For some, photography is memory. Photos capture images of important people and places in our lives so that later we can be reminded of them and reflect on how our lives have changed over the years. But memory lies in our minds, not in the photos. Years later, we may wonder why we took certain photos, or realize that we have forgotten who some of those smiling faces are. Photos inherited from relatives, with few or no labels to tell us who is who, are mysteries to us. In dusty boxes and albums of black-and-white (or colour) photos we see the faces of people we know to be our long-distant and deceased relations, but their names are lost. We will likely never know who they are. Memory is a tenuous thing, and is made no less so by the existence of a photograph.
For others, photography is an artistic medium, a way to communicate with others and with themselves, a way to express what cannot be said in any other way. Yet all forms of communication are flawed, just as we are. Each person who views our photos will interpret them differently. If there is a message there, it is one that is fluid and ever-changing. Once the artist is gone, we can never know for certain what his or her intent was in creating the art, in producing the photo.
For me, photography is a tool for seeing. The completed photograph itself is perhaps not as important to me as the practice of taking it. When I carry my camera outdoors with me, I automatically start to slow down, to look more closely for those small details that I love, to gaze across the landscape for that perfect vista. Photography brings me down on my knees in front of a patch of snowdrops. It makes me inch across the ground towards a butterfly sipping nectar. And it makes me stop in the middle of a path thronged with camera-toting tourists to photograph a fungus that no one else has looked twice at.
I move my camera from side to side and back and forth, zooming in and out, trying different angles. Even a small step to one side can change everything. The image hovers, elusive, on the screen, somehow never quite matching up with what I see before me, although part of the practice is seeing how close I can get it. I press the shutter button again and again, as the butterfly’s wings open and close, as the flowers sway in the breeze, as the bird hops from branch to branch, as the sun comes out from behind a cloud. Each photograph is slightly different, and the difference can be important.
I feel that the photograph is successful when I feel that I have succeeded at seeing the subject. When the photograph is unsuccessful (whether in an obvious way like being out of focus or under- or over-exposed, or in a more subtle way like being a poor choice of perspective), I feel disappointed in myself, feeling that I have missed something, that I was too hasty, that I did not take the time to see clearly enough or to make sure that the camera was capturing that sight as well as it (and I) could. Yet I know that no photo can ever fully capture a scene as I experienced it with the scent of soil in my nostrils, the moisture of the ground soaking my knees, and the cold wind creeping down my collar. And I know also that I can never fully see something, although I can, as always, keep trying to get closer.
Ironically, the camera can also get in the way of true seeing. Sometimes I realize that I have been spending more time staring at a plant or animal through the screen of my camera than I have with my own eyes. When that happens, it is time to put the camera aside for now and simply experience the world as it is. The camera, after all, is only a tool for seeing, and the true seeing happens with my eyes, mind, and heart.