Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Photographer 2 - Stop, Look, and Smile

Just a few days ago, I was surprised and completely elated to meet the old photographer. I was amazed that he hasn’t changed much since the last time we met, which was almost a decade ago? And the best part of all, was that he never did forget me.

“Come young man,” he motioned for me to join him for lunch. “I’d better not get too used to calling you little boy, can I?”

Very quickly we exchanged words and caught up a little with each other. Oh you’re now in college? That’s fast.. Haha.. yup.. going to be a doctor.. Why on earth would you want to be a doctor? I thought all this while your only passion was about shooting pretty girls passing by.. Hey! What do you mean by that? Haha..

He took a sip of his black coffee. Putting down the cup gently, he asked, “Could I have a look at some of your photos?”

I so happened to walked back to my hostel with the camera in my hand. Earlier on there was a major function in college that I was covering. Sure! Why not? Do comment and advice me.

He took hold of my camera firmly and familiarly switched it on and looked into the pictures. His eyes screened through the pictures swiftly but carefully. Without missing a single detail about texture and lighting, we discussed the technicalities of the photos I shot. Flash angle wasn’t too good over here young man.. you could have tilted it a little more to avoid the obstruction on the ceiling.. why did you use low aperture and low shuttle speed? Goodness..

The old man was witty and was taking swipes at my photos. Defensively I explained my motives. I wanted to contrast the backdrop of the stage.. there was a lot of alien light from behind, I had to eliminate it with the flash light.. and no, I wasn’t interested in that girl sitting in the front row..


And all of a sudden, I recalled the last time I had such a hearty laugh with him many many years ago. How a small boy, sitting on the lap of a grandfather who was full of stories, and now, sitting opposite each other, laughing again over a cup of coffee and a camera.

The old man continued to flip through the photographs and added comments here and there occasionally. This time however, I noticed that he was more immersed in his own thoughts.

What’s on your mind, old man?

His eyes gazed wearily. Something must have reminded him of a story he once kept. I could tell, that he was digging deep into his memory bank to recollect that story he once heard of, that incident he once encountered.

I was once like you, he finally said after a long pause. Young, brash, aggressive, ready to take on the world. Without much thought and care, I went out with a camera and took good photos. Nature, people, incidents, events…

But as I grew older I realized my photos never did improve much. Year after year, my photos would have the same theme. Trees swaying with falling leaves, ducks on a pond with its clear reflection, bird swooping into the pond to catch a fish.. it became so stale and boring. There was a point of time where I nearly gave up photography.

I was all ears. Then what happened old man?

“I asked myself, what am I doing all this for?” He paused to sip his coffee while I waited eagerly for him to continue his story. Why bother to take photos that I’ve already taken years ago? Why care about the nature when it’s not like anyone else in the world never did see trees with leaves falling down when the wind blew. So really, why do I take photos?

“You see, young man,” his experience and wisdom was now speaking for himself. “There came that point of time when I no longer enjoyed shooting photos. The camera was now a tool, the pictures that came out were just outputs. How could you utilize your camera to its best, or how would your output ever be amazing enough, if you have no idea about what your input is, or where it’s coming from?

He stopped there, and allowed the words to sink into my thoughts. I pondered and wondered, what old man is saying is true.

If you have no idea about what your input is, or where it’s coming from, how would your output ever be good enough?

So, he continued, I decided to give my faithful pal a break, and took a walk in the park without the camera. As I walked, I asked myself, what do I want to see? And I looked around myself. I saw a small boy cycling on his little plastic tricycle with his attentive mother hovering around him. Now if I had my camera with me back then, I would have immediately knelt down and snapped photos of that moment. But without the camera, I just stopped where I was standing, looked, and smiled at the beauty of the moment.

I walked on and saw ducks swimming on the lake. I’ve taken tones of photos of ducks, young man. Trust me. Tones. But that one time I was standing alone without my camera, I noticed that the very same duck I always shoot pictures of would swim alone while the rest of the pack swam on the other side of the pond. I asked myself, why is that duck swimming alone? Is it injured? Disabled? Rejected?

His eyes lit again. As if as a sudden enlightenment dawned upon him. “Then it suddenly came to me, that if I never stop to look, the beauty of the moment, even if captured on film, would be lost. When I was your age, all I wanted to do was to take beautiful pictures. It was all about the output that mattered to me. And it became boring.

“But that very moment, when I stopped to look, I realized where it all begins. Even before the output can come, it is the input that truly matters. To just stop, and look, and smile. That is appreciating the beauty of the moment. It is at that moment where you realize that those photos of ducks feeding or kids running around in the park matters enough, if you’ve been able to appreciate the wonders at how ducks feed and felt the joy of kids running around in the park.”

Notice that every time the camera is in your hands, all that’s on your mind is about the amazing photos that you want to shoot? He added. You no longer focus on what’s going on anymore.

I nodded slowly in agreement. He handed me back my camera. I looked down into the 3 inch digital screen and flipped through the photos. Yes, in my pursuit of capturing spectacular pictures, I, myself, have lost the beauty of the moment.

For so long I’ve always taken photos simply for the sake of taking photos to ‘own nice photos’. The greed in wanting to take many photos in order to never lose a single opportunity to grab a good shot or capture that rare sight pushed me to keep that camera in my hands in front of my eyes all the while. But little did I realize that I too have slowly lost the beauty of moments.

Stop, look, and smile.

“Old man,” the same curiousity in me back when I was little never died after all. “What happened to the kid on the tricycle and the mother?”

He chuckled. You changed little haven’t you? Well, he told me that once he received that enlightenment, he quickly ran home, grabbed his old faithful and dashed back to where the kid and mom was. The mother, he said, was a bit taken aback at his enthusiasm as he explained to her that he was a photographer who was working on some projects, but eventually she agreed to let him take a photo of her with her child.

“That photo, young man, was the most beautiful picture I’ve ever taken. The mother was squatting beside her son on the tricycle. She smiled, and her son never did look at the camera. It wasn’t about the posture or the graphic details, it was about how that particular photo reminded me of the moment I saw him riding his tricycle. I sometimes take out that photo and wonder, what’s going on with him? Is he already working? Does he have a family? Is he married? Is he happy? And then I remember that evening when he was cycling, with his mother beside him, how I felt so warm to feel the love of a mother and the joy of a little child.”

We never did chat for long, although I badly wanted to. The skies were turning dark, and I had to rush back to my hostel to get some work done. But as I stood up to walk away, I suddenly remembered what he said and did. Turning around, I turned my camera on, and politely asked him,

“Could I take a photo of you to remind me of this moment?”

And he smiled. That very familiar smile I could still remember even after 10 years.


The Skatemusicianer said...

That's so true..

yuwan said...

thank you for reminding me of the true meaning of photography... :)

i love taking photos.. and was taken aback by the conversation between you and the old man...

and now i learned that it's not so much about taking good photos so that i can own and display them.. it's about the content and what it speaks to me.. it's taking a glimpse into eternality.. and it is the reflection behind it that counts..

thank you.. this discovery really means a lot to me :)

cal said...

All the time, i find that i would prefer not to take any pictures but to just you know, enjoy the beautiful moments to the fullest. Happens so so so many times, especially at CA, although I brought my camera, i find that i would have only shot 2-3 photos...aiks...have to grab from others!

But then, i would regret so much of not taking any pictures to remind me of those beautiful moments...

Photography is indeed a difficult sport...haha

Dienasty said...

This has been the best thing I've read all week.

Wonderful stuff, Jo. Amazing.

You still take pictures?

HeartzOfGold said...

yup yup..still very much an active photographer. hee.

will show u e photos i took of kuching one day.

mandy~ said...

Know what Jo? Have personally found it to be true myself.. that in the process of trying to capture e moment, just right, in my photos, I've missed out on e very moment itself. Applaud you for putting that into words, even more so a story :)