Why is it that in an age of cutting edge technology and double digit megapixels, when we can make picture perfect images with minimal effort or expertise, that we’re often left feeling like there’s something essential missing in the process?
“When I started in photography I was using my hands to create images and it seemed like overnight digital came along and all of that came to end. I didn’t know it at the time, but I lost something I loved.” says photographer Ian Ruhter in the above video, a heartfelt account of an incredible journey of discovery that inspired him to convert his van into a camera and set off across America in search of social connection.
“Everyone around me had the same camera, with the same signature,” says Ruhter. “I decided I was going to build a camera that no one has.”
For some, like Ruhter, the creative void that digital technology produced was felt so acutely that they made deep radical changes in their professional and personal paths. Others, like me, are newly awakening to a vague dissatisfaction gently simmering beneath the picturesque surface.
It was enrollment in a Seedlight Photography workshop and the resulting barrage of unflattering emotions – shame, vulnerability, envy– it unleashed, that first got me thinking about transformation, creativity and the courage to change.
Set in remote Chilean Patagonia, the Leica sponsored workshop put a coveted M9, conceivably the world’s best digital camera for nature and landscape, in my hands for a week. But between the adjustment to a rangefinder camera and the challenge of manually selecting the perfect combination of focus, shutter speed and aperture, I was a mess; at Ground Zero photographically and emotionally. My confidence was shattered. Frustration and uncertainty threatened to blind me to the natural beauty and intense majesty of our surroundings. I was toxic with envy at the stunning images my fellow workshop participants created with apparent ease. Worse yet, I berated myself continually for feeling this way. It made for a vicious loop as I spent the week ping-ponging between feelings of worthlessness and shame.
There’s a scene in Ruhter’s video when, after a frustrating shoot in Yosemite, he confesses to similar emotions. “Everything’s just falling to pieces, I’m at a loss… The emotional investment is what’s getting me the most. When it doesn’t seem to work, your self-esteem, your whole worth, everything goes down. You’re like, I’m no good at anything. It’s one of those times when you just want to quit… I feel like I suck. Maybe I’m going down the wrong path,” he says.
Shortly before a fellow workshop participant forwarded me Ruhter’s video, I’d revealed the tsunami of self-doubt that the workshop had released to our instructor, Bridget Besaw, a supremely talented, respected and accomplished conservation photographer. Her response simultaneously surprised and soothed.
“I know what you mean about the shame, envy and vulnerability thing…as I mentioned to you when we spoke of the intensity of workshops, I’ve experienced the same thing at every one I’ve ever attended as a student also.” she wrote back. “And I think I go through a similar thing even as an instructor, but in a different way, you know? It’s just overwhelming all around. And I’m still not sure why photography can do this to us? It’s very strange.”
Or is it? The Oxford Dictionary defines strange as: unusual or surprising in a way that is unsettling or hard to understand; not previously visited, seen, or encountered; unfamiliar or alien. Could this be the essential missing ingredient we crave when the familiar becomes too comfortable?
I’ve pondered the rollercoaster nature of passion pursuits often over the 13 years since I traded a successful academic career to follow a love of photography into the unknown.
“The thing that keeps me going, is knowing that the work we are making has a purpose in the world and is needed to tell the story of who we are,” says Besaw.
In hindsight, I see that it was not a fluke that a last minute decision took me to one of most inspirational places on the planet to learn an important life lesson; nor that the teacher was a camera.
“The camera becomes an extension of how much we are needed in the world and the perceived quality of our photos the expression of such,” says Besaw. “But when we remember that we are capturing the human spirit - which is beautiful - then we are creating beauty, which is badly needed in the world. We know the power of beauty; it is why we are attracted to the craft.”
The workshop wasn’t about making images or correctly calculating F-stops and shutter speeds. It was about learning to rise above our petty fears and human insecurities by exchanging a competitive mind for a creative one. It was about seeking expression and expansion and becoming all that we are capable of.
Photography has granted me many precious gifts, among them the opportunity to travel and observe, to glimpse into people’s lives and hearts (including my own) and the chance to connect with something meaningful and extraordinary. But perhaps its greatest gift is that it compels me to act with courage.
Click here to view a full photo gallery of images produced at the workshop.
What about you? How has a travel experience challenged you to find courage?Use the comment box below to share. I’d love to learn what helps you.
About Silver & Light
Using the Collodion process, a method of photography first introduced in the 1850’s, Ruhter is driving his camera van around the country, looking for people and places to photograph and memorable moments to capture in one of a kind images. To connect with Ian, support his project, or invite him to come to your town, click here.
About Seedlight Workshops
Seedlight workshops use advocacy photojournalism to elevate environmental awareness through the creation of powerful imagery that reminds the viewer of the importance of protecting the planet. Photographers are partnered with local and global environmental organizations working at the heart of the story. Each workshop focuses on creating effective visual media projects while helping environmental organizations to better utilize visual storytelling in their work. To learn more, visit www.seedlightworkshops.com.