It was 104 degrees, and all four kids were fighting. Outside felt as dry as the Dust Bowl, but I wasn’t about to let the kids stay indoors for another minute, because I love them, and I knew I couldn’t be counted on to keep them alive much longer. So I kicked them out with a plastic bowl bulging with cold, sliced watermelon and slammed the door. Separation was imperative in that moment. I needed space. I hate dusty dry summers, and I hate feeling like I can’t think because of all the noise. It was a moment of double, triple, multiple hates piling on top of one another.
But after a moment standing in blissful silence, I scrapped my need for space, grabbed my camera, and joined them outside. I didn’t talk, I didn’t engage, I just watched them. I planned to use my camera as a means to express my frustration over my horrible-no-good-very-bad day. My emotional tornado of fury needed an outlet.
I’m not sure what or how, but something changed during my first few pushes of the shutter button. I restrained the urge to express myself and chose to simply observe. I watched them fight and drop the bowl of watermelon. I watched my youngest try to rip a slice straight from her brother’s hand – and how he responded with a surprising outburst of laughter. And somehow in the middle of it all I became curious. Now I was fascinated by the sticky dripping juice sliding down their arms and elbows and the trail of mostly-eaten rinds.
You see, normally all of this would annoy me. Messy kids, messy porch – normally I just can’t deal. I’m an introverted only child, and noise and chaos and mess aren’t things that bring me joy. But in that moment, how I felt wasn’t so important, because I had to put those feelings aside in order to be curious – curious about the humorous contrast between my crying daughter and laughing son, curious about the textures of juice on skin and patterns of rinds strewn across the porch steps.
Until that day, I viewed photography as a tool for personal expression. But that had always felt like a burden to me, because it meant I had to have a statement to make.
Now I see it so differently. When I pick up my camera, I can let go of the burden to share something of value. I put myself and my preconceived notions on the back burner and just observe as one who is genuinely curious. When I do this successfully, I am often surprised by my own photographs – not because of their quality, but because of their content. I am surprised by what I want to keep exploring.
I’ve seen it so many times since then. When I wasn’t sure I could handle one more news story of America’s racism, I picked up my camera. I have a multi-racial family and I felt like a pot of boiling pasta getting ready to overflow, so there was plenty of material for artistic expression. But I needed to use the platform of art to process and question more than to push my agenda.
What I began to discover is that while my photographs do not and cannot hold answers to any of the heavy questions I ask, they can allow me to process. I do not need to feel burdened by the weight of solving anything through my photography. That is not its role. When I put my camera to my eye and take an emotional step back, I am surprised by what I see.
I once heard a photographer say his photographs asked questions. I think that is exactly what photographs ought to do. They should reflect an exploration of the photographer’s questions and lead viewers to ask their own questions. But in order for our photographs to do that, we must first be curious. And in order to be curious, we must step back and observe.
Courtney teaches Shooting in Manual, a four-week online class for anyone that wants to learn how to control their camera and the images they are creating.
Our “What I Have to Say” Wednesday series features established photographers and artists with messages they just can’t keep inside. Authentically and honestly, our writers share words of wisdom to challenge, encourage, and inspire.