A Shot In The Dark: How do you know?


One of the questions that I ask myself almost continually and others ask only somewhat frequently is, how do you know you are pursuing the right path?  How did you decide to become a photographer when that is such a difficult industry? How do you know you will be successful?

Firstly, to all the charmers who ask me this question: I don’t know if I will be successful – that hypothetical crystal ball cannot yet be written off my taxes as a business expense, and I look forward to the day when I will get that much back from the IRS.  Secondly, thank you for pointing out to me (yet again) the instability of my job.  I haven’t thought about it in nearly three hours, so it’s a good thing you reminded me – keep me on track, o self-doubting alter ego and skeptical people!  I digress. Snarky internal commentary aside, it’s a reasonable question, but what we as photographers often hear when it is asked is: why did you pick such an unstable career path?  On a dark day, that question can send any photographer, no matter how outwardly egotistical, into what we will call, “a bit of a mood.”  So here’s my answer, in one sentence, for anyone that has ever asked me that question, and if I’m honest, as a reminder to myself.  I hope it reminds you of why you do this, as well.

I am a photographer because when I hold a camera up to the world I am reminded of its beauty, even in the moments when nothing else will.

Let me expand…

The first time I ever picked up a camera with any sense of purpose, I was 15, and it was an old manual Pentax film camera.  I love that thing for what it started.  The first print I ever made was of stalks of wheat, blowing in the breeze, and mimicked in shadow on the wall behind them.  It was a square print and the stalks of wheat appeared in a pleasing diagonal across the frame.  It was in printing that shot when it first occurred to me that photography allowed me to see things, and find beauty in things, which I would not have ordinarily noticed or considered beautiful. The beauty I speak of is not always purely based on visual aesthetic. I believe it is possible to capture emotional beauty (poignant moments), and that often, the frames that show a raw, worldly grittiness are the most powerful.  They show the vibrancy of life, be it good or bad, and this I find beautiful.  I find these notions of beauty equally compelling as aesthetic beauty (be it natural or artificial).

Fast forward a few years: this mantra sat in the back of my mind as I transitioned from shooting natural scenes to people, primarily in the context of photojournalism.  I realized (and added to the mantra) that photography also allows me to preserve, in some fashion, the beauty of a fleeting moment.  My work in photojournalism was a constant, tangible, reminder that life is temporary and ever-changing, but that, when I hold a camera in my hand, I can slow time just enough to grab hold of some of the beauty that constantly slips by: sometimes noticed, sometimes not.

This was one of those fleeting moments of life that went largely unnoticed, as the crowd focused on President Obama on the stage.  The expression on Bill Clinton's face conveys it all.
This was one of those fleeting moments of life that went largely unnoticed, as the crowd focused on President Obama on the stage. The expression on Bill Clinton’s face conveys it all.

It is a curious thing to feel as if the world has fallen out from under you while, objectively speaking, your life appears outwardly quite perfect.  I suspect that most have had this experience at some point, and thus in having it, I do not claim to be unique.  What I do claim is that, when this happens, one spirals downward to a certain point, at which it becomes alarmingly clear what is meaningful in one’s life and what is not.  As I lay in the dark with my camera resting on my stomach, trying to figure out where to go from there, I felt a sense of peace in running my fingers over the buttons – they were a tangible certainty when nothing else was.  So I got up, I threw on a jacket and slippers (it was the dead of winter), I got on my bike, and I rode down to the lake before sunrise.  I sat and I waited.  And when the sun peeked over the hills and the ice began to glow with pinkish hues, I picked up my camera and shot.  I came home, loaded it on the computer, and wrote the piece that captions the resulting image below. I rediscovered the beauty around me, the beauty of life, the beauty I had spent months looking for, knowing it was there, but not being able to see it.  To write it out now feels melodramatic, to experience it did not.  The act of picking up a camera and shooting reminded me of what it felt like to find meaning in the world around me, and to find meaning is to see beauty and to feel grace.

So to the skeptics, the naysayers, the crotchety and self-deprecating internal monologue, to answer the not-so-cleverly disguised judgments posed as questions, I say this: I am a photographer because each time I pick up a camera, I see beauty, find meaning, and feel grace.  If those aren’t the goals of life, and the things that make people happy, I don’t know what are.  That is how I know I am pursuing the right path.  That is why I decided to work in such a “difficult industry” (read: unstable job).  That is how I know that I will always, by at least a few measures, be successful.

So from me to you, from one photographer to another, from my rent check to your rent check, from one life adventurer to the next… keep on shooting, and don’t be afraid if you feel like your day was “A Shot in the Dark.” That’s why I’m still writing this column :)

Margaret Rowland is an award winning and internationally published photographer who has worked across a spectrum of genres. She learned the art of capturing light on her father's manual Pentax film camera, and now works primarily with Canon DSLRs. Her work has taken her around the world: from presidential election coverage in New Hampshire for Dartmouth (her alma mater), to documentary and travel/adventure work in Paris, New Zealand, & Kuwait, to wedding photography in California. She currently resides in New York City where she focuses on shooting fashion and beauty, both in her Manhattan studio and on location.

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