It’s an exaggeration to say that photography saved my life, but it’s not THAT much of an exaggeration. It has, at least, helped me to save parts of my life. It gives me a reason to walk out of my house and into the world and enjoy being there. With a camera over my shoulder, I can (usually) walk down a crowded street without being crippled by self-consciousness. With a camera to my eye, the world feels controllable, safe, unthreatening. My camera is the costume that I wear and it whispers to the world, Jedi-like, “This person isn’t a threat, this person isn’t weird, this person shouldn’t be stared at or talked to. He’s taking photographs. That’s all. Leave him alone and move along.”
In reality, in some of the places I take my camera, it’s probably more likely to be whispering, “This person is distracted and has £2000 of readily saleable equipment over his shoulder, feel free to mug him.” But I try not to think about that too much.
The important thing is that photography has allowed me to enjoy the world, be among people, breathe fresh air, exercise, go places I would otherwise not have gone, notice things I would otherwise not have noticed, and feel like a tiny part of a world that has beauty and stillness and calm and rhythm and light. Where I am humbled and told by the universe, in the kindest possible tone, “Your problems aren’t worth a shit. These trees, these rocks, this river will still be here after you’re gone and nothing will have changed.” It’s a peculiarly beautiful thing to be told.
Want to know a secret about my photography?
I’m not that good at it.
And that’s ok.
Really. It’s fine. Sure, I’ve got better over time and learned a few tricks and sure, I sometimes take a few pictures I particularly like and post them for people to see. And sometimes my Mum will say, “Ooh I like that one,” and ask me to print it out for her to frame. And I like it when that happens, and I want to get better at it, and I’ll try to…but that isn’t the point. The point is doing something I enjoy that makes me feel better and gives me a creative outlet, and I would do it even if every other person on earth told me I was wasting my time.
Photographers, particularly male ones, are obsessed with equipment and obsessed with process. The Holy Wars between Nikon and Canon loyalists. The outlandish heretics with their devotion to Fuji or Sony or Pentax. The Lomo monks. The Hasselblad high priests. Then there are the flagellants who achieve moral redemption by punishing themselves. No digital. No photoshop. No filter. No makeup. No homo. They think their images (they always call them ‘images’) are untouched by the filthy fingers of technology, as if they were capturing the world in exquisite purity by not sinking to the depravity of post-production. As if the human visual process isn’t itself an act of post-production.
Pass another photographer in the street and watch them look you up and down with either envy or a sneer as they take in at a glance not only your camera and your lens, but also your camera bag, your strap, you filter…ANYTHING. Oh my GOD, that guy has his camera around his neck not over his shoulder, what an absolute NOOB. Eeeew.
Does any of it make any of them, or me, better or worse photographers? Nope.
The most freeing, joyful lessons I have learned from life are that there are no shortcuts to being great at anything, and that it is perfectly ok to not be great. I’ll never be Slash from Guns n’Roses, and having a Gibson Les Paul instead of an Epiphone Les Paul isn’t going to change that. I’ll never be Ansel Adams, and having a Hasselblad H6D instead of a Nikon D5000 isn’t going to change that. Dammit, I’ll never be Martin Amis and I already have terrible hair and terrible teeth.
And, you know what, I am much happier playing my guitar, taking photos and writing silly stories now that I’ve accepted those things. If I ever, by some accident, do something great with any of those hobbies then it will certainly make me pleased. But, truth is, I’ll do them all anyway, quietly and genuinely enjoying being not great.
Postscript: Nothing I have written above should be taken as an indication that I would not happily accept gifts of Gibson guitars, Hasselblad cameras or a decent haircut from generous readers.