When I was small, there was this old man that always carried a huge camera wherever he went. A black body, with a huge lens protruding out of the square box, and a little flash light mounted on it. And over his shoulders, was another huge backpack that could hide a corpse.
Wherever he went, that camera of his would be in his hands. Without warning, he would immediately drop to a knee, elbow resting on it, camera adjusted to the side with the other hand, and snap, a flash of light, the click of the button and the snap of the shutter meant another photo taken. Standing up slowly, he’d peer into the little LCD screen behind the camera and review the shot he just took. Sometimes he would frown and mumble to himself – probably scolding himself for being so silly to not take a better shot – but more often than what I could remember, he was smiling.
Growing up in the digital age, I slowly saw friends carrying cameras around wherever they go. Those that they could put in their purse or pockets are often small, slim, and nice to look at. The ladies had those ‘sexy’ looking cameras that were red or blue, the boys had the black ‘macho’ ones that they kept in their pockets.
The senior however always had his old camera. Funny, I once asked myself. How is it that he never bothers to change the camera he’s using? I’m sure there would be better ones available in the market.
One day I had such an opportunity to pop such a question to him. Pulling a chair nearby, he gently grabbed me in his strong arms, sat down and put me on his lap. He looked down at me, allowing me to gaze into his eyes. Sparkling, unspoken and yet so full of words.
“Do you like to take photos, son?”
I do, sir. Just that I never had a camera in my hands.
Still smiling, he put his camera in my hands. I fumbled with it, worried that I might end up dropping it, grabbed it the way I’d hold an oversized watermelon.
“Could you do anything with it?”
Frowning, I tried to figure out which was the button to capture photos. I peeked into the lens, but I couldn’t see a single thing other than black. I looked up, confused, bedazzled, perplexed. It’s too complicated, I’m sorry. I guess a simpler camera would be great.
Taking the camera away from me and slinging it over his shoulder, he let out a deep breath, reminding me of my father when he was about to launch a power-packed oral lashing.
“Do you know why I like to take photos?” Because it’s your hobby? Your job? Because you have a good camera?
Old man laughed at my response. Looking back then, I realized how childish and innocent my answer was.
“Because it’s an opportunity. A chance.”
A chance? I thought anyone just needed a camera to be able to take photos.
He pulled out a huge book from his backpack and placed it over my lap. Opening the book, he told me all about his journey, his life, his travel, his adventures. Piece after piece of photography, compiled and indexed properly. As he turned the pages, he pointed to a photograph and started telling me the story behind that photo. Just like a grandfather telling his grandson his war stories. Or a father exploring the soil together with his toddler in the garden.
“Hey,” he stopped abruptly. “Look who’s this?” his finger rested on a photo.
That’s me! I squealed in delight. An ice-cream in my hands, I was looking so intently at it though it was already in my mouth halfway. But I didn’t even see you taking the photo of me….
“That’s what a good photographer can do. Taking photos of people while they don’t notice.
“The natural is the most beautiful, son.”
Putting the book aside, he turned me around to face him. “How would your friends take photos? Get around, sit nicely, adjust their shirts, and smile into the camera while the light flashes at them?” I nodded. That’s the way everyone take photos.
He shook his head slowly. “That’s called posing. A posing photo has no value in it.”
A good cameraman stops neither time nor the event to capture a good photograph. He captures the best motion, the best person from the best angle. After all, he’s telling a good story.
Look look, he hushed excitedly. A few birds gathered round the floor and pecked around, looking for worms. Could I possibly ask those birds to stop, pose and look into the camera? Would you teach them English to take a nice photo?
A small boy’s giggle.
The best photographs in the world, he said, are never about people posing or looking into a camera. The best photos capture people in action, capture events that happen, capture amazing scenes, and eventually tell a story.
A story. A lovely and beautiful story.
Son, he finally said, a cameraman, a photographer, or a person that holds a camera in his hand, is given a great responsibility, a great commission. He is responsible to not just take a photo, but to capture time. He is commissioned to not merely shooting a scene, but to record history.
“And the most important thing,” he paused to emphasize on the words he intended to say next, “a photographer brings the best out of people.” Regardless of whether it’s a good or bad person, doesn’t matter whether it’s a beautiful or ugly scene, not important whether it’s a big or small occasion. Even the least significant thing has a story to tell. Even an ordinarily looking person could make a difference.
“You have been given the task of bringing the best out of the worst.”
Haven’t you realized that I would be spending most of my time adjusting my camera lens, fixing my tripod, walking around before I take a photo? Don’t you remember the time I had to lie down on my back and slowly move my camera so I wouldn’t scare the birds away? Oh, the time I had to climb up a tree and drop my camera with a line to snap a photo of a woodpecker?
I laughed again. Yes, I remember. You looked so funny on that tree, just like a cat trying to catch a bird.
And he joined me in laughter. Really? Did I look stupid?
Haha… a little… Old man, won't it get tiring doing what you do?
He only smiled. His eyes sparkled again. “It’s always tiring. Always, son.”
Then why do you still do it?
“Because with great responsibility comes great effort. That’s the extra mile that you would have to go through in order to bring the best out of people.”
Suddenly a thought came into my mind. Deciding to speak out my mind, I asked him, doesn’t that mean that you would never be in the photos? You can’t possibly take photos of yourself, right?
Yes, I would never be in the photos, he said. Yes, I can’t possibly take photos of myself yet. But who is more important? The one that hears a story, the one that makes a story, or the one that writes down the story?
Stuffing my little finger into my mouth, I thought for a while. Spinning quickly, I decided to say, the last one.
“Exactly. And that’s who we are.”
Then why would you use an old camera? Aren’t there better cameras for you to use? Is it that you can’t afford it?
Laughing. Silly boy, why couldn’t I afford a new camera?
I blushed, feeling shy at the stupidity of my question. “A camera is a tool. It only helps the one that holds it, to tell another story. Even if you have the most expensive camera in the world and yet can’t take a good photo, will it be better than having an old one that tells a fantastic story?”
I learn to be faithful to with what I have, son. I learn to make the best with all that I have.
Satisfied with the answers I heard, I jumped off his lap and was about to run home and bug my parents to get me a camera when one last question came into my mind.
“Sir, do you have a photo of yourself?”
That smile, in response, spoke louder than words.
“No one forgets the story of the storyteller, and no one needs a photo of the photographer. People just won’t forget.”
And till this day, even after taking the best photos of God’s and Man’s creation, I could clearly remember that smile on his face, that one morning many many years ago, when he told me the story of being a storyteller.