Is it a failure on my part if, sometimes, I head out for a photo-walk and don’t produce anything from it? Have I wasted my time unless I return with at least one publishable photograph, or an idea for a new blog piece or photo-book?
As an outdoor photographer it might be argued that every time I step outside my house, even if only to pop to the local shops, it’s a potential opportunity to capture an image or dream up a blog-book idea. After all, I carry a camera and note app with me almost everywhere I go. In this respect my default position must surely be walk = observe, take notes and photograph.
Frankly, I think it would be unreasonable to expect myself, or any photographer to function in this way 100% of the time. It’s the fast track to burnout. It does, though, trouble me when I go out on planned photography excursions and return with nothing to show for them. Have I let myself and my family down by returning home empty handed? Do you feel the same when you head out for a walk with your camera and don’t capture a single shot? Thinking about it, I’d say we shouldn’t react this way.
On one level, we can say that we never return home with nothing. Certainly, wherever I walk, I study the area, its pathways, views, vegetation, wildlife, sounds, also its close-up details and even its smells. (I once read that the more we walk and absorb from the path we’re on, the better photographers we’ll be. I’m not sure this applies in practice in my case but I still believe the sentiment). So, even if I don’t capture a single photograph or write down one note, I have learned things about where I’ve just been in the conditions and time that I was there. I store this information away for future reference and maybe a return visit.
But let’s set this easy justification aside. How can a planned photography walk which produces no photographs or related writing ideas not be considered a failure? Well, because this viewpoint pre-supposes that a walk: a photography walk, literary walk, or walk of any kind, must ultimately produce something that has some tangible, measurable value. Something that somehow contributes to our own wealth and the wealth of the nation.
I embark on a walk; therefore, I must create, publish, sell, (hopefully) profit and finally pay tax? And not to do this is a protest march, so to speak, against our commercial and goal-achieving society? That cannot be right.
Nevertheless, many of us are indoctrinated with this view. Why does it carry such weight? Because walking is seen by many as one of the nearest activities we can do to what this super-busy world labels as doing nothing; being lazy, un-productive, useless. Just to stretch the legs, stir the endorphins, quietly meditate: to what end other than our own gratification? Better to sit watching the television or drive our cars. At least we’re using and paying for fuel, power generation and entertainment, thereby contributing to the wealth of society. In other words, it’s better to be consuming stuff than to opt out.
To say that walking has been hijacked by the values of commerce does, of course, sound preposterous. Surely, we can all step out for a walk and produce nothing other than our own thoughts on whatever we like? But there’s that word again, ‘produce’. Is it really possible to enjoy a walk coupled with unfettered mindless thought; to wander out and at an extreme think of nothing; and return home without having achieved anything at all of value? You would think so.
Except, the more aware we become of the creative benefits of walking, of helping us to solve problems, answer tricky questions, calculate responses to challenges and dream up stories for our children, grandchildren and followers, the more unlikely this appears.
So, does this mean that as an outdoor photographer I can never go on a photography walk, or indeed any walk on which I happen to be carrying my camera and note app, without bringing back something potentially marketable? Must I always carry in the back of my mind the spectre of commerce and production efficiency? Forget going for walks for walking’s sake? For to come back empty handed is to act selfishly and fail? Absolutely not.
Walking benefits us physically and, if we allow it, mentally as well. Walking also provides us with a free means to escape the pressures of life, or if preferred, the demands placed upon us by the systems of a profit-oriented society. It releases us from the ties of television and our cars. Instead, we can walk and experience nature first hand, see it, feel it in our faces, with our hands and under our feet; and hear and smell it up close. To walk is also to explore and even discover new things. All of this re-vitalises us and makes us healthier, happier, more relaxed. Ultimately, walking aids our creativity and productivity. Looked at this way, no walk we undertake is tantamount to us being lazy or un-productive. And walks without photographs or usable blog-book ideas are not failures. In the end, these and every walk provide value.
So, if you, like me, have been putting pressure on yourself to make every photography walk pay and not be a fruitless waste of time, it’s time we stopped. From now on, let’s free ourselves from this flawed belief and, as the saying goes, start smelling the roses.