One of the hardest lessons I continue to learn is being OK with letting go. I’m not talking about “letting go” as it relates to death, or re-imagining how things might have been, necessarily. It’s learning to be all right with missed opportunities… particularly those that continue to be burned in my brain that I’ve watched slip through my fingertips.
Namely, missed photographs. It’s inevitable really. You’re without a camera somewhere, and you can’t turn off your brain. The woman with the neon striped sweater waiting to cross the street cradling a cornucopia of reddish purple flowers… or the moon-faced child with the cut frown mimicking the posture of his father sitting next to him on the metro train. They are split seconds, glimpses, and you’ve just missed them.
I try to “sketch” as much as I can in the full sense of Kerouac’s interpretation. I find that I don’t make certain photos sometimes because I want to get in and experience whatever it is—give an account of the minutia—or the things that I noticed specifically that might have been sidelined in a photo—a person’s mannerisms, the way they hold their emotions behind their expressions, the timbre of their voices. Arguably, these things can be captured by video—but I’d rather tell you—filtered through the lens of my own eyes and brain.
Unfortunately, time isn’t always helpful. I wait—digest—revisit before writing. Usually when I’m trying to pin something down, but then, memory intercedes and drawn the curtain down on the exact hue of someone’s dress and the cadence of speech… until all you remember is that they were wearing a yellow dress (not canary, not lemongrass) and that they didn’t say anything at all?
With those missed “glimpses,” I can always easily say, “I wish I had a camera” as a comfort mechanism. In Indonesia, on the west coast road in Aceh, I sped past moments in a Toyota Highlander with tinted windows, moving with traffic and overtaking trucks and motorbikes, weaving on either side of a single yellow line. We had a system, where I would sit up front with the driver and yell “stop stop” when I saw something, and then would jump out in the shoulder to see if I could get it.
In many cases, with my face pressed against the glass, I’ve pick something out 20 yards up the road, and track it as it got closer. I’d yell, “stop stop” when I could actually see it as it passed. But in many cases, we were already long past the spot, and sometimes I never asked to stop. So, high-speed travel is not conducive to photojournalism, but that’s a whole other conversation.
My operative phrase was, “I’ll get it tomorrow.” We traveled the same road everyday; I thought I was likely to see some of the same sellers and farmers again. No such luck. In fact, it’s never been the case. To convince yourself that you’ll get a 2nd chance to make a shot of something you saw days ago is foolhardy. And yet, I continued to do it for an entire week.
Perhaps it’s a hallmark of a young photographer… learning to let things go, and to change the internal mantra to “I’ll get the next one” (whatever the “next one” is– but it’s certainly not the one you just missed). Nevertheless, some of my missed images are still burned on my brain. My remembrance of them might prove useful as I write and analyze, but they haunt me. By way of a final send-off, here’s a few of my missed shots… remembered:
Rice farmers in paddies… two in particular I remember seeing vividly with triangle straw hats. They sat facing away from the road… their feet must have been drawn up in front of them or dangling over the edge of whatever they were sitting on (a board?)… as I could not see them from the road. They must have been taking a rest from farming…sitting about two-man widths apart—I could not tell I they were men or women. Perfect reflections of their sitting torsos and hats fell behind them into the seemingly pure azure water, dappled with rice that lay on all sides…almost making them into strange butterflies with triangle-capped wings. This is the postcard shot I missed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a toddler clutching a gun. Was it real? Does it matter? I was sitting with our group in the yard of a family in the village of our translator, paying attention to the conversation and events unfolding before me, when I turned my head. Towards the road, I saw a woman with her head covered with a lemon yellow scarf, holding the hand of a small toddler… maybe age two. The boy waddled slowly, his other hand holding a small dark handgun. It flopped in the open air, ill-supported by his baby wrists. It looked like an old-fashioned pistol… something a gangster would own. I blinked. I squinted harder. The woman and the boy strolled along the road behind a hedgerow and were gone. An extremely loud (and demanding-sounding) brown and white goat snapped me back to reality—insistent with his bleating. I was frozen to my chair, only a few seconds had passed, and I wasn’t completely sure of what I had seen. Remembered for so long…fact and fiction blurred… I wonder if I ever even saw it at all.
I’m not immune to fear, I know that now, but I also know I’ll get the next one.