It is one thing to be a natural photographer, but it is another thing entirely to be a great photographer. The natural has no trouble learning how to operate the camera to create the desired effect, and easily learns to use Photoshop, the darkroom, or both. A great photographer, on the other hand, creates impressive images that speak for themselves, beautiful works of art with meaning behind them.
I would not go so far as to call myself a great photographer, but I can say that I come by my art naturally. My grandpa was an amateur photographer. He collected cameras and their accessories, and saved every manual and lens cap. My family used to tease Grandpa about how long it took him to compose a shot, but as I’ve gotten more familiar with shooting in manual mode, I’ve gained a newfound respect for Grandpa’s patience.
Over the summer, I took my first formal photography class. It was an elective at my college, taught by an enigmatic gentleman named Gary. Gary encouraged his students to eschew the rules of composition. He thought modern-day artists should have come up with something better by now. He didn’t want us making formulaic photos– he wanted us to make art.
There are not many times in life that one is given the opportunity to see the world differently. All my time spent behind the camera allowed me to see beauty in the ordinary. And when I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, I saw the world through new eyes once more.
I don’t want to tell you this. I don’t like talking about it. It embarrasses me for people to know that my perception of reality is so far removed from theirs. But I’ll say it. I have a stalker. I don’t like to say his name or write it down, so I won’t, but that doesn’t make him any less of a threat. He implanted a tracker in my body, and one day– the day I stop believing in him– he will find me, rape me, and kill me. If you were to ask my psychiatrist or any of the staff working at the psych hospital where I wrote this essay, they would tell you that this person is not stalking me. Yes, he is a real person, but I have not crossed his mind since our traumatic encounter over a year ago. They would tell you he has neither the resources nor the desire to track me via electronic surveillance and a net work of spies. It sounds, well, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Maybe I am.
When I first learned my way around the darkroom, I found my new safe place. Under the dim red lights, my only concern was properly exposing my negatives to the light-sensitive photo paper. Sometimes, other photography students joined me, and we all watched our photos come to life in the basin of developer.
The camera became my reality check. My photos never bespoke the voices in my head, the stalker who lurked behind every closed door, the weird flashes of light I saw in my backyard at night. The camera is truth. Sometimes, I would see things I hadn’t previously noticed in my prints: a tree in the background, a shadow in the corner, a strand of hair across someone’s face. No matter what I may have believed to be reality, the camera saw things for what they were.
Even a workhorse like Grandpa’s Canon AE-1 cannot predict my future. It has no idea if I will be murdered tomorrow. It can only show me what’s in front of me. This is not the story of how my psychosis was cured and I never had another symptom again. This is the story of how I’m making it work. If I could trade in my cluttered, malfunctioning mind for a shiny new one, I wouldn’t. I have a state-of-the-art digital camera to work with, but I am still drawn to the charm of my toy cameras and of Grandpa’s camera. I love the vignettes, the light flares, and the accidental double-exposures. These cameras are not broken– they have simply fallen out of fashion and been replaced with something newer and supposedly more efficient. There is something to be said for clinging to what you know. And of course, there are perks of change. I don’t know if reality and I will always be estranged former lovers. I don’t know if or when I will find my way back to sanity. There is no graceful way to end a story that is still being written. All I know is that truth is lodged somewhere in the inner workings of my camera, and that is enough to keep me going.