By six o’clock on a Sunday night, the streets of Invermere were deserted. It was early fall, the middle of dead season for a skier’s town, and I was trotting down to the highway to hitchhike back up the mountain, to the resort where I lived and worked. It had rained earlier, and the damp streets were glowing with one final hour of of sun before it ducked behind the mountains.
I’d spent the day in town, alone, on what was as much a photo-taking excursion as a grocery run. Walking along a silent residential street, I passed an overgrown picket fence, peered nosily into the adjacent yard, and saw something that made me stop.
Not six feet away, a female deer was dining on someone’s flowerbed. Deer are common in British Columbia, and strangely unafraid of people in the town of Invermere, but it’s rare to ever be this close to one. It must have known I was there, but it wasn’t alarmed my by presence. I just stared.
As if to invite me to join her, she lifted her head from the flowerbed and looked at me, with a wilted purple flower hanging from her mouth.
And my camera was already right in my hand.
I paused, and suddenly felt an anxiety swell inside me. To even just carefully flip on my camera and raise it for a photo might scare it away. But it was such a priceless photo op. I didn’t know what to do, so I continued to not move a muscle.
While I was stressing about how to get this photo, she cocked her head and looked at me curiously, like I was just some strange, awkward deer. I just about burst out laughing.
At this point I decided there would be no picture, and suddenly felt a tremendous relief. I would just watch, and not worry about trying to take this moment with me.
She ducked her head back in the mess of frost-ravaged flowers and continued chewing for a moment as I looked on, probably smiling, so pleased to know that this spectacle was just for me. After a while she walked away, unhurriedly but not aimlessly, much more akin to a person than a deer.
I recovered from my trance, and headed down to thumb a ride before the sun was gone. A jeep quickly pulled over and I jumped in.
I thought about the deer all the way up but I didn’t mention it to the driver. He was an easygoing maintenance guy up on the resort. We talked about football.
When I arrived home, I ended up not telling my friends either. It was over, and was just a story now. They would never be able to appreciate it how magical it was. They would probably say, “Oh, cool,” and somehow the whole experience would become that much less cool to me. So I kept the experience all to myself. Now that I think of it, I never actually ever told anybody, and that was seven years ago.
There was just something so fulfilling about not trying to ‘cash in’ on it by telling the story. I’m only relating it now because it illustrates the point I want to make so well.
The Urge to Own Moments
I’ve had that same kind of “camera anxiety” many times since, and I know I’m not the only one. I’ve heard other people talk about this. They see something beautiful or touching, maybe a sunset, an animal, or a tearful speech, and the urge arises to capture it with a camera. Look what’s happening! Don’t let it get away!
Sometimes we want so badly to capture a remarkable moment in progress, that we introduce an unnecessary anxiousness to our experience of it. Anxiety is a dead giveaway that we are not entirely present for it, because half our attention is in ‘later’ mode. I need to save this. I need to have it for later, not just now.
Many times I haven’t been entirely present in these special moments because I’m concerned that I won’t get a good shot. I flip the camera on, switch to the right settings, shuffle to the right angle, and hope it’s still remarkable by the time I’m ready to take the picture.
When I really think about that impulse, it’s quite an arrogant one. What I’m really trying to do is own that moment, so I can show it off to others, or perhaps just indulge in it later whenever I feel like it. I want to steal those bears and archways and waterfalls from BC or Montreal or Mexico and hoard them in my computer, as if that would actually make them mine.
So many of my photo albums are full of exactly that: dead images of mountains, beaches, trees and buildings that all humbled me when I was actually in their presence, but none of which confer any of that magic through their portraits. Hopefully I enjoyed them in real time before I took my camera out.
As I show a series of travel pictures to friends and family, usually most get flipped through without eliciting a comment from anyone. It’s just another palm tree or person waving or church steeple. And most albums only get looked at once. Yet at the time I probably felt like I was somehow immortalizing my experience.
Now I won’t knock the remarkable ability good photographers have to communicate volumes with an incredible photograph, but I think “capturing a moment” is a largely a myth. A captured image can invoke torrents of emotion and suggest a touching narrative, but it can’t take you back to the moment, especially if you weren’t there in the first place.
Good pictures do pull all sorts of compelling emotions, opinions and stories out of our brains — different ones from different viewers — but those are all just projections, assumptions about the moment the picture came from. Some may be appropriate, others completely misplaced. The moment itself was over as soon as it happened.
We Don’t Always Need Souvenirs
How amazing it would be if we could let the experience itself be enough, however long or short it may be, and let go of the need to try and make a possession of it. To let the sun go down when it pleases, to leave the waterfall where we found it, to let the deer slink away into the trees without a trace. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate acknowledgment that it was, indeed, amazing?
A former girlfriend was fond of saying, in our most blissful moments, “I wish we could bottle this.” I knew exactly what she meant, it’s a lovely thought. Sometimes the moment was just so perfect, you’d be struck with the notion that most of the rest of life couldn’t live up to it, and it would be nice to have a little stash of that beauty and bliss for later. On closer examination, that common sentiment is tinged with fear, the fear that the experience will soon be lost. And of course, it always will be.
I wanted to bottle it too. But you can’t. It flows when it flows, and there’s nothing in the world that can contain it, so you’d better really be there when it does.