If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss. I use these terms loosely, for I am not making an argument but rather attempting to describe the pleasure that comes from recognition or rediscovery of certain essences permanently associated with human life. These essences are restored to our consciousness by persons who are described as artists.
For many, photography is a welcome distraction from mundane, boring, or painful experiences. Unfortunately, when practiced for its own sake, photography can also become a distraction from more auspicious, stimulating, and elevating experiences. I’m referring here to experiences such as communing with beauty, savoring visceral sensations, the sense of anticipation and mystery, unexpected discoveries, freedom to explore, to contemplate big thoughts, or to do nothing at all and just take pleasure in your good fortune to be where and when you are.
Answer these questions for yourself, as honestly as you are able to: when the shutter clicks and a photograph of some beautiful feat of life or nature has been captured, are you happier for having “gotten the shot,” or for having witnessed something extraordinary? Would you have been, overall, disappointed if you did not capture a successful photograph in such conditions despite having had a sublime experience?
I remember times when just experiencing something incredible, if it did not also yield a good photograph, would have left me disappointed. I also remember times when having gotten a “great shot” felt like the pinnacle of experience, and sufficiently rewarding as to pack up and leave even as spectacular beauty continued to unfold and the potential for interesting discoveries and exploration still remained. Never thinking about it in such terms, I did not realize I had become so jaded and results-oriented that the very things that once drove me to photograph in the first place, ceased to be rewarding in themselves.
When I came to realize the grim truth—that photographs became more important to me than experiencing the very things I believed made my life meaningful—I felt embarrassed, sad, and disappointed in myself. For a period, I stopped photographing altogether. Leaving the camera behind felt liberating at first, but I still missed photography. In recognizing the psychological mechanisms at play—from peer pressure and a desire to please others, to hedonic adaptation and priming—I also realized that in order to enjoy both my (visceral, emotional) living experiences and the experience of photography, I didn’t really have to give up either; I just had to make myself mindful and conscious of all dimensions of my experience and value them appropriately, reinforcing their positive effects independent of any others.
When you set out with the explicit goal of making photographs, your satisfaction with whatever photographs you ultimately make (or fail to make) will color your entire experience. I don’t believe that photography deserves such power. Photography, when successful, may indeed elevate an experience, but there is no reason that photography should be allowed the power to diminish an experience that may be rewarding in itself. In other words: when you think of an endeavor in terms of “going shooting,” rather than, say, “going exploring,” or, “going to enjoy a beautiful experience,” you set yourself up for the possibility of disappointment even in situations when you have no reason to be disappointed. Worse yet, by priming your mind to only find value in one activity, you may deny yourself some of the most rewarding things you may experience if you were not busy obsessing about photographs.
To be most rewarding, photography should be practiced free from troubling distractions, but we should also be vigilant to not allow photography to distract from other positive and elevating dimensions of experience.