The one that got away
The way photography is sometimes described is reminiscent of hunting. We shoot photos, we go out to a photo shoot. We load film (or memory cards), we aim our cameras, we fire shots, we fire our flash guns. There is even a book about photography called The Great Picture Hunt.
Why could this be so?
Taking photos can be considered a way of appropriating that of which a photograph is taken. Hans Aarsman, a Dutch photographer, upon confronted with the need to move to a smaller apartment, decided to photograph the objects for which he no longer had room in his new dwelling. The photographs served as a substitute for still owning the objects.
Some people belief that the very act of taking a photograph takes a part of somebody’s spirit or soul. This belief is very common in South American countries such as Peru and Bolivia. In some Asian countries, it is forbidden to take photos of spiritual places, for the very same reasons.
Hunting also may well be about the act of ownership: you shoot something, you own it. It no longer has an independent existence. In fact, by shooting it, you have ended its existence. As photographers, we shoot a scene and give it an existence, independent of its original context. We show it to other people and say: “Here, look at this, this is what I saw”. In a way, we have become owner of the original scene, at least of our impression of it.
Once, during a photographic trip into the Badlands of South Dakota, I met a deer hunter at an overlook. We had both stopped there for separate reasons. I was there to shoot the sunrise, he was there to shoot white tailed deer. We talked a little about our respective professions and he shared with me the hunter’s wisdom of sometimes letting your target get away. It means aiming your gun, having your finger on the trigger and exercising the choice of NOT pulling it. It serves to make you acutely aware of the choices you have as hunter.
What is the result? An empty wall? After all, a hunter’s prowess may be measured by the number of antlers he has on his wall, or the density of the animal skin carpets on the floor. Equally, the photographer’s proof of skill may be in the number of photographs she takes. When confronted with the question “Did you have a beautiful trip?” many people still answer “Yes, I took over 3000 photos!”.
The photograph you produce partially serves as ‘proof that you saw something’, that you know ‘how to take great photos’. When you do not take a photograph, there is no trophy, no proof of your seeing, of your photographic skill.
Similar to the deer hunter, we may choose to let a photo “get away”. This can serve as an exercise in freedom, an exercise in pure seeing. “Yes, I saw that, and yes, I can see it again.” All great photography starts with that.