Quit trying to Capture everything.

The most magical moments are impossible to capture anyway. So close the camera/phone & open yourSelf to receive what is.

Try recording what you’re witnessing within your cell tissue instead of on your cell phone.

A few weeks ago I was in a new place, a lovely place, but I didn’t know it well enough to know the right place to pray at 9am on an open beach. My prayers do not involve me kneeling with my head bowed & my hands together. I resisted this even when I went to church. The pastor of our presbyterian church got used to me lifting my head, eyes wide open, and listening when everyone around me was bowed & mumbling.

My prayers now are songs that involve percussion instruments that I carry with me. My prayer songs involve me turning from the rising sun towards the next direction it takes–North in the Southern Hemisphere & South in the Northern Hemisphere–& on from there, making a circuit. In one song I even pray up to Father Sky & down to Mother Earth & within to mySelf. This is when it really starts to look conspicuously pagan. So here I am on an open stretch of beach, suburbs on the other side of the dunes, scoping out enough open stretch to possibly sing all 4 directions of a song before someone gets too close to hear or see too much.

Halfway through, I turn to the West & there is a woman right behind me who has waded through water & crept up quietly in order to hold her camera phone up & capture me. I stop singing & drumming & say, without pause, “You can’t record this!” She starts babbling about how beautiful it was & how she got her sneakers all wet & how she likes drumming herself, all while slowly backing away from me & smiling that “don’t harm me” smile I’ve (heartbreakingly) seen on beaten dogs. Instantly I feel conflicted. I fully understand her desire to approach & even to participate.

When I first went to New Mexico by train (maybe I was 20?) , from New York, I made my way to the Taos Pueblo by invitation of an elder I’d met on the bus ride that came after the 3-day train ride. I didn’t know you couldn’t take photos because I’d entered the reservation with her & she hadn’t told me, until I was yelled at by someone else. Then I knew.

I think a lot of us, in a lot of ways, simply don’t know. And until we venture, we may never know. And then, if we’re told in a way that isn’t inclusive, we may never venture out again. So I felt conflicted. I didn’t want to exclude, however these were songs I had not yet been given permission to share. Should I stop my prayers & invite her to join a different song I could share? This is what I would have liked to have done. That way I could have met her desire & curiosity without betraying my responsibilities to the songs themselves.

At the same time, I would like for people to put their phone/camera away & do the work of befriending a situation before they “capture”, “shoot”, or “take” it. I struggled with this terminology even when I was a more fully fledged photographer with cameras & a darkroom. It’s so hunter-like, so capitalist. No wonder there are stories of natives, resisting being photographed, insisting that the device will steal their soul. Hasn’t it done that with yours? Sometimes? Even just a little?

Sure, having a skilled photographer record a significant event so that it can be shared & even seen more clearly from the outside is invaluable. It’s also so helpful for including those who couldn’t be there & for me this means I can actually have an earthwidetribe, a family spread over the globe! Yet, and still yet.

If we are too distracted by the outward markers of our journey, we may lose

the invitation to be immersed in the sacred,

to be held by the moments that make up our living.

here I am with my travel drum in a staged photo to indicate--without capturing!
here I am with my wee travel drum in a staged photo to indicate–without capturing!

I absolutely love that the sacred songs & traditions I am honored to receive these days can not be recorded (or are not meant to be). This is rare anymore. I find I am somewhat old-fashioned about asking before taking & posting photos. Certainly it’s this influence of sacred ceremony. It’s also the influence of having a lot of dear friends who have young children & a policy of not posting their family life online indiscriminately. I do my best to ask before taking a photo & then certainly before posting it. When someone is so cute, like my 6 year old godson recently in the 3 piece suit he decided he wanted to wear to school on a Friday, it’s so incredibly tempting to “snatch” (there’s another “taking” term!) an image without asking — to capture it without him knowing. And most likely it will be less staged & more authentic if I do this, yet I have not honored him.

In fact I have betrayed him & his trust. This pisses me off, I must say, that people assume they have a right to “take” my image. I’m not famous & I’m not vain, but when I find myself in someone’s picture-taking, I turn my head. If I haven’t agreed to be recorded, I don’t want to be!

My phrase on Facebook says “more interested in inquiring than acquiring”. This applies here. I know how I feel when I have taken something. It will have been easier than developing a relationship enough to ask permission first because to do that I will have to make myself vulnerable by voicing what I want & then I also risk not being granted it. Whereas if only I’d “taken” it when I had the chance…

And perhaps if I were forced to boil the troubles of the world down to one quality, right now, this would be the one:

humanity’s propensity to take more than it gives.

Again, I have learned this by trying both. In 1999 I was interviewing my great Uncle Peyton about his older sister, my grandmother Phyllis, as we bumped along a back-country road in Virginia in a pick-up truck, when he realized I had my tape recorder (remember those?!!) on. I had not been brave enough to ask him first. Now Peyton was a huge man, physically & energetically. He was a high-flying military man & he brooked no puniness from others. He told me in no uncertain terms that I must ask before I record someone. That seared it into me! So maybe our lessons do need to be unequivocal.

What I will say is that I will continue to do my best to dance this marriage of cultures within me as gracefully as possible. I see within me the ancestry of those that take & have taken–of those whose vision has been short-sighted. As well as the ancestry within me of those whose ceremonies include a give-away & whose chiefs were those who made sure everyone had enough, even if it meant giving away his/her own provisions. A people who are known for making decisions with the next 7 generations in mind. Do you even know how long that is & could you conceive of making your key decisions based on that sort of longer-term vision?

If my own internal conversation has sparked something in you, I’d love to hear from you!

Please feel free to follow, like & share!

4 thoughts on “Quit trying to Capture everything.”

  1. Yesterday I was walking with my uncle on a beach on the Bay of Fundy. A group of young women walked toward us and one of them held up a pink camera. I thought she was going to ask me to take a photo of them all. But instead she asked, “Would you like me to take a polaroid photo of you two? I’m practicing my composition. You can keep the photo!”

    So we said “Yes please!” and now we have a lovely photo of us both smiling on a sunny day by the ocean, taken by a complete stranger who was so open and generous. That was so refreshing in the age of selfies.

  2. I like to think that it comes from an instinctive nature to share. I can’t think of anyone I know who takes photos and doesn’t want to share them with others, rather keep them to themselves – purely for the nostalgia. The same seems true if you or I were living in a world where our needs were much more basic than they are. Say we were struggling to survive and find food. If I were holding a fish that took me an hour to catch and you came along also starving, I wouldn’t hesitate to share that with you. That is my base instinct. I feel that the photos we take of others and share online are extensions of this instinct. We have a moment we wish to share. We want to connect. Many of us have forgotten how to do that face to face because of the fear that is generated by the media. Perhaps this taking of photos is just a way for people to share and feel connected. It also sounds like you offered the lady on the beach an opportunity to capture and express something of herself, in you. That’s a wonderful thing. Thanks for inspiring me to write something in return 🙂

    1. Hi Tim!
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughtful thoughts on sharing!
      I’m taking in what you’ve written & I’m not sure I agree, yet. Sharing food involves complicity–the other person wants or needs to eat. Sharing photos is the same in that the viewer wants to look at what you’ve recorded, however the taking of the original photo is what I have trouble with. People so often take a photo without first asking if they may. This is perhaps again a worldview difference. In many indigenous cultures a plant is asked first whether it is willing to give of itself. And an offering is made in exchange. The Maori do this with harekeke, flax. The Ojibway do this with cedar or any other sacred or food plant, offering tobacco in return. There is an exchange. It’s a subtle, yet profound, difference I find. Most people are accustomed to plucking a flower because they like it & want it. Perhaps they even want to share it, to give it to someone else. Next time you go to pick a flower or some herbs for your dinner, try stopping first & mentally asking the plant whether it is willing to serve you in this way. You see what I mean? It requires a humility & respect for the Other, whether it’s a person praying or a plant being it’s plant-y self!
      This lack of awareness to ask permission to record someone else feels to me like a paradigm or language difference. When the white men landed on Turtle Island they landed in a gift economy. The indigenous people there existed in the example you gave–if they had a fish, they shared their fish. But just like in your example, if the person you had fed later had food & you needed it but s/he withheld the food from you, that would feel imbalanced wouldn’t it? Sue’s story above gives a modern example of picture taking that is so rare because it involves establishing a relationship first by asking permission & then by balancing the “taking” with “giving” something in return–a copy of the image.
      And thank you for allowing me to find more nuance by having to think further about this! Mox

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