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Life Through The Lens

Opinion | December 4, 2011

Will Vaughan

I can’t remember a time in my life before I had a camera. I’m sure there was one, but around the time I was able to start forming memories my parents gave me a present that would end up influencing me for years to come: a Fisher Price Perfect Shot. It had large handles on each side for easy gripping and two viewfinders to make it easier for us kids to look through. Molded blue plastic framed the lens and a simple red strap hung loosely by its side. I don’t know where that camera is today, or any of the pictures I took with it, but that bit of plastic and glass helped shape the way I experienced the world from then on. Some people are said to have a “photographic” memory; I’m not one of them. My life has often been plagued with friendly conversations that go something like this. Friend/Family Member: “Hey Will, remember that time we went to that awesome place and did that amazing thing?”. Me: “Um…No.” However, this often changes once I’m there, seeing the place again. All of the memories come flooding back, as if no time has passed at all.

I’ve long wondered at my ability to somehow remember a seemingly unlimited number of song lyrics, while completely forgetting the name of the person I’ve met six times, or the time I unknowingly invented the dance that would come to be known as “The Will” (although certain jungle juice may have been to blame for that missing memory). I think I may have been originally drawn to photography out of necessity. Either that, or because my parents helped my brain find a shortcut for creating memories at such an early age, I never developed those particular neural pathways. Whatever the reason, I’ve had a camera within an arm’s reach for as long as I can remember.

I’m not proud to admit it, but I’ve often suffered from camera envy. I was hit hard and early, lusting after my cousin’s Sony Digital Mavica before I’d run out of enough fingers to know how old I was. One Thanksgiving he introduced me the miracle of digital photography, presenting the photos he took in the car that very morning on the camera’s tiny LCD screen. He took a picture of me, and there I was, smiling back at myself from this magical device. I was mesmerized, and boy did I want one. If only I knew then where that burning desire for instant gratification would lead.

Two years later, my dreams came true, and my very own Mavica arrived as a joint Christmas/birthday present. I popped in the floppy disk and began firing away with the might of 1.6 megapixels behind me. 10 years later, those first blurry, poorly composed shots are still sitting on my hard drive, marking my entry into the world of digital photography and demonstrating that just because you have a camera doesn’t mean you can take great photos.

Photography is first and foremost a surrogate for my surprisingly lacking personal narrative memory. Family vacations would always trigger a large spike in my photo use, as I would take frequent photographs and tag them with information about the trip. I was never too into arts and crafts, but I suppose this was like my own version of scrapbooking. Slideshows made with Windows Movie Maker would highlighted our trips, and calendars hand-made for family Christmas presents summarized the year.

As I got more and more into taking photos, I began to read up on photographic techniques and theory. I experimented with Photoshop, and what had once been a tool to help build memories soon became a way of expressing myself and my view of the world. The Nikon D70 entered my life, and together we explored waterfalls, foreign countries, and the macro world of my backyard. My Flickr stream ballooned, and I even built a website to showcase some of my favorite photos. I had become a hobbyist and had finally learned why I’d always been so enthralled by photography.

Every day there are so many moments worth remembering, but most get relocated to some dusty corner in the back of our minds, rarely revisited if remembered at all. We pass through our days focused on the task at hand and rarely stop to look around and truly see the world around us. More importantly, each of us views the world through our own experiences, our preconceptions, and our personal history, never quite seeing the same thing as those around us. Photography allows us to share this personal view with others, while also preserving those moments in time that might have otherwise slipped past. We take photos to share with our friends, to showcase what we find beautiful, and share our story through our own eyes.

For me, photography will never be a profession or a true expression of my artistic vision. My photographs will never be hung in a museum alongside those of Ansel Adams. And that’s how it should be; it’s not why I take them, or why most people are adding to the trillions of existing photographs. The art of photography is not one where we impose our internal views on the world or create something completely from within. Photography is where our inner world and the world we interact with come together. Our photoset of last night’s party; the family portrait we took in front of the Christmas tree the images of protestors clashing with police—these all tell our story of the world as we see it each and every day.