This is why I take pictures

Colour photograph of docks and the sea viewed through the window of a boat at sunset

I was a professional photographer. I struggle with the use of the word ‘was’ because it denotes a relegation to the past, as if no longer doing something as a job somehow negates the education, training and experience that went into being able to do it as a job in the first place. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am no longer working as a photographer. Perhaps the words I use here don’t really matter to anyone else as much as they matter to me. The fact remains that for a few years, photography was my job. For a couple of years prior, it was something I studied at college. For a long time before, it was something I enjoyed. Photography was and is a big part of my life, even though it is now a lover rather than a boss.

Working as a photographer was pretty amazing. There were tight deadlines and late nights and awkward clients and challenges and challenges and challenges. There were also exquisite moments and unforgettable people and incredible experiences. And challenges and challenges and challenges.

I did it until I couldn’t do it any more. Sometimes that’s how it goes when you’re living with a chronic illness. You try and you do and you work and for a while you get through it but then you don’t. Sometimes your heart and soul and mind want something so much but your body just can’t any more and you die inside a little because you live in a world that tells you, over and over, that there is no such thing as can’t because people with prosthetic limbs climb mountains and it could be worse it could be worse it could be worse. You know and you never forget that it could be worse and you appreciate, to unfathomable depths, the fact that, right now, it isn’t.

Sometimes you need to change direction and create different opportunities for yourself and recognise how little it matters that other people judge your choices because they have never lifted you out of bed and carried you to the bathroom when you couldn’t walk or cut your food into small pieces when you didn’t have the strength to hold a knife and fork or helped you through your bad days, which became most days, which became every day because you internalised the ridiculous notion that you could simply choose to not be sick any more. It scares you when you realise that you were willing to destroy yourself just to prove that you weren’t giving up and you slip into talking about yourself in second person and long tangled sentences because you still find it difficult to accept that this is your reality.

It is what it is and I’m not complaining. I’m providing context. I want to make it clear how much my work as a photographer meant to me and how much it hurt to leave that behind. It did hurt and it does hurt that I was doing a thing I loved as my job and now I can’t do that particular thing as my job any more.

But I still take pictures. I still see the world around me in terms of photographic composition. I live in light and shadow and structure and contrast and negative space and zoomed-in full-frame impact. I always have and I probably always will. I love that I see texture in a flat wall and notice the precise angle of the shafts of light falling through a half-open blind. I love the feeling of sand between my toes and rain on my face but I still feel compelled to capture the time and space in which clouds are reflected in the surface of water and I am given a different perspective from which to appreciate my world in that moment.

I want to keep these pictures, these arrangements of pixels on a screen or ink on paper, to remind me of the unexpected beauty I have encountered. I want to preserve the view from the top of the hill because it reminds me that once, I was able to climb that hill and on the worst of days, I can remember that I will be able to climb that hill again. On days when climbing stairs is an impossibility, those pictures of the city taken from far above are precious proof that there are better times.

When I look at the photograph of the rays of a setting sun resting on a bench, I remember that for a few weeks I was able to walk along that path that is countryside in the city and the path and the bench and the setting sun aren’t going anywhere. They will be waiting for me and perhaps next month or next year I will walk that way again and smile so widely that I confuse the people I pass, people who may or may not understand the intense joy I experience when I can simply put one foot in front of the other and travel by only the power of my own body.

Luckily, for someone who adores capturing moments great and small, I have a device in my pocket with which to do this. With this device, I can share my moments and my view of the world and I can look at other people’s moments too. I can see through someone else’s eyes and appreciate their sunsets and their hill tops or their spiders in the door frame or those amazing pancakes they made or that one time their cat lay on the bed with its head on the pillow like a human.

A few months ago, when I experienced a brief remission of some of my symptoms, I walked to the beach at dusk, just because I could. I took pictures of the clouds and the sea. Perhaps some of the people who walked past me that night wondered why I couldn’t just look at the clouds and the sea, why I didn’t simply enjoy the moment, why I chose not to leave my phone at home. I have heard and seen these sentiments expressed endlessly on the internet (without a trace of irony, considering) and I know I can only speak for myself and not the millions of other people taking and sharing pictures of the minutiae of their lives, but I want to explain.

For reasons too many and too boundless to truly express, each moment has the potential to be monumental. In fractions of seconds, I build these monuments for myself out of tiny and trivial things. I worship at the altar of experience, of past and present and reminders of the endless potential of what is yet to come in days less delicate. I find strength and inspiration and significance in the smallest of things. This is why I take pictures.

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