This is Not a Photograph

White Marble Beach, Serifos

Some experiences are impossible to photograph — you can’t haul the right equipment to the place without a dozen sherpas, the weather’s bad the one day you get the chance to see something potentially spectacular, you show up during the wrong season (I can’t wait to go back to Greece in the spring), something’s wrong with your gear.  These are of course weak excuses that the Nat Geo photographers rebuff everyday and thank god for their tenacity, resolve, and assignment budgets.  Oftentimes, I simply find it impossible to position myself properly to photograph the subject without damaging the environment or encroaching on a subject’s personal space, and I refuse to do that.

The white marble cave beach in Serifos can only be photographed properly if you’re swimming in the water (or in a boat) looking back towards the beach.  I shot a hundred images there at the perfect time of day (sunset) and the images communicate only a fraction of the feeling of being there (you can see them here – http://bit.ly/11JKL6).   The babbling springs on a hike to Meso Potamia in Naxos provided another example.  Only by splicing exposures of the water and the path could the exposure be captured accurately and the feeling of the place communicated.  Could a still image capture the glorious sound of running water in such an arid environment?  All of the winding and impossible to frame footpaths of the old cities consistently challenged my desire to share my experiences there — it’s almost fitting that most of these places don’t allow hotels or guesthouses as a courtesy to the property owners.  These problems create the differentiation between the amateur and professional photographer — the professional photographer embraces these challenges and creates stunning images regardless of limitations, and we consume these on the pages of Nat Geo Traveller, the NYTimes T Magazine, and the like.

At the same time, there is something inspiring about places that are impossible (or incredibly difficult) to photograph.  Those rare and unique places make the experience of being present and seeing them with the most sophisticated camera of all, the human eye and brain, all the more memorable.  And the inability to simply snap up the breathtaking image makes the journey to experience the place and its character more meaningful.  Perhaps that’s the naive joy of the amateur — to have the luxury of the voyeur and the visitor, failing to dominate the wonders of the earth, remaining its student and admirer.