A Very Important Tool

On one of my flights back from a week of photographing in the Great Plains I read some poems by Wendell Berry on my iPad.  One of them, ironically, was called “Vacation” and tells the story of a man who went on a trip and spent the whole time recording it with his video camera.  Berry writes, “He showed his vacation to his camera, which pictured it, preserving it forever; the river, the trees, the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat behind which he stood with his camera preserving his vacation even as he was having it so that after he had had it he would still have it.”  Berry then adds these words, “It would be there. With a flick of a switch, there it would be.  But he would not be in it.  He would never be in it.”

I think the point behind this poem is that people can become so obsessed with recording their experiences of nature and life that they fail to actually be there or to truly experience what they see.  Since I had just spent several days with my eye basically glued to the back of a Nikon camera I had to pause to reflect on whether I had just been guilty of doing what the man in Berry’s poem had.  I cannot deny that I likely miss a lot of things when I photograph because the very process of photography forces one to focus on something.  You cannot focus on something and everything at the same time.  There always has to be some sacrifice, some things that will be missed.

Still, I believe that photography has actually helped me to see more, not less.  To reverse what I just said above, you can’t focus on everything and something at the same time.  If I try to take in everything there is so much I will miss.  Photography forces me to pay close attention to something.  For me it might be a particular bird, animal, tree, river or landscape.  It might just as well be a combination of colors, shapes or patterns.  While I focus on one of these I see and experience things I probably would not if I didn’t have a camera in front of me.  Photography forces me to see more, to pay better attention, and in the process to be more fully present.

Having said that, I confess at times I do like to set my camera aside and just take in my surroundings.  I try to focus not just on the visual but also be aware of what my other God-given senses are experiencing.  For me this is an important part of being fully present.  Had I not done this on my recent trip I would have missed the awesome sounds of sandhill cranes migrating far above me and elk bugling on the hillsides around me.  I would have missed the delightful scent of crushed sage, the cold and wet sensation of snowflakes on my cheeks, and the feel of the soft earth beneath my feet in the Badlands.

Berry certainly makes a valid point in his poem, “Vacation.”  Those of us who love our cameras need to be careful that they do not prohibit us from experiencing what we record or photograph.  At the same time, I would argue that used properly photography can enhance our experiences.  I always pray when I go out to photograph and ask God to help me to see what I need to see.  Inherent in this prayer is the desire to see Him.  In the end this is the goal of my photography—to be able to share with others something of the glory and majesty of God through the pictures I take.  That is why my camera has become a very important tool on my spiritual journey.


(I took the top image of the Little Missouri River at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.  The scenic and bison image were taken at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.)