Travel Tips: A Thirst to See
Updated: Jan 25, 2018
A bit of a retrospective on what photography has meant to me this past year.
I know, I know, “Another anticipation blog???” Yeah. But this one will be mostly short.
I’ve just been thinking about something a lot. I’m going to Japan. In a couple days. By myself.
That would have been crazy for me to think of a year ago. I wouldn’t have done it. I would have gone, “Well, no one wants to go with me, so I guess I won’t go.” It’s like how people think of going to the movies by themselves. It’s just not a thing people want to do.
So what happened? In a word: photography.
I’ve always been a one art man. I was a writer. That was my whole identity. And while I’ve always imagined traveling all over, writing stories of my experiences, I’ve never really done it. But when I think about it, I’ve always wanted to be a travel writer. Not, like, your normal, "I'm going to make you really jealous you're not here," kind of travel writer, but rather in the same literary vein as Hunter S Thompson... but with like, slightly less drugs. I dreamed of having weird and deranged adventures like in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with my best friend Revi. We used to quote it, driving around in the desert as kids, yelling, "We can't stop here, man... This is BAT country."
And while we had some pretty odd, mini-adventures, there was nothing that really scratched the itch I had. And as I got older and fatter and that dream started to slowly become covered with whatever dust (or ashes) makes our dreams fade away over time, that thought became less and less likely.
My traveling partners got married and settled down (or just lost the nerve), and I was worn down by the struggle and fatigue of the constant day to day.
Maybe I just got my heart broken one too many times, but I just stalled out. I stopped writing. I stopped taking care of my body. My depression became so strong, I could actually feel it, as it it was taking up physical space in my head. Some kind of essential ingredient that I needed to make me ME just wasn't there.
I got into photography because I missed someone who was into film photography. It may sound weird, but one of the things that I do when I’m heartbroken is that I tend to adopt some of the qualities of the person I am heartbroken over. In this way, they’re never really apart from me and I can move on. I found my stepdad’s old film Canon AE-1 Program in the garage while helping my parents move, and weirdly, it was the same camera this person had.
So, I started taking photos with it.
I can’t explain why I liked it so much. In a lot of ways, it was really frustrating. I'd shoot four rolls of film, thinking I got all these good shots, only to discover I'd loaded the film wrong and completely wasted them. Or shots were blurry because I couldn't tell if they were in focus when I was shooting them. Or the shutter would stick open on my 30 year old camera and half of the shots would just be over exposed white rectangles.
But in a lot of the ways, it reminded me a lot of writing. Photography, especially manual film photography, is all about telling a story. It’s about perspective, and noticing key details, and choosing what to focus on and what not to focus on. Also, there's a drafting process involved, especially with film. When you shoot film photography, there's an agonizing waiting period where you're waiting to see your shots. And when you finally get them back and they're not how you hoped, you really take that to heart and think, and rethink how you're going to do it better next time. I also write down my shoot settings, so I can really reflect on what I did wrong.
I've even gone back to places I've taken shots that I messed up and retaken them with the lessons I took to heart the first time. Consider the three shots below of Death Valley, taken a year apart. In the first one, I got impatient for the light to come because there was a lot of places I wanted to photograph, so instead of waiting patiently for the right shot, I took a poorly lit shot and drove off to the next place (where I also didn't get a good shot.) In the one after, I waited for an hour and a half in crazy high winds until the lighting was just right, and I got a much more dynamic, dramatic shot.
From April 2016. I knew I had a good shot framed, but it's ultimately boring and dim.
From April 2017. I came better prepared, waited for the light to be right for 90 minutes, and used a special film for a unique look.
But photography is different from writing in that it’s quick and you could do it on the move. I needed that, because as I was developing into a teacher, I didn’t have the time to sit down and write. But I could take 1/60th of a second out of my day to take a photograph.
And as I started to do it more, I started seeing more. My eyes became sharper. And I also developed a thirst to see more that just what was around me. From the very beginning, before I bought any other cameras, I’d pack my dog and some gear in the car and drive somewhere to take photos.
I can’t tell you why going somewhere to take a photo drives me to get out of bed when I feel sad and weary. Or why I get a rush from making something that didn't exist before. Or why I can’t just go and have an adventure on my own, without the distraction of the camera.
In a way, I think having the camera to act as a buffer creates a comfort zone between myself and the environment I'n in. It gives me a social purpose to focus on, so I’m not just milling about aimlessly wondering what I'm supposed to be doing or what social norms I'm breaking.
But saying that photography is just a security blanket would be not giving this devil it's due. In a way, photography has opened my mind to something that I never really realized art can be. Not just a way of seeing the world, but inspiration for getting out and seeing more of it.
And that's what I'm doing now, camera in tow, along with my trusty Moleskin notebook and pen.
It's re-awoken my thirst to see more, to look past barriers, to break down walls, to reach out and connect with strangers, friends, and family and say, "I love you," in a way that I've always been too afraid to say in words.
And I think, if I didn't have a camera in my hand, instead of setting sail to a country I've always dreamed of visiting, I'd be sitting around in my apartment feeling sorry for myself.
And that's made all the difference.