In the never-ending quest to never miss a moment, do photographers run the risk of missing the point? Photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerström argues that sometimes, you just need to stop and look.
“They call the snow leopard the ‘ghost cat’,” Sean whispers to Walter as they hide from view behind a rock, high in the Himalayas. The duo is in Afghanistan, where Sean has been tracking the leopard for days. “Never lets itself be seen—beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” he adds.
“When are you going to take it?” Walter prods, referring to Sean’s telephoto lens.
“Sometimes, I don’t,” Sean explains. “If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”
“Stay in it?” Walter asks, confused.
“Yeah. Right there. Right here.”
And that dialogue seals my favorite scene from the introspective adventure movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. After a harrowing journey battling sharks in Greenland, escaping fuming volcanoes in Iceland, and trekking in Afghanistan in search of LIFE magazine photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), Walter (Ben Stiller) finally finds him tracking a rare snow leopard.
But when the leopard finally appears, Sean doesn’t take the shot. When Walter questions his illogical decision, Sean’s answer comes as a surprise—he doesn’t want the camera to distract him from the moment.
If you didn’t take a photo, you weren’t there. This seems to be the modern-day, social media-driven default setting for most of us. Back during the film era, we had only a handful of chances to commemorate that awe-inspiring moment, but with the proliferation of digital cameras and phone cameras, we have boundless opportunities—to not only capture the perfect moment, but edit it on the spot and curate which ones we want to share with the world.
We’re often worried that we only have one opportunity to capture a moment. But isn’t every photograph, by its very nature, an attempt to capture something you’ve already seen?
As a photographer, I am forever debating whether I need to capture a shot or let it go in favor of interacting and indulging in a moment during my travels. To be better photographers, we must interact as well as observe. And as travel photographers, we should be getting closer to our subjects and instigating these interactions. Over time, the aim is to learn which shots to let pass by in favor of sustaining those interactions.
We shoot in vain if we don’t occasionally pause to soak it all up—not every moment has to be instantly captured to convey meaning.
Maybe you noticed how the evening light was perfectly draped across the face of a stranger, but by the time you reached for your camera, the light had shifted? You were frustrated and irritated. You felt you’d missed the shot because you couldn’t record it in time; you couldn’t show it to others.
But the irony is, you hadn’t missed the moment.
In fact, you had appreciated it before your mind took over and decided to reach for your camera. That passing moment inadvertently sharpened your observational skills and kept you inspired for the next moment. It trained you to look for light on the next go-around.
This is the gift we get when we let shots go. That conscious act helps us maintain our sense of awe which continually inspires our work. We shoot in vain if we don’t occasionally pause to soak it all up—not every moment has to be instantly captured to convey meaning. Sometimes, to be reminded of why we chose to become photographers in the first place, all we need to do is stop and look.
I remember my first time witnessing the northern lights. I was roughly an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, away from city lights, and was watching the sky burst into bands of green and red, swirling and dancing overhead.
Mesmerized, I’d immediately pulled out my film camera at the time and started snapping away, using any stable surface as a makeshift tripod. I lost myself completely behind the lens, excited that I was going to be bringing home amazing photos of one of nature’s most spectacular shows.
Sometimes, being a good photographer is about taking good photos. Others, it’s about giving yourself time to revel in the spectacle.
Except, my photos never made it back with me. The guy at the film developing studio told me I had handed him seven blank rolls which, unknowingly, had been damaged by the airport’s X-ray machine. I’d lost everything from my trip to Iceland.
While on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I realized the one thing I could never lose was the sense of awe that witnessing the lights spurred within me. And that appreciation happened during those few times when I wasn’t behind the lens and was fully focusing on the phenomena in front of me.
Since that first experience in Iceland in 2006, I’ve witnessed the northern lights numerous times in Swedish Lapland—and I’ve made peace with losing those photos.
But that valuable lesson of savoring the moment was validated when I spent time one winter with professional aurora photographer Peter Rosen in Abisko, Sweden. Having shot the lights thousands of times over decades, you can imagine how easy it is for aurora chasers to become jaded. But Peter goes out night after night.
As I joined him on one of those nightly runs, I realized Peter spent most of the time soaking in the auroras as they danced across the ink-black sky. His camera was perched on a tripod somewhere else, occasionally taking a few shots. So, I stopped taking photos as well. I just watched.
And that’s why my most powerful aurora memory isn’t that first time I saw them in Iceland. It was when I was standing next to Peter close to the top of Mount Nuolja in Abisko, Sweden. I was fully present and had stopped taking photos.
Sometimes, being a good photographer is about taking good photos. Others, it’s about giving yourself time to revel in the spectacle. It’s about letting that shot go.