Originally published at: https://naturephotographers.network/articles/take-your-bearings/
“To chart a course, one must have a direction. In reality, the eye is no better than the philosophy behind it.”~Berenice Abbott
As a child, I loved everything wild and natural. Animals, landscapes, trees, flowers, seashores, deserts, mountains—the more removed from the artificial world of humanity, the better. I spent much of my time in the fields around my home, observing lizards and insects, learning to identify flowers and birds and the cycles of nature. I read anything I could get my hands on, about natural places and things and adventures, and watched with absolute fascination the rare documentary film offered on occasion on the single channel of public TV available at the time. With the naïve imagination of a child, I dreamed of growing up to live alone in some remote jungle, picking exotic fruit from abundant trees, making friends with birds and beasts, and even learning their language. My childhood dream world was as rich and vivid and beautiful as anything you can imagine, and I was the only human being in it.
During my lifetime, human population had doubled, and wildlife population was cut in half. The correlation is not a coincidence. The trend continues and even accelerates. Numbers—empirical observations and statistical inference—tell us what so many public figures refuse to: there is no “fixing” such things as climate change, mass extinction, and so many other related threats.
I now look back across the decades at my childhood dreams with a mix of agonizing sadness and profound gratitude—sadness for all the loss and suffering, and for all the beauty never to be seen again; gratitude for what I got to see and experience, and for the life I have made for myself. The road was at times arduous and unpredictable, at times beautiful and gratifying, often uncertain, rarely easy, and yet profoundly satisfying. This is because, among so many mixed feelings I have today about the state of the world and the course of my life, one feeling is conspicuously absent: regret.
Unlike so many false prophets, I am not here to offer a message of blissful hope against the odds. I have no tips or tricks to help you find some fabled, easily-accomplished, “next level.” I am not rallying for any cause, and I have no assurances that everything will be OK. Hope is a powerful thing, but like all powerful things, it must be practiced with caution. This is because hope comes in many flavors, some beautiful and elevating, and others seductive but harmful. Of those kinds of hope to be wary of, one found in great abundance is false hope—hope for the untenable, hope that cannot be sustained without ignoring one or more inconvenient truths, hope that is not hope at all, but self-deception in disguise.
To my point here, another kind of hope to be leery of, is hope as substitute for action—hope regarding things that, even if difficult and risky at times, are within reach, but only if pursued actively rather than just hoped-for; hope that dismisses what is within reach for such rationalizations as, “someday, maybe, if.” The reason to be cautious of this kind of hope is that, if sustained for too long, waiting for some circumstances that likely (or surely) will never come, it ultimately becomes regret.
But some hope is good hope—elevating and motivating hope. In particular, there is a kind of hope that is very likely within your power to fulfill: hope for a day, after some years and decades of living, when you will look back knowing you’ve made the most of whatever gifts and opportunities came your way, whether successful or not. Where idle hope may lead to disappointment and regret, this kind of hope, which I call, “future hindsight,” often leads to pride and dignity, having proved to yourself that you are the kind of person possessing the courage and grit to remain true to who you are and to what is important and noble to you, to go about the world as you are, to persist through adversities, to embrace beauty where you find it, without cynicism and jadedness; to not shield yourself from, or numb yourself to, life’s most rewarding and rapturous offerings.
If, like me, you find meaning and purpose in things wild and natural, and are consciously resistant to such things as cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning, the conclusion is difficult to avoid: your opportunities for wild experiences are diminishing rapidly. My goal is not to discourage you, but in fact to do the opposite: to encourage you to consider that in matters having to do with wildness and natural beauty, and certainly in matters having to do with making the most of your living moments, don’t let false hope blind you to real urgency.
Should you come to this conclusion, you will find yourself at a point of decision: you may become discouraged and unmotivated; you may spend your days in jaded frustration, bemoaning your misfortunes; you may find meaning in fighting for some cause; or you may come to realize that, regardless of what the far future may hold, you still have much opportunity for beautiful, meaningful living, still available to you. There is no purpose in decrying things being lost, while failing to appreciate them while they still exist. Dare to hope for something that is neither about “winning” or “losing,” nor about platitudes and seductive impossibilities—dare to hope for something that is as noble as any cause or struggle, and that is almost certainly possible if you commit yourself to it: hope to someday take pride in having lived a fulfilling life; hope to spend as few of your conscious, living, moments as you can, feeling bored and uninspired.
I never believed in long-term plans, and have often felt grateful to my younger self for not making them—for not locking me into some preconceived course, no matter how “right” or tempting it may have seemed at the time—knowing that the person I will become in time will be wiser, more knowledgeable, and more experienced; and would appreciate as much freedom as I could leave for him to make his own choices.
Photography is among those choices that likely are as safe as any, and that have the capacity to enrich your life, but don’t take for granted that photography of natural things will, by necessity, be your creative outlet, your contribution to conservation, your vocation, something to “get you out of the house,” or any other thing. Certainly, photography can be all those things, and more, but in itself it is none of them. If such things are important to you beyond just being rationalizations for spending money on camera gear, you have to choose them, to assimilate them into your attitude toward life and photography, and to work to accomplish them.
In proclaiming such things, often people ask what’s wrong with just taking pictures? What’s wrong with photography being just a pleasant pastime? An entertaining distraction? Something to do on vacation? A means of sharing experiences with others? What’s wrong with doing the easy and obvious? These are unproductive and unnecessarily-indignant questions. It’s not about whether such things are right or wrong in the abstract, it’s about being honest with yourself about whether they are right or wrong, for you. It’s not only about the value you get from practicing photography in some ways, but also about what you may be giving up, perhaps without even knowing it, by not practicing photography in other ways.
Should you realize that just taking pictures fails to satisfy, and should you decide to find out what value there may be in pursuing photography in other, perhaps more difficult and more consequential ways, you likely will find yourself at a loss for how to get there, if only because you cannot define what “there” is. Realize that your “there” may not be like anyone else’s “there,” and that you may not know what your “there” is until you get to it. The only way forward requires not so much taking a leap of faith, but recognizing that certainty is an illusion, and that anything you do is a leap of faith. Even taking a seemingly-safe route, you still risk losing much by denying yourself opportunities.
If you wish to become a commercial photographer, a photojournalist, a conservation photographer, a social media star, or anything else—pick a direction and make a step in this direction, not with the naïve hope that you will get what you want by following your bliss, but with courage and intent, and acknowledging there may be worthier things still ahead that you did not even know to hope for. You will know you are truly following your bliss, not when you get where you thought you wanted to go, but when the following becomes the bliss; when you find satisfaction, not when some work is done, but in doing the work.
Of the many directions possible in photography, I chose photography as art. I’ll give you the sales pitch, not because I believe that art is necessarily the best or only worthy direction in photography (an admission you will rarely hear from disciples of more militant photographic factions), but because it happens to be a direction I know something about, and because it has transformed my life in ways more spectacular than I even knew to hope for. That said, I acknowledge also that living as an artist is not for everyone.
Of all the purposes that photography can serve, art is a peculiar one, and different from the others in some important ways. One distinction of photographic artists is that we are perhaps the only group not in the habit of telling those who pursue other genres, that what they do is not “real” photography. Joking aside, it is my estimate that those committed to photography as a medium for artistic expression, generally spend considerably more time and effort practicing our work and honing our knowledge and skills, than bickering about it. This is because we don’t photograph for the glory of the photographic medium, to justify our membership or ranking within some photographic tribe, or to “win” any arguments; we photograph primarily for the rewards of engaging in creative work, which amplify in direct correlation with the time, effort, and dedication we put into it.
In my way of working, making art is not the purpose of living as an artist. Rather, making art is a means of sustaining the life of an artist and reaping its great personal rewards, some of which have little-or-nothing to do with art or photography. Certainly, such rewards are not often financially-lucrative, but are nonetheless valuable. One such valuable reward is freedom. Not beholden to any “rules” of any “game,” we have the great privilege of being free to practice our work with as much seriousness and dignity we feel it deserves, and needing no other reason or justification to care deeply about what we do and why we do it.
To some, an artist is simply one who makes art. Such a definition is perfectly suitable for those satisfied with short-lived reprieves from otherwise-less-satisfying pursuits. I tried it. It bored me. To persist in photography, I needed a better reason than photography just being more enjoyable than the tolls of a high-stress job or the frustrations of rush-hour traffic. I didn’t want art as a distraction from life, I wanted a life in which such distractions are unnecessary—a life expressed in, and elevated by, art; not a life escaped from in art. As such, photography to me is a medium for creative expression—a means to an end, and not, as it is to some, a practice to engage in only within the bounds of strict commandments and under quasi-religious tenets of contrived purity. For what I’m after, photography is no more sacred a medium than poetry, dance, or sculptures carved in butter: it’s an incidental “how” that happens to be suitable to my much more important “why.”
The kind of artist I aspire to be is not just one who makes beautiful art, but one for whom beautiful art is the byproduct of a beautiful life: one who feels powerful emotions and surrenders to them without inhibition; one who cares deeply and unapologetically about things, without need to tame passion or to be concerned with the judgment of others; one moved to seek and discover novel ways of assimilating and engaging with the world; one who revels in becoming educated, knowledgeable, and skilled, not in order to compete with others but because it makes me a better artist, and the better I get at my work, the more rewarding it is to me.
My catalog of photographs is not a collection of neatly-categorized records of places, things, and events; it is my life story, in all its dimensions and nuances, encoded and expressed in visual compositions. When I survey my past work, I don’t see pictures of this or that; I relive experiences. I’m reminded of times of metaphorical, and not just literal, light and darkness; I recall sensations and thoughts and emotions; I project myself back into moments of awe; I revisit hard-won lessons and random epiphanies; I sometimes re-examine my priorities, in life and in art. Often, I don’t remember without looking, what camera I used.
My life as an artist may not be easy, but it is beautiful to me. And I get to say that with a straight face, not as a platitude but as a statement of fact. I can’t say the same about any other life I’ve had.
In a letter to his son, Sherwood Anderson wrote, “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.” If you believe the life of an artist is for you, and if your art is founded in things wild and natural, and if you are prepared for the challenges, make a step in this direction—if only in your attitude and seriousness toward your work. You may well realize some years from now that, even though you couldn’t save the world, you may have saved yourself from the abyss of drudgery, boredom, and regret.
What do you wish to do next? Whatever it is, don’t wait. Take your bearings, pick a direction, and take a step. Whatever step you take, it will put you in a better position to decide the next one. Unlike so many grandiose plans, taking just one step in the direction of your hopes, even if rife with fear and uncertainty, even at the risk of breaking with tribal allegiance, is within your power.