I once read an article (source forgotten, probably Birding) about a teacher preparing her preschoolers for an outing to the local aviary. Long before the field trip, each kid was equipped with a pair of binoculars (two toilet paper tubes taped together and a yarn neckstrap). As the students lay on the floor, she had them practice tracking birds with the binoculars by zipping a tissue-paper bird along a string suspended above the classroom. When the kids got to the aviary, they paid attention to the birds the teacher pointed out to them. Impressive results for zero optical elements in the binoculars and the native focusing ability of four year olds.
If looking through a cardboard tube changes the participatory experience for preschoolers, how does observing events through the viewfinder of my camera impact my own experience of the event itself? This question has been on my mind a lot as I have been collating images for my talk at the Moab Photo Symposium. I didn’t need my archives to remind me of the extraordinary experiences my Highway 89 project has afforded me. But at the same time, I wonder what part of the experience of being there I may have missed through the crystal veil of the lens.
Photographing can give me a shot of courage (I forget to be afraid of flying when I’m shooting out the window, even if the pictures are useless) or serve as a convenient prop in an awkward moment (as official family reunion photographer you can escape boring conversations with distant relations). Mostly, the act of photographing has given me the license and spunk to push to the front of the action with brashness that surprises even me.
But the act of photographing has never been neutral to my experience at hand. Framing, composing, creating engages a different set of neurons than just observing. I’ve written before that I become strangely unverbal while shooting. Even more peculiar, I can stand in the cold for hours and not really feel it until after the gear is put up and I start to get warm, long after R has taken refuge in the truck, which is completely the opposite of our regular patterns, say when birding. If the act of creating impacts this basic brain processing, I can only assume that other parts of the perceptual experiences change. I wouldn’t agree that my perception degrades, but it is different than when I set down the camera.
The thing is, I want it all: the photos and the raw, unfiltered experience. Sadly, I haven’t perfected my avatar such that I might do two things at once, so I make choices, compromises. Simply training myself to photograph with both eyes open has helped me to stay tune with essence of the total experience. And when I am lucky enough to photograph a singular event (like the Indian Rodeo at North American Indian Days in Browning, Montana), I remind myself take a moment to lower the camera from my eye, to drop the crystal veil. Inhale the experience: smells, sounds, fill all the senses. Engage with my fellow participants, smile, laugh together. Just be present. Breathe. And then back to dance with the Nikon that brung me.