I SPEND MOST OF MY TIME WITH A CAMERA IN MY HANDS. Life happens in front of me, and those closest to me would say (with some amount of frustration) that I’m one step removed behind a lens. I see a pair of bald eagles fighting over a fish, and instead of watching the moment unfold, I put a piece of glass between me and the birds, adjusting exposure, shutter speed and ISO settings with my hands shaking from adrenaline. If I miss a shot, bystanders will often offer to send me one of theirs, which to me is a form of blasphemy, and I’m not quite sure why. After all, aren’t I using my camera to capture a memory? Does it matter where the image came from if I was there to see it? Yes, yes it does. To me, it matters.
What I see through my lens, I experience through my lens—and it’s no less than proof of my singular experience of a meaningful event in my life. When I look at someone else’s photos, they have more or less detail than I recall. The angle is slightly off—higher or lower or fish-eyed. I did not see that whale’s tongue, though it’s great that the man next to me with his 500mm lens did. So when he sends me his photo, I can’t connect with seeing that whale breach. It’s not my whale; it’s his. I don’t just want a pretty picture, I want to relive my wonder and excitement, the feelings behind the photo, with a precise visual representation of what I saw. That photo of the bald eagles fighting over the fish, suspended in mid-air, evokes a visceral response inside of me in the same way one might remember every detail of her grandmother’s kitchen from a single whiff of fresh-baked, chocolate chip cookies. In that way, photos are fingerprints: unique and personal and irreplaceable—some of the first items we’d save from a house fire.
So, I stand behind my lens in an attempt to give my fleeting memories a little more permanence. Those bald eagles aren’t just birds, they are joy, and a single glance at them jolts me from wherever I am back to the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, where I panned and shot at 10 frames per second—smiling until my cheeks cramped from it. And when I look at the image now, I still smile, every time.