I only recently read Susan Sontag’s photography writings. She wrote some fairly cynical words about photography that seem just as relevant today and although are quite negative (no pun) towards the photographer and photographs, some of what she says makes very truthful reading.
She sees the camera as almost a shield that can be hidden behind when we are in new and unusual situations. She says ‘The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.’
I would not be so harsh about the camera although it is quite frightening how the digital age has meant that so many images of the same sight or places are floating around the world in albums, on-line and anywhere else.
I try to keep a good balance when I am in a new place and sometimes have to force myself not to just see everything as another thing to photograph. I know when you reach somewhere new and you have the camera around your neck you see stuff and the first thing that you think is ‘that would make a good picture’ or ‘can this be a good shot’ or ‘is the light good enough to take a picture here’. It becomes about recording and maybe you are diluting the experience by not simply taking in the atmosphere and seeing it with your own eyes and not through the lens. Again though, I suppose the camera is there so you can take pictures to share the experience. It is all about the balance. I would hate to think I was hiding behind my camera.
This was tested recently on a trip.
I forgot to pack my charger so the last day of the holiday I was without camera. I wailed and moaned as though it was the end of the world that I would have to go out and about with one less thing in my bag (which actually was one bonus as my bag was lighter for the day though my camera is not hugely heavy!) ‘I bet I see loads of stuff to take pictures of’ I grumbled ‘It’s Sod’s Law!’
True enough, it was a pleasant August day with pale fields and high skies as we drove through the countryside along the coastal route and ended up in a place called Seahouses. Before getting there I had imagined a pretty little stretch of the coast sporting a line of colourful beach huts thus the reason for its name.
Nothing like that. We ended up in a cheerful harbour where load of boat trips were whizzing out to the Farne Islands to see the sea life and lighthouse. We booked a boat trip with the only one that actually visited the lighthouse (the one of Grace Darling fame) and then sat and waited in the busy harbour area and did a little people watching.
Okay, so I kept seeing photographic moments.. birds on the rocks that people were throwing chips down to, people walking by adjusting their outfits to the unexpectedly hot sun,family groups with excited children,couples with backpacks, every type hanging around buying ice creams and getting on and off the boats. I could have been clicking away but instead I ate a sausage roll and watched the world go by.
Next was the actual boat trip. We queued up with an interesting array of people and waited to climb down some steep concrete steps to the waiting craft below, a rather small vulnerable looking bit of transport that we were getting on to. Dogs were allowed too. One elderly couple had trouble convincing their dog to get on and they said he had never been on water before. They lifted him and in the process the old man’s sunglasses were knocked off his nose and fell into the water in between the boat and the harbour wall irretrievably. Another younger couple had two big golden labradors that bounded on to the boat, as well as their young golden-haired son who got far less attention than the dogs did.
We zipped out of the harbour and headed across the choppy waters with the skipper and his handy sidekick updating us as we went along. We were facing the wrong way so traveling backwards sitting on the bench at the front of the boat. I people watched and seabird watched and as we approached the islands we saw seals. Endless seals basking on the rocks, sliding into the water and swimming with their smiling heads bobbing about in the waves. I couldn’t help it , I said the sentence ‘I wish I had my camera’. Other passengers were snapping away and I sat sulkily and looked at everything. I was by no means fed up but it was a strange experience seeing so much with such intensity and watching other people frame shots( although there was not that many photographers.) A family group sat near and they just enjoyed the sights and laughed as the water splashed over the side of the boat and squealed when they saw seals. I became like them and enjoyed the moments. It was absolutely fine.
We stopped on the lighthouse island for 30 minutes. A huge isolated structure in red and white that in the times of Grace Darling must have been pretty bleak. By now the sun had gone and it was a little greyer. Some seals were sitting on the rocks so close and posing for the best shots ever. Whilst some visitors went up into the lighthouse I sat on the island (nursing a sprained ankle from a couple of weeks before).
I was so lucky. Across the water a few yards away a female ochre coloured seal sat on the rocks tauntingly sunbathing and a couple of males swam in the clear water below her. I was happy just to sit and watch and determinedly to not bewail my lack of photographic equipment. I was sitting near a helicopter pad where one other lady and her dog stood filming the scene. The huge lighthouse structure loomed up behind me with all its history and dramatic stories. I was contented.
I was perfectly happy to sit and watch and not record, but only in my mind’s eye. I listened and looked and overdosed my senses.
I had survived without my camera. Okay, that is a bit dramatic but I wonder if the fact I was using my camera eye but not having the actual camera was making the experience more intense, more memorable.
I suppose if I had been able to charge up my camera and take pictures I could back up this prose with evidence. As it is, the all the snapshots stay in my head. Although i will contradict that now with a picture taken at the time on a phone….
My picture was taken from the top of the lighthouse ..I am sitting on the white concrete and the golden seal is across on the rocks….. (if you click on the picture and zoom in you can just about see the seal on the rocks and one in the water!)