There are two arguments against taking my camera with me on walks.
First. I don’t enjoy the walks in the same way when I have a camera. I don’t enjoy them as much. I’ve been teaching myself to turn the art of photography into prayerful thankfulness, but I have a long way to go. Of course, the only way I’m going to get better at that is by practicing. And the only way I’m going to get less frustrated by my puny photography skills is also by practicing.
But the truth stands that I receive things more superficially when I have a camera. Annie Dillard puts it this way, “When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.” It is too easy to see beauty as only something that I can capture.
Second. I already have a lot of pictures of scenery, and what I really want are pictures of people. There are, of course, plenty of people to take pictures of in Péterfalva, but I am too … shy? … to do it. I don’t think shy is quite the right word. It isn’t simply that I am concerned what people would think of me—if I were visiting the village for only a few days and never coming back, I would have fewer hesitations. But, currently, I live here. I want to build relationships with the other people who live here, not just experience them through of a viewfinder. I don’t want to turn them into curiosities or injure their pride. I don’t want them to see me as someone who values them primarily as photograph subjects. I don’t want to be that someone.
So I’ve been leaving my camera in my room. There is nothing like aptly capturing an image or a feeling or a time and place and seeing it for its artistic merits. But while I have always been fascinated by the work that goes into creating a beautiful photographic image, it is not my strongest form of Expression. I’ve never learned what all the numbers about the aperture and shutter speed mean. I haven’t studied how to harness light in ways that help, not hinder. I don’t have the courageous audacity to ask a stranger if I may take their photograph.
But I have read enough to delight in the sound of a well-constructed sentence. I have studied grammar and vocabulary and theories of communication. I never ask someone if I may add them to the ongoing narrative of my life, translating their existence into the never-ending stream of words that fills my conscious thought. I don’t have to, somehow, even if that stream spills into a public forum. Soul-catching with words rather than a camera is a different sort of business.
A good photograph makes me want to be where the photograph was taken. A beautiful paragraph makes me want to be alive. I am a writer, not a photographer. I am a writer who sometimes takes pictures.
These are things I want to take pictures of and should learn to write about:
The multitude of men fishing down on the main Tisza, some in groups with forests of fishing poles, some alone.
The three girls walking ahead of me, dressed and styled in that uniquely Ukrainian 80’s meets modern pop star meets Wal-Mart look.
The woman riding her bike while wearing pumps.
The who-knows-how-old cars parked outside the crumbling but very-much-in-use KulturaHaz.
So many things that are crumbling but still very much in use.
I was sitting on the bank of the Tisza, looking down past the whirlpools that carved small cliffs in dirt hills, out to the breadth of the water where the color was blue and golden and cold and warm all at the same time. I heard a noise behind me, and I turned to see three black horses walking toward the river. I’d noticed them earlier, munching over by the dyke. Now they were making their way through the open floodplain, their forelegs rubbing against the tall overgrowth of drying nettles. They looked at me, and I looked back, noticing their glossy hides, the late sun on the willows very far behind them, the cumulus clouds resting on the blue mountains, even farther away. The horses stood in the center of the yellowing nettles and threatened to look very picturesque, very romantic. Then one of them lifted his (her?) tail and did his business. And I smiled at how real life is.
Make art, dear ones, by all means. But for myself, I must not fall into the trap of believing that life can be remembered and recalled two-dimensionally.
More pictures will come. But don’t hold your breath.