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.