Put Down the Camera

June 27, 2012
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A dramatic sunset casts a pink glow over the North Fork of Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
A dramatic sunset casts a pink glow over the North Fork of Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Whether we’re photographers or not, one thing we all want to do when we see a beautiful scene or something we’ve never seen before is to immediately capture it to have some kind of documentation, or even proof that it happened. As a result, it’s almost as if we’re not quite getting the full experience of such a scene, particularly the emotion that would otherwise infuse us with cherished memories of such a place or event. We look back at one of these photos years later not remembering the actual capturing of the image, but enjoying the fact that we saw it because it’s there in our collection, so surely we must have.

Many of us have a sort of trained mindset to always be thinking about what’s next. Usually it’s so intrusive that we’re not even aware that we’re not enjoying the present because we’re thinking about the next destination or task. This is especially evident living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, seeing and observing millions of people coming through here every year. Many see a dramatic scene either in Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park, pick up their phone or camera, capture it quickly, and move on so they can stay on schedule, choosing to admire the scene later with only one sense, when all five are eager to get involved right there. I often wonder if they even bothered to look at what it was that compelled them to pick up the camera in the first place. At what point do you finally realize that you’re always looking toward the future and never at the present? Typically it takes a scene or wildlife encounter so grand and so marvelous that it simply jerks one from that cycle. We’ve heard these referred to as transcendental experiences. Many people will cite seeing certain scenery for the first time as the reason. These are typically The Grand Canyon, The Teton Mountains, or Yosemite Valley. Perhaps it could also be witnessing a wild animal or herd of wild animals in your presence while away from your car or some form of "safe" shelter where you have no choice but to be immersed in such an event.

Photographers aren’t exempt from this syndrome either. As soon as dramatic light creeps across the clouds above, they’re (we’re, I should say) hard at work doing our best to capture every instance of it, rarely taking our eyes out of the viewfinder to admire the scene we’re so frantically trying to capture before it’s gone. Sure we have a great record of something many people don’t regularly see, but do we even really remember it, or is it just another collection of pretty shots in our archives? A person watching it from indoors over a meal has a better chance of remembering such a scene more than the photographer accurately capturing the color and drama of a spectacular sunset.

The convenience of digital has almost made us less aware of nature’s beauty because every one of us wants to show someone else what they missed. Few of us are actually capturing a scene because it moved us in some way. In order for something to move you, you have to sit with it and feel a resonance with it. Ansel Adams would sit in one place for hours admiring the view as he waited for the perfect moment to capture a few exposures.

Many of us aren’t experiencing the natural world with all of our senses anymore. We’re using just our eyes and immediately want to have the proof of being there, so we detach our senses and immediately begin working at our camera or phone having completely disconnected with the instance, our senses barely even getting to taste the sweetness of what we were just about to immerse ourselves into. Before the camera phone is even out, we’re thinking about who we can show it to on Facebook that would like it, completely disconnecting from that moment, choosing to live inside of our mind rather than through the senses. Yet it’s the senses that provide the most rewarding and memorable experiences throughout nature and even life itself.

I have countless sunsets and hikes documented throughout my archives, but it’s the ones where I didn’t even have a camera with me that really stick out. I had no choice for whatever reason but to just watch it and admire it and just take it all in. Am I saying we should stop taking photos and just stare at nature? Absolutely not. I’d be the world’s biggest hypocrite if I did so. The only reason I remember the above sunset so vividly still from nearly a year ago now is because I paused from my photography every now and then to really just admire it. I stopped and enjoyed it every now and then, seeing, smelling, breathing, and feeling the breeze of the post-thunderstorm air and listening to the birds coming back out and the water dripping from the rocks and the creek. As a result, I recommend that in between some shots, you stop and admire what it is about the scene that you truly enjoy, that really made you stop and take notice. A few deep breaths during that time will also help to clear the mind’s clutter and allow more senses to get involved. If you’re not a photographer, stop and sit with whatever the scene is that made you want to pick up your camera or phone in the first place to take a photo of it. Relax and just smile that you’re fortunate enough to see something so enjoyable. In those moments, you’re open to seeing the same scene as everyone around in a much more dramatic way and will then have much more to tell someone than "You should see this!" Instead, you’ll have a whole story just from one simple landscape.

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