Thursday, January 17, 2013

Behind the camera

When I was in Paris this fall, traveling around with a giant backpack filled with clothes and ready to be stocked with Disneyland Paris memorabilia, I had a really fun encounter. I was in a bakery in Le Marais when a man comes up to me speaking English. At this point I've been staring awkwardly at the shop owners for about five minutes, trying to speak to them with my gaze. I need to tell them how badly I need a pastry without using a word of French. I'm just not confident enough with my ability to speak the language to try and utter out even the simplest phrase. Looks will have to do.

Anyway, so a guy comes up to me. He's a regular there, as I will learn later. He starts speaking on my behalf, telling the people behind the counter that I've been waiting and asking me what I want so he can relay the message across the glass casing. I'm so grateful to finally be fed, that ignore my inhibitions against talking to strange and older men.

He continues to be friendly and I oblige. He asks, "Are you a photographer?" It is at this moment that I'm reminded of how little room I have in my backpack which has resulted in me lugging my camera around my neck all throughout the city. I'm sure many Parisiennes noticed, but weren't interested enough to mention it in polite conversation with me. This man is American, he is friendly and interested in my life - at least out of courtesy.

"No, I'm not a photographer," I say.

Once I've mentioned that I study journalism, he goes on to tell me about how he studied journalism at the Columbia University Graduate Journalism school. Before going there, he got an undergraduate degree from Harvard. He asks me where I go to school. He knows the name without a second thought. I'm impressed. Unfortunately, I didn't ask for his last name. I did, however, learn that he's been living in Paris for the past decade or so.

The story of this man certainly stuck. But perhaps not as much as his question.

Because when he asked me if I was a photographer, I wanted to be able to say yes.

There's something utterly fantastical about photography. The idea of acceptable voyeurism has such a draw in this day and age. We love the anonymity of putting a heavy object in front of our face, with all the clarity of a peep hole through which we not only see, but capture the outside world for our own enjoyment at a later date.

I love the craft myself. Perhaps too much. All around Europe, I lugged my heavy Canon Rebel T3 with me. Sometimes in my backpack, sometimes in my purpose, sometimes around my neck. Through churches, on trains, on airplanes, in museums, at dinner tables. I had no shame with the DSLR.

Maybe it was like a sort of status icon. I like the idea of wearing a camera because it makes me feel like I have a reason to be places. I'm not just a tourist, I'm the kind of traveler who takes her camera off Auto mode and actually tries to shoot beautiful pictures. Whether or not I succeed is another story, but that's unrelated when it comes to being asked if you're a photographer.

That being said, I do think I'm a pretty good photographer when I set my mind to a project. But again, another story for another blog.

So today, when I took my photojournalism class assignment to the level of attending a dress rehearsal for a play on campus and spent the entire two hours of the performance shuffling around the room taking as many shots as I could, I felt strangely whole.

It was like I'd found a sibling to that feeling writing gives me. It's that strangely satisfying, almost satiating, excitement when you put pen to paper or when you focus and snap a photo. The finished product is already there before your eyes, being produced throughout the process. It's exhilarating. It's fascinating.

But most of all, it's fun.

As someone who watches inordinate amounts of television, film and theater, I know how it is to love being a spectator. I bask in the opportunity to creep around and view things without having anyone look at me like I'm crazy. In these mediums, it's always (at least within reason) acceptable to stare and not be stared back at. I love that.

I think it's because I'm so obsessed with entertainment. My whole life has been spent searching for new ways to be amused. When I realized my mom couldn't always play "monster" (a game in which she'd chase me around pretending to be Godzilla or some similar creature) with me at my beck and call, I resorted to other forms of occupation.

Photography isn't so off from television, film and theater. Aside from the obvious connections, i.e. being a photographer for any of those three industries, there is a sense that when you're looking through then lens on your camera, you're viewing an art object of some sort.

These past few weeks (and months), I've loved using my camera to make even what looks mundane to the naked eye, appear more beautiful. I test out various shooting modes to see what comes out with the best visual qualities.

It's made me understand photography as an art form for the first time in my life - and made me realize how much I love being a photographer myself.

Next time I go to Paris, I want to go back to that bakery. I'll stand or sit around hoping to see that man again, wishing that he'd ask me that same question. Though I may never be able to say "yes, I am a photographer" (as I'm not sure I plan to pursue it in any sort of professional capacity), if he were to ask me again I'd amend my first statement.

Instead of "No, I'm not a photographer," I will say "No, I'm not a photographer; but yes, I photograph."

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