Why doesn’t this blog have any pictures?
Photography has long been my hobby – I used to take hundreds of photos at a time, even in the film era (what’s film? The kids sometimes ask.). Once things went digital, I would take thousands. At first, I would mostly shoot landscapes – probably because I was shooting with a manual-focus, manual-metered camera and landscapes don’t tend to move all that much. For the most part, I stayed away from people pictures much for this reason. The best ones are candid, un-posed, and I simply couldn’t focus and meter fast enough to catch an unscripted expression worthy of an exposure. Once I entered the autofocus, auto-metering, digital era, taking good photographs of people became much more feasible.
And so I did – lots of them – especially on mission projects. There were so many memories I wished to crystallize – unique faces bearing the full range of human emotion and experience, and largely without the option or even the propensity to conceal themselves with makeup or even contrived expressions. Every eye, every wrinkle seemed to tell a story, the ethos of which I might capture if I took a picture or ten. I would look back at these often, even hanging some on my walls at home. Often, they would release a flood of memories, indistinct and mostly visceral, of the emotions, even the smells I had encountered. The pictures I took appeared to be serving their purpose.
After a few more projects, I noticed that I was taking fewer and fewer pictures. I would get home and have a chance to page through them and would find myself disappointed – where were those faces so worthy of a LIFE magazine cover? How was I to remember? I even found myself swallowing my photographic pride and emailing other trip participants to get copies of the pictures they had taken.
Why was this happening? The reason is likely multifactorial. At a very simple level, my hands were always busy doing something else. My mind was also distracted by all the other small tasks that needed to be done to keep a project moving. I had little down-time to seek out the perfect shot. I was also going places for the second and third time – the newness was waning and with it my shutterbug tendencies.
There were other reasons as well – I would discover, trip after less-photographed trip, that the quality of my memories was not fading as I had feared. In fact, they were improving in ways. Faces were replaced by people. Story-laden wrinkles gave way to actual stories. No longer a camera between us, the nature of my interactions with people deepened.
Psychologists refer to the Hawthorne effect – “a form of reactivity in which subjects modify an aspect of their behavior in response to the fact that they know that they are being studied.” I’m sure you’ve seen it – smiles become forced, tears are not allowed to linger, and unacceptable emotions find a place to hide until the shutter snaps. In short, the process of taking the photograph changes what is being photographed, sometimes completely eliminating it. Sure, the person is still there, but the moment one had hoped to capture is gone without a trace. The memory preserved is a shiny, plastic replica while the genuine article has begun to fade.
There were many snapshots I had hoped to take on this project, but didn’t.
– The forlorn, lonely face of our young, pregnant patient before her appendectomy.
– The abject fear of a toddler being taken to the OR, to be sequentially replaced by exhaustion, resignation, trust, and calm as he is sung to sleep by the anthesia crew.
– The hilarious and uninhibited grin of a man under mild sedation as he tried to teach us Spanish during his hernia repair.
– The collective smiles and laughter of a sweaty ward of inpatients as they suffer through our Spanglish.
– The tired yet willing faces of the OR instrument crew as they agreed to stay late “uno mas” time on behalf of a suffering patient.
– The exhausted, yet satisfied repose of our Bolivian and North American volunteers as they sacrificed sleep and comfort to do what God called them to do, some for the first time in this capacity.
I didn’t take these snapshots, or maybe I did. Much thanks to all of you who have helped in any way to make these memories. Hopefully you’ve shared in them to some extent through the blog. Better yet, consider coming along sometime. Bring your camera, but don’t use it too much.
Now the project is over, and I’m a tourist this week. Let the cameras roll and the shutters fly.