“Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. Except in those situations wherein the camera is used to document, or mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful… Nobody exclaims “Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.” Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: “I find that ugly thing beautiful.” –Susan Sontag, The Heroism of Vision
I am not a good photographer, not by a long shot. I know this because I regularly look through great photographs. My internet bookmarks mostly consist of photography blogs and a few noteworthy porn.
There is Hannah Reyes who I’ve worked with once for a magazine (on an article that I believe was eventually scrapped). The interviewee was late, and I found Hannah guiltily getting her toenails done. Her slideshow My Beautiful Friend is astounding.
I met Joseph Pascual back in college and have been a voyeur of his well-photographed life since. He does commercial photography now, and I find his blog most sincere.
Keegan Gibbs, I keep namedropping in this blog. His shots of the sea make my heart ache.
And once every month, I check out the Lens blog of the New York Times to see snapshots of this great wide world.
I have no illusions that I can make a living doing what these people do. I’m satisfied being a literary monkey shill, having realized my sadomasochistic tendencies early on. Still, I like taking photographs.
There is a catharsis in photography. I’ll liken it to a quiet cigarette break in the middle of a hectic, break-neck day. You don’t light up and keep at your usual pace. You have to stop and appreciate that deadly smoke going down into your lungs and out your nostrils. Enjoy that shit! It’s killing you, so you may as well savor it.
Likewise, I don’t take hurried photographs. Sometimes, I have to be in that mood to even consider whipping out my camera. Does the light fall in an interesting way here? What would this scene look like when framed? Look, some patterns that caught my eye. Time slows as the shutter clicks. Then the photo freezes time right in that frame. You can go about the rest of your day, but that one moment is stuck forever. As in everything, hesitation is key.
There is a magic there, a cheat of some sort. No matter how ugly a photograph is, time makes it significant. A blurry, shitty photo’s meaning changes depending on the other photos that surround it.
Strung together like sequential art, photographs can tell a story. Or when coupled with a caption that explains its context, the photograph is a snapshot of history.
At its very crudest and most sublime, the photograph is a testament of existence. The existence of the subject in the photograph and the photographer taking that shot. It’s defiance is most absolute because of all things, photography defies time.
Every photograph asserts that someone was here. This is an answer to that question of the tree falling in the woods. Decades can come and go, but here is a photograph, you see. What once was here is now gone, but it was here before, and that’s important. Every photograph then is a counter-narrative to history’s great flow.
A few years ago, I was drinking with a handful of rambunctious theater actors in Lucena city in Quezon province. I was just drunk enough to be introspectively quiet, deciding that I would simply enjoy their company and their conversation without contributing any. At one point, one of the actors turns to me, points out that I have become quiet and was listening intently. “That’s what writers are about,” he said. “You’re probably just listening to us and filing this moment away in your brain, so you could write it down someday. You’re a thief. You’re stealing this moment.”
That was only partially true. I wasn’t stealing the moment, I was remembering it. And when I write it down, the moment will have gone through my mental filters. I will have edited certain things, tweaked the details to suit my purpose. If we’re looking for real thieves, we have to look at photographers.