, experienced my surroundings. Only then will I think about taking out my camera. This approach I have always found leads not only to a more enjoyable day as I’ve really appreciated what it is I’ve gone to photograph but it in turn I’m sure leads to much better pictures. Happy travels Otto. Fingers crossed for no further mishaps!

  13. Oy, just reading about that sinking camera, taking two days of accomplished photos and more potential ones to the depths made my blood pressure rise. Thank bejebus you were able to take such a beautiful lesson from it and recover with such aplomb. That did more than a dose of lisinopril. (Which, if you don’t know, and I can spare you the google search I just did, is apparently a common blood pressure medicine. Thar you go.)

  14. You have traveled to some incredible places, Otto. I can understand what a loss it would be if you hadn’t realized long ago that the camera was a means to capture moments, but the joy was in fully living the experience of the travels. Still, losing a camera when you’ve been capturing those moments….Ouch! 🙂

  15. Totally agree with you, Otto. Photography, like every other art form stems from a passion for life. Art mimics life. One must learn to live and live intensely to be able to produce any kind of art. So no life, no art 🙂

  16. I am very in arrears your articles, but little by little I hope to read everything you I got lost.
    In this article you there’s a great life lesson. Thank you dear Otto!
    Greetings, Pat

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