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I’ve Seen So Much of My World This Year

Without the ability to travel, it’s just been me and my camera. Turns out, that’s enough to see a lot.

Steve Burgess 23 Jun 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

The 1981 film My Dinner with Andre features actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. Not to be confused with the thematically similar Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, My Dinner with Andre shows its two stars having dinner in a fancy restaurant and talking about life.

On a list of the all-time great action movies, it ranks somewhere outside the top four million. Regardless, it’s a classic. The dinner conversation is wide-ranging, but general themes emerge. Gregory’s character has travelled the globe in search of meaning and sensation and has found them in various locales, forms and sometimes-bizarre rituals. Shawn’s character is more domestic — he argues that meaning is to be found anywhere, frequently near at hand. In effect, both men are talking about ways of seeing the world.

What are our ways of seeing the world? Global travel is still not an option, so the most obvious method is closed to us. But as Shawn says, seeing the world can simply mean seeing. Photography can do that for you. Carrying my camera wherever I go has taught me to see my world differently.

This is true not in some deep philosophical sense, but as a practical matter. Anyone who searches, whether for rock formations or empty cans, comes to look at the world in a particular way. I look for good photographs. Having learned what to look for over the years (and different photographers will look for different things), I am constantly scanning for the right elements. It’s rarely a matter of seeing the photo immediately — it’s more about seeking potential. Photographers are painters who must go out and search for paints, sometimes sitting and waiting for them until their butts ache.

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The idea that a camera lens is a magical prism that reveals new dimensions may seem dubious in the face of what you typically see of public photography. The instagrammers you encounter around town do not seem to be engaging profoundly with their surroundings. Quite the opposite.

Photography as widely practised can seem like a substitute for living. Rather than appreciate the place where you are standing, you record it and post it online to prove you were there. Carl Jung once said: “One of the main functions of organized religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God.” Similarly, photography sometimes seems to be a way to remove one’s self from experience, to stick a pin through the moment and file it away for later observation.

I can only speak from my personal experience, but photography works differently for me. Like many mildly obsessive types, I tend to be goal oriented. It’s both blessing and curse, the latter because I am almost incapable of going for a simple bike ride. I must at least be able to fool myself into thinking I have a goal of some sort, or I just can’t start. Likewise, an enchanting field of wildflowers might seem like a patch of paradise. But why stop to admire them? What’s the point, wastrel? What would you be accomplishing, fool?

Simple, I tell the nagging voice — I am taking pictures. Ah, it replies. Carry on, then. And I am free to spend happy hours pursuing bumblebees through buttercups or clambering over slippery rocks at ebb tide, my reproachful brain now quiet and content. It’s meditation with photo equipment.

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I confess it can get a little depressing when I ponder the lack of more tangible rewards. I have sold photos, never enough to make a serious dent in the rent, but at least enough to offer a sense of validation of my efforts. Still, if one thinks too practically it can lead to frustration. All these photos, of which I am sometimes very proud, and for what? A brief appearance on Facebook or Twitter, then to vanish into the cavernous depths of my computer. After all, everyone has a camera. Everyone takes photos. Few people want someone else’s.

It seems to be another of those pesky life lessons. Just as photography tricks my goal-oriented brain into suspending judgement, I must remember that the process of creation is its own reward. The hours spent among the buttercups are as important as the photos that result.

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And photography truly can lead to alternate dimensions. All winter I was awaiting my chance to return to a certain destination — one that I pass on my bike on a regular basis. It’s a little clearing on the west side of Stanley Park Drive, on the downhill toward Ferguson Point. Last summer when the daisies were in bloom I watched through my Olympus OM-D, fascinated and horrified, as a goldenrod crab spider ambushed an unsuspecting honeybee. I biked past the spot just last night and saw the daisy buds are up again — battle is ready to be rejoined.

But perhaps this summer my camera and I will be somewhere else. There’s always a new universe popping up in some obscure little patch of grass.  [Tyee]

Read more: Travel, Art

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