Don’t Shoot

On Being a Photographer Without a Camera

4 min read by Dmitri. Published in Essays, Stories.

I am unable to take a photograph. I am out of film.

I can see the light bouncing off my perfect scene, fitting right into my 50mm lens view; I know what the exposure, shutter speed, and aperture should be for an image that I could treasure and boast about.

The feeling of restlessness is creeping up my leg and into my chest, eventually changing the entire evening into an unpleasant affair. The weather is fantastic, but nothing seems right. I have become a bother to my companions and self.

In my mind, a masterpiece has escaped from my grasp. It will never come back.

Time.

The camera gives me the ability to lift a slice of time and preserve it. As I discover my moment I get attached to its uniqueness and character. Although there are billions of people and cameras in every part of the world, my perspective is never-repeating in an infinite world of visual possibilities. It feels as if the camera can make that slice mine. Knowing this and losing the opportunity to capture it leaves me grasping for straws.

Am I then a blind man wandering aimlessly until I can provide the evidence of own existence to the later self?

As I browse my albums of printed photographs and folders of digital files, I realize that there’s much that isn’t part of the images. A camera is a selective instrument that gives its master a choice. Exposure, focus, composition, time. A subset of infinite possibilities with a choice to pick just one. That photo is merely a clue to the events that took place some time ago.

A good camera will capture the frame faithfully. It will produce a proxy to an infinitely small part of reality I’ve chosen, revealing something about me, for the kind of choice it was. It may tell a story much better than I could with words or even thoughts. It may evoke feelings reminiscent of that moment or something completely new, depending on who and in what context sees it.

I understand that the camera could also be an instrument that takes the slice of my own reality and removes it from my person — in exchange for a proxy. For each photograph taken, I am preoccupied with the task. Even with an iPhone, it is no longer I who is experiencing the moment.

I am the caretaker of my lifeless tool.

Choice.

My passion takes me deep into thought and tunes out most of the noise, smell, and sound which make up my experience and replace it with a task. This task, of course, is an experience in itself.

When my camera isn’t there to provide me with my “task” I feel robbed of my ability to make a choice: to trade a bit of my unaugmented reality for a photograph.

It feels as if having one less choice is one step closer towards becoming a prisoner. Over-dramatization.

Taking fewer photos is good. There’s less garbage to sift through and more opportunity to consciously select an impactful moment. As someone who prefers to shoot film, an activity that comes with a concrete price tag for each frame, I value that constraint. The money goes towards manufacturers of the products I enjoy using. In return, I feel better connected to the scene, unobstructed by LCD screens; I select my subjects carefully and spend less or no time in post-production.

There may not be a camera, or the camera, handy but there’s still a choice to make. To succumb to the withdrawal or to sharpen own senses and experience the moment in a way no camera or photograph could ever reproduce.

There’s a staggering amount of images being taken at this very moment. My next photo will not be a masterpiece, and if it were — it’ll float in the great sea of art, insignificantly. It would be lovely to take one, but it won’t be that important.

A photo is a proxy for an experience that may have been fuller should the camera not have obstructed the view, influenced how I interpret the environment. A camera may give me and others a clue to remember it by but it will also dull and transform that memory.

I can’t assign any permanent value to the act of taking and owning a photograph or compare it to the experience of plain existence. They are intertwined, complex constructs. I know that I love the sound that my shutter makes, the satisfaction of holding an incredible piece of human ingenuity, and the ability to share my vision with others.

Even then, it’s no guarantee of a better way to spend my finite time. There may be as much, or more, value in using just the senses I’ve been given at birth.