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An Inner Conflict: Writer vs. Photographer

I wrote the following a few weeks ago while I was living in Ulcinj, Montenegro. It was my attempt to capture in words what I experienced from the balcony of the place where I was staying:

The ocean stood before me like a glistening blue tidal wave at peace with not proceeding. The South Adriatic engulfed nearly a third of my vision as steep hills littered with trees and orange roofs met the sea somewhere below me.

It was like an ocean sandwich, the whitish blue sky motionless on top and the noisy, earthy crust covering the bottom.

For some reason I find myself constantly needing to remember where I am, to remind myself that I'm still on Earth. Sometimes I'll open Google Maps on my laptop just to find Montenegro, that tiny squarish country nestled between Croatia and Albania across the ocean from the backside of Italy's boot. "That's where I am," I'll tell myself, feeling as though I need convincing. "That part of the world is real and it looks like this."

A butterfly breezes past, and then a bird. The birds are everywhere, the slow noisy roof-loving ones chattering away while aerial masters of the sky swoop down and past you in an instant, dogfighting invisible enemies with their black boomerang-shaped wings and their tiny sleek bodies that bulge out underneath, an agile dive-bomber perfectly designed by nature.

Somewhere in the distance to the left, across the valley of orange-tiled roofs where a few tall apartments stand looking out of place, over the tall slender coniferous trees nearer to the ocean, a chained machine whirrs to its master. And then the echo of a hammer, and then a skill saw.

The view was extremely photogenic. As the weather over the South Adriatic changed, the scenery would change with it, offering a new world for my eyes to feast on every day. I watched as entire weather systems developed before they rolled in and engulfed the town of Ulcinj. I watched cargo ships and sailboats make the trek to and from Italy and up and down the coast.

I had a birds-eye view of the whole region, like a watchmen in a tower on the lookout for what was to come. The photographer in me couldn't help but take photo after photo. There was no end to it, but that bothered the writer in me.

The endlessly amazing view made me think back to a time when there were no cameras. Who were the photographers then? Who captured the beauty of nature? Who captured the historic moments? Who captured the memory of those that mattered to them?

Writers. That's who. They captured everything through their writing. Using their mastery of language they painted images and conveyed feelings and emotions so that we could relive what mattered to them.

I realized then that if a photo is worth a thousand words, a writers' every snapshot is a wasted opportunity, one-thousand words of practice thrown away.

For thousands of years, writers and poets have spent hours, days, weeks, and months writing and rewriting in attempt to capture or recreate the most vivid and real depiction of what they were experiencing, all so that they could share it.

They spent decades honing their craft so that others could not only relive what they experienced but also learn from it and be inspired by it, so that they could be inspired to share their own dreams and stories.

Defying death, they are still to this day influencing present-day writers and poets, encouraging them to push boundaries, serving as the human proof that language has power to reach far beyond its ability to assist with communication.

Capturing moments of time as it reflected on their minds, they achieved the seemingly impossible by recording something that our minds could easily translate with our imaginations. To this day, writers and poets are still reaching through time and touching us, talking to us, giving us an opportunity to taste the fruits of their hard-earned labor.

Click.

Now we press a button on a machine and be done with it.

Click.

That's how long it takes for us to throw away thousands of years of effort.

What a tragedy. Not because we've lost appreciation for the power of language. No, it's a tragedy because of what we've so readily accepted as its replacement, such a flat and lifeless thing that pales in comparison to the depth and life-giving ability of language, its power to unlock our imagination and create worlds that can outdo even our dreams.

Click.

Photographs may capture our imagination, yes, but they don't give us a sky to fly.

But unfortunately the click is easy. It offers us a cheap and quick way to feel that we have captured something uniquely ours, a moment of time that we feel belongs to us but which in reality is stolen, not earned.

Human laziness knows no bounds. We will sacrifice almost anything for the opportunity to do less work.

How many of us will now experience a beautiful sunset, or the birth of our child, and spend just a few hours that evening trying to put that experience into words? "Eh, who has time for that."

Instead of painting beautiful stories with our imagination, we relinquish that command to an electronic box in the bedroom that has been programmed by a stranger with the worst intentions in mind.

We plop our kids down in front of animated drawings or ask them to play with machine-manufactured plastic toys instead of letting them chase real birds, play with real frogs, and pretend they can really fly.

There are many old cultures who shy away from the camera. They believe the photograph steals the soul. And maybe it does. Maybe it doesn't. At the very least, it steals our imagination.

However, given the opportunity to uninvent the camera, I would not choose to do so. I know it's just another evolutionary step on our journey, an evolutionary step towards our species realizing that no camera, no matter how many pixels or dimensions it captures, will be able to overtake the human imagination.

The camera may assist the imagination, yes, but it cannot replace it. The human imagination has the power to imagine something better. It has the power to dream.

But does that mean we should all just throw away our cameras and become writers instead? I don't think so. My intuition tells me that there's something special about photography. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then surely a photograph offers its viewer a key to that window.

The camera may have the power to steal our imagination, but it also has the power to show us the truth. Writing and language have the power to manipulate and spread propaganda but does that make them worth abandoning?

The camera, like language and music, is one more tool for humanity to express itself. Photography offers a way for others to see the world through our eyes, through the eyes of one unique individual, as he or she saw it. Writing has that ability too, but writing gives the reader more freedom to involve him or herself in the story; there's more room for individual interpretation.

This is perhaps why I'm such an fan of untainted, unmodified, unedited photographs and why I feel that the story behind each photograph is as important as the photograph itself. Without the story, a photograph has no soul. It's the story that brings the photograph to life.

I'm not sure why this is such a revelation for me. Perhaps it's because until now the art of photography was always enough for me to pursue it. Now I'm realizing that if I'm going to continue pursuing photography, I need to start exploring photojournalism.

Maybe through photojournalism I can learn to bridge the gap between writing and photography and find a balance between the two that doesn't leave me feeling as though I'm betraying one or the other.

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  1. I resonate so much with this. I, too, feel torn by both photography and writing. But definitely writing is so much more authentic.

    • Yep, that’s because writing requires that you actually do the work. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a dozen photo filters worth? What’s Photoshop worth? Writing requires that we actually articulate thought. It’s thought + language. That’s it. Photography is light, technology, perspective, emotion, and billions of other little tiny variations that we don’t have entire control over. When I write, I type every single letter. When I write, I think every single word.