Friday, March 22, 2013

Photographer Without a Camera

Querétaro -- There are many sayings about the fact that you don't really appreciate something until you don't have it. I've gotten a taste of that this week, but with a twist.

This is probably the first post ever on this blog to not feature photos. There is a reason for that.

At home in Mérida last week as I packed for this trip, I placed my camera in the small bag, put the spare battery on the charger and plugged it in. I didn't notice until the next day, when I pulled out the camera to record the quinceañera I was attending in Querétaro, that the battery and charger remained where I had left them back home in Mérida. In my last-minute preparations I'd left this critical equipment behind. And the battery that was in the camera was dead.

So I took no photos of the party. This was not a huge loss, because there were many others taking pictures, but it's interesting how disconcerted I was to realize I was not going to have a camera during my ten-day trip. I had planned to work on some blog posts and photo ideas while in Querétaro, and this little problem entirely changed the nature of the visit. But sitting there at the party with my dead camera, I decided to treat the situation as an opportunity.

I have always felt that the camera helps me observe. It certainly helps refresh my memory of places, people and events long after they are over or gone. I have not traveled without a camera in my entire adult life.

What I realized, on the road this week sans camera, is that in some ways having a camera makes me less observant. When I find myself paying narrowed attention to the light and color and finding interesting juxtapositions of subjects, often I get lost in my work. People may become mere elements of a composition. When I get into the flow of making photos I may miss many other things around me: sounds; smells; expressions; interactions. By focusing on images, I may not see the big picture.

I worked as a newspaper photojournalist early in my career, and the habits I developed then, as a stalker and hunter of images, persist. Although the camera can prompt keen observation of my surroundings, it also can be a barrier between me and the people I encounter. It certainly can change one's interactions with others, making an intent photographer more like a voyeur or observer than a participant in events.

This week I attended the village festival for Saint Joseph in Tenasdá, Querétaro with my longtime friend Sister Mary Jane Ranek, who is the music director of the church there. Tenasdá is a beautiful pueblo, the small church situated amidst rolling hills where pine trees contrast with rich, red soil. The church was colorfully decorated with flowers, streamers and banners. Residents of several nearby pueblos attended, bringing with them the saints from their parishes, which were lined up in front of the church and garlanded with flowers, cookies and other food. Many of the residents here are Otomí, the women in their white hats and bright traditional clothing. They were sharing their indigenous dances, which are accompanied by drum and fiddle. After the mass we all sat in the shade and enjoyed a traditional lunch of tortillas, beans, rice and chicharrón, washed down with large vats of agua de jamaica.

I was surrounded by rich subject matter for a photographer.

And what I did without a piece of technology between me and the world was to listen and observe more. I was "taking pictures with my mind," as one songwriter friend of mine used to say, knowing that I will not have digital images on my hard drive to refer to later. I used all of my senses more because I was not concentrating so much on just one. I noticed different things. I connected more with people. I felt a part of the event instead of being an observer apart.

I am missing my camera this week, and due to that in some ways I appreciate it more. But I have noticed that without the camera I am aware of my surroundings in a different way. I think I am more in touch with my environment. I am soaking up more diverse impressions, living more in the moment and not spending my time storing up images to be looked at on some future occasion.

Without my camera it's been an odd, but enlightening week. I doubt that I'll intentionally leave the camera behind in the future, but I will be more thoughtful about how and when to use it.


  1. You are correct. Cameras tend to get between me and my personal observations of the events surrounding me. When I am a shooter, I am not a participant. Cameras give me the instincts of a predator.

    But I will still use my camera. When experiencing events, I often forget them once they are over. Photographs then fill in that gap.

    1. Steve, I also will continue to use my camera, but perhaps more judiciously.

      Like you, I rely on photos to remember events. If I don't take a few pictures, most details are lost to my memory. One of the more important uses for my camera these days is to record impressions, basically notes, for future use in this blog.

    2. Interestingly, Steve, I was looking through old photos of Querétaro this morning trying to recall something. In doing so, I ran across a photo of you on our mutual friend Babs' rooftop a couple of years ago when you were visiting her and I traveled from Querétaro to San Miguel to see you both. Tomorrow I'm again taking the bus to SMA to have lunch with her.

  2. Interesting observations......Yesterday while photographing the primavera parade, I finally put my camera away and just enjoyed watching the big picture. I DID have my sunglasses on then and that hid the tears of joy
    at watching those precious, innocent children.

    Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow......

    1. And I look forward to visiting you. We'll have plenty to talk about.

  3. I have so many photos, and I rarely look at them. When Mike and I started traveling a lot, we initially took tons of pictures. As we continued, we took fewer. There was a sense of missing out on the experience as a result of being behind that tiny rectangular box. Still, it's a comfort having these archived images. Not of places, but of people. Those are the ones I look at, the faces. It's a bonus when the faces are in dramatic, glorious places. Right now, I'm wishing I'd taken more videos. I would give my right arm for a short video of Mike. Too late. The sense of having lost that opportunity ~ who knew there'd be a time limit? ~ keeps the camera in my pocket wherever I go.

  4. Interesting you should write a post on this subject.

    On my most recent visit to Mexico, I consciously decided not to bring my camera. I realized I spend more time taking pictures then enjoying the moment. It did feel strange at first to not take a picture of the "moment".
    Like you I will take my camera next time, but this experience made me more aware to just sit back and look around without jumping up to use the extra lens as often as I did. Yes, I won't have the image to go back to and look at time and time again, but the feeling of the moment will stay with me, a different positive experience for sure.

  5. So true, Marc. I myself prefer the camera only, sort of, as an afterthought. But it's wonderful for events that might evaporate momentarily, such as a cloud formation. (In fact, my personal favorite photo was taken with my iPad, because the passage of even a few moments might have disintegrated the subject matter.)

    I remember seeing someone walk into a restaurant and blatantly photograph the overview of all the diners. I could see a man's knee jerk in discomfort. Who knows? Was he supposed to be there? Or maybe he just did not want to be photographed.

    And then there is what I read many years ago about the beliefs of the local people in a part of Mexico (either Oaxaca or Chiapas) to the effect that photographing them robbed them of some of their soul. And lo and behold, when I tried to photograph the market place offerings (carefully avoiding the inclusion of people), a marketer through a piece of fruit at me anyhow!

    One thing I often do is write a quick sketch of what I want to remember, and file it away on the computer--as a memory-awakener.

  6. Interesting post. It seems like weddings these days have become more of a backdrop for various photographic exercises, both still and video, than a real celebration of a union of two people. Don't get me wrong, I love that people take pictures, and I think they're important, but it really is astonishing how many photos get taken, and how many times the wedding party has to pose for the same shots.

    As for my own photography, it's interesting. Sometimes it makes me feel more a part of something, and sometimes less. The fact of the matter is that in many places, we just can't take in the big picture because it's got too much going on, and it's too much to process. So taking a picture can help to focus on what's interesting.

    Still, this post is food for thought as I pack my camera for my next trip to Mexico tomorrow.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we keep thinking we need to get a smaller, lighter camera.

  7. I admire the beautiful and well composed photos on so many blogs and wish I could create something even close. But alas, I'm a point-and-shoot and take-pictures-in-the-moment type of photographer. Composition usually isn't anywhere on my radar. I generally only take a few photos to remember the moment.

    I think, as you so very well said, spending too much thought and time on composition can detach a person from the experience that has created the photo op. Sometimes, ignorance (in my case, not knowing how to take a "good" picture) *is* bliss.

  8. I have enjoyed your posts and the photos that accompany them. Today I saw in my minds eye, the saints displayed by the church, the hills partially hidden behind the trees that offered shade. Plates of cookies and banners slightly waving in the wind. You offered a beautiful picture with your words. Thank you.

  9. A thought-provoking post for me me, as I am probably among the more obsessive photo-documentarian travelers. I also once worked professionally as a photographer, with assignments to visually highlight events and activities. In part, I want to exercise a skill I possess. Also, as an artist, I place great value in extracting obscure visual elements I find meaningful, and bringing them to the attention out of context for the appreciation of others who may not otherwise perceive them, or experience them with the impact I felt.

    So concerned am I that I may be deprived of my photographic involvement in my surroundings, that I travel with a spare camera, and insist on owning small simple cameras that use conventional AA batteries, available in the most humble tiendita. I shoot only in the lowest web-suitable resolution, expecting that the value on my images (if any) will be ephemeral - they will be seen and appreciated (hopefully) when posted, then lost, except in my own archives, where they sometimes stir powerful memories as time passes.

    Having said all that - I find your thoughts and those of your commenters on the potential interference of camera with experience to be entirely valid...

  10. Hi Marc,
    This morning (before reading your blog post about an absent camera) I was scrolling through my image archive, amazed at how rich it is with memories. I came to realize that my own memory is rather feeble when compared to that of digital technology (or film — remember that antique product?).

    Like you, I am without camera, having dropped mine for the first time in my life. And like you, I've worked in the field for decades. Noticing how powerful the archive images where to me, I paused and reflected upon the nature of memory, which is masterfully mimicked by digits, but I suspect, falsely. Yes, the self seems to have memory. And I deeply believe we will be allowed to export some memories from this life experience, when we depart. But maybe there will be a strict limit to file size!

    The experience has helped me focus on the events around me in the NOW, rather than attempting to preserve them in such a fugitive container as a brain (if I only had one). Perhaps we're being weaned.

    An inmate, where I volunteer, at a prison in my hometown up north, taught me a short poem:

    Yesterday is history,
    Tomorrow's a mystery,
    Today is a gift,
    which is why we call it
    The Present.


  11. Very thought provoking post, especially as I am in the research mode for a new camera. Someone mentioned writing short sketches of what you are seeing. I like that idea. I have done that a few times in the past and it means having to be still and observe in a different way. Many times when I've written a sketch it ends up more like a poem.

  12. That is an interesting perspective Marc, and one that doesn't always dawn on most photographers. My husband is a photographer and for years I have felt that I usually get more out of our excursions than he, because I don't have a camera.

    I now have a small one that is always in my purse or pocket so that I can grab a picture if I think it is blog-worthy, but for the most part I prefer to go through life sans camera. For one thing, unlike you and Todd, I am not a talented photographer, but I also like to be involved with what is going on around me. Particularly since I moved to Mexico.

    Have fun in San Miguel today.

  13. Lovely post. These days I just use my phone for pictures, when I think of it and if it doesn't seem too intrusive. I find my most intense memories don't have photographs to go along with them, but I have a sharp mental picture of those moments. It's just too bad no one else can see them.

  14. I was without my camera for 2 weeks. I scrambled around, used old photos on posts and bemoaned the fact that the camera and I were separated. When I got it back I felt like a long-lost twin had been found.

    Happy Easter Marc. Let's get together soon... there are bloggers interested in a meet this fall.


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