During a recent conversation with a photographer friend, Karen Brodie, we discussed the loss of the ability to see.
Not blindness. We were talking about the thing that happens when you pass something so many times that you simply stop seeing it.
This is a real thing.
Ask any mom who walks into her teenage child’s bedroom and thinks, “How can they not see these piles of filthy clothes all over the floor?” Trust me, even though they made those piles, their eyes do not register their existence — after a week or so.
This odd sort of selective sight affects all of us. It could be the beggar we pass every morning on the way to work. It could be a pile of garbage or a broken down car that has been on the side of the road for ages. It could be something magnificent we pass by every day, like the statue of David or the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty or . . . yes, even some of the more beautiful parts of Ambergris Caye.
This has begun to trouble me because after two years of living on this beautiful island I am beginning to fear that things that once filled me with wonder now leave me sort of cold. At least, the urge to photograph what I see has cooled quite a bit.
Case in point: I recently walked north along the coast from my home to the old dirt road, just north of the White Sand Dive Shop. And I walked back again.
Did I photograph the beautiful white sandy beaches or the palm trees or blue-green water?
No. None of that.
Here’s what I did photograph:
Actually, the day got stranger. This is what I found about a quarter of a mile south of the helmet:
It is not like I haven’t photographed a lot of beautiful coastal scenes on Ambergris Caye before. I have. Even though I only use an iPod, I can manage some fairly artful images. As long as the lens isn’t steamed over. Or my thumb isn’t covering part of the lens.
But this walk had me baffled. I was more proud of the fact that I didn’t wear sandals than taken by the beauty that I clearly encountered . . . but did not see.
Karen said she is lucky in that a lot of the photography she does now is on assignment. Being asked to photograph a very specific thing enables you to compose, focus and frame, both mentally and with the camera. Karen also gives herself specific projects, like the fantastic portraits of strong island women, recently on display at the San Pedro House of Culture on Back Street. You can see many of Karen Brodie’s 62 portraits here.
As an exercise, Karen suggested walking around and photographing only things that are red, or blue or . . . well you get the idea. Look for specific things that can draw you into an image.
Karen also suggested wandering about with no intention of taking any pictures at all. You know, pay attention to what you see; don’t look for something to shoot.
That reminded me of a good friend and long-time newspaper colleague from San Diego and San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico. Jerry Rife is an exceptional photographer but after a lifetime of shooting on assignment and on deadline he struggled in retirement. He felt that he’d lost the ability to “see.” Think about it: a newspaper photographer has to be mechanical, technical and artistic and often has but a fraction of a second to capture the perfect image for the front page.
Jerry made it look easy.
But in retirement, after 40 years — when there is no deadline, no assignment and no news hole to fill — where do you find your inspiration?
Jerry’s solution is quite novel. He eliminated the lens between his eye and the beauty of San Miguel, which is rich, colorful and plentiful. Jerry began walking around the city with the camera . . . well, let him describe his technique:
“I shoot from the chest without looking through the camera. This is a very important distinction for me. I do a walking meditation, opening myself up to the rhythms of the street,” he recently wrote to me.
“I do not look for pictures, I just let the street flow through me. The camera is draped around my neck and held against my chest with my finger on the shutter button. Pictures appear and disappear in a split-second. There is no time to frame, compose or intellectualize the photo. There is only time to react to the vague impression before me and push the button.”
The results are incredible. Without the mechanical buffer between himself and his subject he captures the most authentic, unposed images of the city, its people and street scenes imaginable. Here’s a blog Jerry started back in 2010 called “Back in the Game.” I think his more recent stuff is found on Facebook and in books that he publishes of his work.
The point is, Jerry and Karen both keep re-learning how to shoot through fresh eyes. An artist needs to get re-inspired as much as a bicycle needs a tune up from time to time. Writers do, too. And so do people who walk around using an iPod as a camera.
As my artist friends inspire me, so does this island. It is small but its diversity is remarkable. And in a way I think it is challenging me to find fresh new ways to expose its truth to the world. The truth can beautiful and it can be inspirational, but not always.
I must relearn to open my eyes, but also my heart and all my senses to the truth of Ambergris Caye.
And if I am lucky I’ll have my little iPod with me to record what I also struggle to express in words.