Miracle People

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved to take photographs. I remember carrying my Kodak disposable camera through Magic Kingdom in Disney World, the excitement of getting the film developed, finally seeing the pictures I took and marveling at the sudden tangibility of a moment already passed. The first time I got a digital camera, I made my Barbie dolls into models, draped their waxy blonde hair down their slender shoulders and slipped their tiny plastic feet into hot pink pumps. I followed my family around the house and bombarded them with camera clicks, played a syncopated beat with the capture button and counted the beats with the pictures I took. I locked my cat in my room, draped her in feathered boas, topped her head with oversized hats, forced sunglasses over her eyes, and played paparazzi. I cast lightning bolt flashes all over the bedroom until she learned to love the camera.

My camera became a second pair of eyes; I took it with me everywhere, always afraid my memory card would miss a moment. It was better than any toy or Barbie doll, better than any board game or movie. With a button and a screen, I could capture thousands of realities and pick my favorite ones to keep forever.

When I grew old enough to think realistically about my future, I picked up my camera and imagined a potential career: taking photographs for a living. From then on, I started playing with angles and flashes. I strayed from auto shooting and began manipulating the scenes in front of me. But still, I was only taking pictures. I was only freezing moments in time and brightening them on my computer. It felt more like routine, and less like art.

At thirteen I received an opportunity to travel to Europe with a teacher and a few students. My parents stayed home while I walked the streets of Florence, flowed down the Seine River, wandered a maze of art pieces in the Louvre, gawked at the Vatican churches, and stepped back in time in Pompeii. At thirteen I witnessed hundreds of worlds and cultures different than my own. I learned that language is a symphony of communication; I learned that art is emotion in different colors; I learned that people are more beautiful than any museum piece; and I learned that I wanted to spend my life learning. Photography became a way to make that happen.

No longer a routine, I saw something beautiful through my lens. I saw smiles tell stories of success and frowns tell stories of growth. I saw locals breathing life into statues on the street. I saw starving artists grinning wide at young admirers’ sloppy Italian compliments. I saw tiny pale faced boys tossing coins into flowing fountains and squeezing their eyes shut until they knew their wishes were cast into the bright blue water. People became portraits of emotion instead of skin and bones. I decided that I wanted the world to see what I see when I look at a person’s face—I wanted the world to see each other as miracles.

 

Hating Photography

Last spring I went to see my favorite band in Brussels, Belgium. It was a great experience to see an American band perform in a different continent at a very strange venue with a whole crowd of Europeans. It was easily the best concert I’ve been to, and one of my best experiences while studying abroad.

When I returned to Florence shared my weekend adventure with my photography class, my professor asked, “Did you bring your camera?”

Photographers can’t enjoy anything. We train ourselves to obsess over light and colors, over lines and shapes. We watch from shadows, silent and invisible, tracking like spies with our viewfinders. We think in shutter speed and f-stops, always balancing exposures in our heads, metering too loud to hear ourselves think.

Had I brought my camera to the concert, I would not have felt the bass, the drum beat, the rhythm and the flow of the guitar pulsing through the blue and green lights. I would not have felt the sweat from the wave of strangers all dancing together. I would not have lost my voice from screaming the words I used to sing out my car window on sticky July evenings.

Had I brought my camera, I might have snagged a shot of fog washed in green light, a greasy haired singer open-mouthed behind a microphone, energy in a single moment. I might have gotten that shot, but instead, I got to live it.

The problem with all art is that we make it our single identity. We dedicate our lives to learning the skill, perfecting the craft, and we give ourselves nothing in return. So many photographers live their entire lives loving nothing else besides their cameras.

My problem is not that I hate photography: I hate singularity. I hate being only one thing, having only one identity. Sure, I have spent my fair share of golden hours clicking away at subjects and ignoring the warmth on my skin, the breeze through my hair. I have stealthed through shadows at parties capturing laughter rather than sharing it. I have made sacrifices for my photos, and I have never regretted it. But I also know when it is time to put down the camera and just simply enjoy.

Photography is a language, an art form, and a virus. It has a nasty way of gripping at your core, of washing over you and never letting go. Those chosen ones blessed by the sickness get to see beauty everywhere they go, but they never get the chance to feel it. They are always on the edge of the moments, never in them.

When I talk to so many of my photographer peers, I feel bored. I so rarely hear them talk about hobbies or interests or even friends. Of course I admire their dedication, but so many photographers are cold, unfeeling robots programmed to click and capture.

My favorite photographer is Patrick Joust, a Baltimore-based film-photographer who is a librarian first and a photographer second. Because he splits his time between two professions, because he has multiple identities, because he sees the world as a human first and a photographer second, his work is honest and subtle. It is simple and emotional. Joust knows how to live, not just how to record.

I think of myself as a woman. A bisexual feminist who loves fire and hates dust. I am a poet, a daughter, a sister, a scholar, an artist, a cat-lover, and a coffee-drinker. I am all of these things, and all of these things combine to make me a human who happens to love making photographs.

Storytelling is Timeless

Before cameras, before newspapers, before journalists themselves, a different mode of communication existed. Not just in the form of anecdotes told by parents to calm their restless children before bed, but around bonfires, between the shelves of libraries. Legends, of heroes, of epic journeys, of comedy and of tragedy, all passed down through generations to tell the tales of those who walked before us.

We photographers hold no monopoly on storytelling.

Though most photographers do not claim to be the sole experts in the craft of the story, many carry a special side of arrogance in their camera bags. Photographers believe they are the torchbearers of a modern era in storytelling – that some prophetic god bestowed upon them the power of Composition to single-handedly document the world through a viewfinder.

I am no exception. In fact what drew me to photojournalism in the first place was the faultless blend of my two loves: photography and storytelling.

Before I ever picked up a camera, I picked up a pen. I climbed trees in the springtime and stayed nestled between the branches until I had successfully filled every page of a journal with stories. I read poems to my parents in the backyard. I took walks over dead leaves in autumn and wrote down words like crunch and crisp.

Somewhere in the last two years, that little girl who used to hide in trees and read dictionaries for fun lost herself behind ISO, f-stops and shutter speed. When learning the mechanics and the practicalities of photography, the art often finds itself shoved to the side while the numbers and figures and histograms take the spotlight.

Since my first photography class here at Kent State, I have become a developed photographer with exceptional technical skill. I learned to shoot in manual mode, learned the differences between lenses and have sold my soul to Lightroom. In doing so, I have also lost my passion – my voice.

I fear that photography nowadays is only ever judged on its ability to shock. Who can get to the crime scene first? Who can snap the most heart-wrenching portrait of a starving child? Who can walk with the ranks and show us what war really means? Of course all of these images hold a level of importance, but photographers are not merely record keepers. We do not exist only to incite discomfort. We must first understand ourselves as artists and as creatives. We must employ empathy and listen as much as we watch.

I am tired of being a photographer first and a storyteller second. More and more, I long for my pen, my journal and the tallest tree I can find. When I march out of this institution with four years of education behind me, I do not want to be another news-hungry photographer. I want to be loud and passionate. I want to be armed with three things: a camera, a pen and a great big torch billowing with the proud flame cultivated by the tradition of genuine storytelling.