Regretting Those Images not Captured

I don’t think I have ever regretted photos that I have actually taken. But I sure have regretted those I didn’t capture. The reasons for not taking those photos may vary. Sometimes I just didn’t have the energy to start photographing, for instance after a strenuous a hike, and sometimes it was my inner self that lost the guts to take photos, most often when I wanted to photograph people.

No matter what the reasons were, I still clearly remember those times when I thought to myself, I need to capture this moment—and didn’t.

During the passed weekend, I went through my old film archive. I wanted to clean up and get it all in better shape. One of the first shoots I came across was captured long time ago, when I still was a student—and before turning myself into a photojournalist.

It was a weekend. A good friend and I wanted to go for a hike up in the mountains on the west coast of Norway. My friend knew about a mountain farm we could stay at, beautifully situated in a lush but steep valley.

It was about a two-hour hike to get to the farm. There was no road to the place, only a steep and at places quite narrow trail. It was summer; the weekend was blessed with gorgeous weather, sun warming from a clear blue sky. The hike up to the farm was almost effortless despite the steepness and quite rough path. We arrived when the sun was about to set, everything was bathed in the golden rays of the sun. It was like a fairytale. I remember it so clearly.

At the farm lived two sisters and a brother. They were in the 70’s and had been born and lived their whole lives together at the farm. They had some sheep, a couple of horses and some other animals and made do with a very simple living. No electricity. Whatever they didn’t produce themselves they would have to carry up the same trail my friend and I had arrived by.

My friend and I had a lovely weekend with the three elderly siblings. We relaxed in the meadows and hiked up on the mountains surrounding the farm. And of course I took photos. Of the landscape, the farm itself, and some with my friend as an extra. But no, I did not photograph the two sisters and the brother. Well, I captured one photo of him from behind walking towards a shed.

Why didn’t I take any more? I was thinking about it all the time, but couldn’t muster the courage to push the camera in front of their faces. I just didn’t have the guts. Today it seems ludicrous, but then I couldn’t make myself do it, despite the fact that they were the sweetest people on earth.

To this day, I do so severely regret not having documented their lives. Today it’s history. No one, not in Norway, does farming in places without infrastructure, having to carry everything on their backs, and nothing like motorized cultivation.

In fact, I went back twelve years later with the intention to document their lives. But it was too late. By then I had established myself as a photojournalist and knew what I had missed. When I returned, a road had been built to the farm. An urbanization project was underway, new house popping up all over the valley. One sister and the brother stilled lived at the farm, now in their early 90’s. One sister had passed away. Of course, I photographed them and had a last, by lovely time with the siblings. But the historic opportunity had vanished.

So, the moral is: Don’t postpone or don’t let go of photographing when you have an opportunity. You will regret it later on.

65 thoughts on “Regretting Those Images not Captured

  1. I have a mixture of both but to me I regretted what I pictured than missing ones. That is not that I took a lot of pictures but they came out not that good 😦 (in many ways).

    Again, love both pictures of this post. The first one gives introduction into the essay and ending with another one. I would say both are quite differ in style.

  2. I really enjoy your report and photo, Otto, on a lost opportunity and the precious memories in a gorgeous place!:) I also think we used to have maybe more respect in front of certain situations or people! For me, who is not a photographer, it is important to have these precious memories ,above all, in my heart.

  3. A beautiful story, Otto with a lesson. I am glad you were able to go back for a visit, but yes, it would have been a shock to see the development that had taken place. I am also seeing the juxtaposition of youth and elder that says something about the passage of time. The light and composition are lovely.

  4. That’s a beautiful story. I guess I can relate somehow. I’m at the age when my grand-parents live this world for another (be it Heaven or memories). I discover the photos they’ve left behind, and the photos they had inherited from their parents, and grand-parents. There’s so much in these photos. They are not perfect landscapes, not perfect portraits, but pieces of life, of memories, which are somehow speaking to me in a language I can’t decipher for there’s no one to teach it to me. They’re full of life and projections. And they’re in the end so much more precious than any of the photos I have taken yet with my ridiculously expensive gear.

    I wish I had the gut to do the same: to document this life that never stops and in the end goes away. There’s a lot of beauty in our daily lives, which somehow, I guess, we can only grasp later, when the days are gone. But if you take pictures of them, then they’re never really gone. At least, they’re shelters where our memories can rest while we live and forget everything, only to come back at us as lively as ever years later, when we find the photos back.

    Thank you for sharing this here.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience with your grandparents and photos they left behind, Pierre. Beautiful. Just a thought on the not so perfect photos: I think perfect is often creating emotional distance, while the more raw direct approach grounded in authentic emotions, creates strong and appealing images. And yes, it take courage to document everyday life, but the only way to break through the wall, is to start photographing. 🙂

  5. I know what you’re saying. Sometimes I see something and think “I’ll get that on the way back.” But on the way back the light is never the same, and I know that. Now days I have often turned around and gone back for the shot. But people? I’m still scared to shoot people when they know I’m doing it and I have lost many wonderful opportunities because of that fear.

    1. That’s good thinking, when you go back and get the shot before it’s too late. As for photographing people, it is indeed intimidating, but there is no way around it but to start photographing them. 🙂

  6. I can see both sides of the question. On the one hand, especially when photographing strangers, it can be awkward. Is it worth it? From what you described, I suspect if you asked nicely they’d be cool with it. On the other hand, it can be nice to put down the mechanical camera and simply take a mental picture. It sounds like you’ve done that, and still get enjoyment from the scene.

    Nice pics, BTW.

    1. You point to something important, and that is that a photograph of the experience cannot substitute the experience itself. Sometimes we forget that. At the same time, as I just wrote in another comment, there is no contradiction between experiencing and photographing. Personally, I find that photographing enhances the experience as I get more sensitive of and more sensible to the experience.

    1. In this case, I wouldn’t have intruded. I was there, with the siblings, and could easily have photographed them without creating any awkward or insensible moments. If I had only dared…

  7. A faint smile on my face, and a tear or two. Memories are like that. At least mine – “why didn’t I…” These two are magical photos – even without the story. But the story is magical in itself. And we should all learn from it, because we all have such moments, big or small, and we never learn enough… With age I have become less open and eager, and with the corona pandemic, I am sometimes apathetic. Hopefully spring will trigger me again.
    Thank you for your always interesting contemplations, Otto. ♥

    1. And thank you for the lovely comment, Ann-Christine. I have turned in the other direction than you. As I have gotten older, I have become more open and eager. But, yes, the pandemic do put restrictions on us all. Like you, I hope when summer comes, things will slowly be getting better.

  8. What an amazing experience. That first photo captures the “magic” of the place you wrote of. My imagination can actually visualize the siblings there being exactly how you describe. Perhaps, the photos you did not capture are there after all.

    1. That would be cool, if you can visualize the photos I didn’t take. I sure can, but after all, I was there. I still wish I had captured some real photos, nevertheless…

  9. Most of my regrets like that, among the many regrets I have all told, and relate to friends of whom I wish I had pictures. In a way that is very similar to your wish. I am not much for photographing people and often don’t think to do it. But a few friends from my past have passed on and the opportunity will never be repeated. And there are also images I wish I had stopped for, as in your example, where I was tired, lacking motivation, or told myself to keep going and I’ll stop on the way back but the light changed or I just plain forgot. So yes! Make the image so you won’t be sorry later.

    1. Sometimes the chances just doesn’t come back, such as when people pass on or light changes or the place is different. As we get older, I think we may have more of those regrets, exactly because friends and acquaintances will pass on.

  10. It happened to me several times that I was unable to take a picture and then I regretted it. Sometimes it happened because unfortunately I didn’t have a camera with me.
    But the photo you took of your friend is great. At a different time I think you would also have had the courage to take the picture of the three brothers, probably if it had happened after a few years, when shame wouldn’t have stopped you and surely they would have been beautiful.
    Thanks for this nice memory.
    A big hello, Patrizia

  11. Maybe there can be some solace to know that we are who we are at any given moment, and that decisions made are for that exact reason. To have regrets or want to change something from the past is to wish we were different than we were. The fact you remember and tell this story is a testament to how much of an impact the farm and the three siblings made on you. That’s good enough maybe? Thank you for the beautiful images…and equally beautiful story 🙂

    1. No, it doesn’t change anything, and the memory is good, no doubt. However, when I say regret, it’s not really about changing the passed, which is impossible as you point out, but trying to learn next time something like this happens again. 🙂

  12. wow, Otto, that almost made me cry….. what a poignant lesson to teach us xoxoxoxoxxox

  13. What an interesting story from your experience, Otto, and you have really made me think. I relate some of your regrets to what I at times feel when I think of people I have known and lost, and then regret the things left unsaid or questions not asked. We can learn from our regrets, and they serve us in that way. I was very touched by this share, my friend.

      1. I do agree, Otto! It’s an encouragement to be more introspective regarding things that haven’t gone well in the past!

  14. My wife still kids me about my not taking a photo of a small toucan in Mexico. It had landed on an outdoor dining table, where others said it visited every day. I enjoyed my food and beer and said I’d take a shot another day. Never did see that bird again. I’m sure we all got even more precious moments that we let get away. The memories will have to do.
    Art

  15. What a wonderful memory of a special weekend. The photo that you captured is wonderful and authentic. I love the brother’s dress and his position in the beautiful composition. The main elements are juxtaposed in a way that carries my eye through the scene. I guess we all have experienced missed opportunities and it is a good reminder to just ‘go for it’ to avoid regrets.

  16. I learned photoshooting in my childhood. Later I practiced. Not professionally like you. Then on the eve of 21st century in a restaurant, someone took my camera. Maybe one day I will restart again. Nice work, Otto

  17. I do understand but at least you have the memory. And the lesson. And perhaps at the time you were simply savouring the moment.

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