“Take only pictures, leave only footprints”. For over 20 years, I have been ‘taking’ pictures of the “natural world”.
I understand that what I am about to say is as curmudgeonly as disliking parades or as grumpy as hating sunflowers or balloons. It was not until this past year that I realized that the language around photography has bothered me, subconsciously. The photography world is full of words like “take”, “capture”, “shoot”, when talking about the act of pressing the shutter button on a camera. I don’t like these words (again, I understand how Debbie-Downer this is). They invoke negative feelings and elicit the idea of dominance over the landscape or animals I photograph. “Take pictures”, “capture the light”, “shoot your subject…” - these make me feel like I am on a mission, not to create art, but rather to own the landscape and make it bend to my will (though, that is the racist method for how my white ancestors settled where they did - more on that in a bit).
Creating compelling art often begins before we even leave our home or wherever we might live to arrive at the place where we are inspired. What is one of the most important photographic and artistic elements? You, the photographer. Before we walk out the door, it is beneficial for all artists to start thinking in the most inspiring mindset we can arrive at, that day. To me, this is not a mindset of dominate and destroy (I’ll save that for my future metal band). I want to be in the mindset of observe and create, nimbleness and care, honor and accentuate. With my images of the out-of-doors, I want to convey the historical truth and boundless beauty that “nature” provides. I do not want to “take” this either for granted or more literally, take it away from others. I want to record a brief moment in time, from my perspective, to share with others.
This might be a bit too high-minded, I know that. But, personally, my beginning to approach photography in this way has helped shift my mindset to one of more creativity and deeper thought. At times, nature does all the work and something is just beautiful. All we need is some technical know-how to record the image. These moments are created as photographs that we then edit to best showcase what the world did that day. Other times, we need to be more intentional about searching for inspiring scenes. Approaching photography as “creating”, rather than “taking” helps me understand that great photographs are the sum of the entire day, my mood, the process and the intention behind. From pre-dawn wake-ups to late night editing, if I always am thinking of “creating”, I feel I am in the right mindset and am receptive to creative whims or stylistic leans.
…And sometimes I am going to say “take the picture”. And that’s okay, too.
Photo created on stolen land of the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde
In addition to the language around the act of photographing, the language around where we visit to make our photographs also should be, at the very least, considered. “Nature”, “wilderness”, “conservation”, “preservation” - During the 19th Century, these were among the words used by European-Americans to describe anywhere that was not a city or farm. Why was this language, and more importantly the messages believed therefrom, important to the “white” Americans during the Gilded Age? As cities grew and trees were felled, wild animal populations were decimated and waters were polluted, well-to-do white males found that their apparent manliness and American identities were wrapped up in the perceived strength of their conquest of land, conquering of animals and “other” peoples, and the rigors and romance of frontier life. A way they expressed this belief and extolled their virtues of strength and control were to use often, language like “wilderness” and “preservation”. It was “preservation” of land and animals for their own ego boost. It was both an ego-stroking and also another way to “otherize” Native Americans and the land they occupied for thousands of years prior. It was easier for the well-to-do white Americans to be openly and unapologetically racist when their manliness [sic] was at risk. Contrast this thought with the idea that, at least how I understand it, Native Americans prior to colonization didn’t use words like “wilderness”. It was simply and beautifully where people lived - in what we call nature. There was not the idea of here or there, a developed or natural, until colonists needed those notions in order to further separate people from land and animals.
I do say “nature” (for example), and will continue. “Wilderness” is a U.S. Congressional designation for Federal lands to be protected and that word is common language. There is no inherent wrongness when using the word “preservation” or when considering what lands and resources to “conserve”. I do think, however, that we should all consider the privilege we have to be able to travel from a city to the out-of-doors and find lands, plants and animals in a natural environment. We should all consider the history of these spaces, and how we speak about these places.
For further reading, I recommend the book Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril and the Origins of Conservation by Miles A. Powell - http://www.milespowell.org/ Miles goes into greater detail regarding how white “Americans” thought about conservation, wilderness, immigrants and conquest.
If one were to remove the words “Take” pictures, “capture”, “nature” and “preservation” out of their lexicon, it might be very difficult to describe what they did that day. Further yet, imagine how we would share the inspiration we receive from the outdoors and the importance in sharing a message of preservation. I am truly not suggesting that we all scrap these words. I, however, will always consider my mindset when I am approaching my art, and think about my impact when I am going to recreate on (stolen) lands, and sharing the stories found there.