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.