Nicaragua Notes: Free Shoot


Toward the end of the workshop week we had an afternoon staring back at us as wide open. Well, let me rephrase that. Those of us who were not responsible for the technical and production side of the workshop, meaning editing, sequencing, rating and producing films were staring at a few hours to kill. It felt odd due to the frenetic pace of the prior days. The kids were buzzing around like mosquitos, shooting around the lodge and trying to make pictures of each other. We decided to just walk, down the camino tierra leading from the lodge, downhill through farm properties and out into the jungle. Not really knowing what we would see, we just went.
Remember, photography was still new. Still unexpected, unsuspecting and illuminating. I was amazed at how positive, how forward thinking and how excited they were to shoot anything and everything. There was a purity to their action that reminded me I need to keep things in perspective with my own work. After you do this photography thing long enough you suddenly have an agenda. Some people call it career, but either way it changes you. The kids reminded me about purity of thought and purity of action.

No matter what we do the world moves along at the pace it chooses to move. Things happen and our job is to be there and witness. A small farm, the foreman with his radio and machete. Moving his cows down the road and suddenly there are a dozen kids in a full-court-press of photography, working the scene from every angle. Helping each other, pointing things out, making suggestion. “Make a color photograph in black and white,” I said. Suddenly they are shooting and rushing up to show the preview screen. Easy.
Cows on a road might not be your cup of tea, might not be inspiring to you, but I am saying it should be. This little scene reminded me that I’ve taken far, far too much for granted. Star players don’t just play the final match and hold aloft the trophy. Star players grind it out through round after round. They might be the star but they are also part of the foundation. Just as everyday images are to us photographers. Being with these kids and watching them work made me realize the cows, and this road, were the most beautiful thing, and most beautiful place, in the world. What was I waiting for? A Yeti to appear? A dance troupe? Something exotic? No silly, the cows are exotic. The road, the landscape, the foreman, the kids and the MOMENT it all came together. Forget agenda, forget career, forget all that which means NOTHING in the long run, or even the now for that matter.
Just shoot. Shoot what’s there. Enjoy. Record and reflect. Study. Admire and respect. It’s very, very simple if you get out of the way and just let it be.

For those of you reading this post who are thinking I’m posting about photography you might be missing the point. This post isn’t about photography, certainly not good photography, so slow down and think about what I’m saying. Life is a seesaw battle, back and forth. Learn and unlearn. Learn and unlearn. I’ll admit, most of the good things that have happened to me in the last five years with a camera in my hand have all been from unlearning. Baggage. Leave it behind and just look. It sounds easy but it surely isn’t. I know this might sound like a sermon, but I keep seeing so many folks go down the road of being liked, being trendy, etc, and what it gets you is simply, at best, a short term gain. All you have to do is channel the feeling you had when you FIRST picked up a camera, like these kids, and use that to your advantage. It had nothing to do with success, a career, books, magazines, galleries, museums or anything else. It was about the hunt and the moment. Crediting what is in front of you and how fantastic that is, long before the idea of filtering it became a reality. Don’t filter, just enjoy. And realize you might not ever walk those same steps again.
Since returning from this trip I’ve continued to unlearn the things that Nicaragua, and the kids, proved to me I no longer needed to know, or at least respond to. It’s liberating actually. I hope these posts have meaning to someone outside of the guy striking the keys. There is much to do in the photographic world. No time to waste. All we need to do is connect and forget.

13 responses to “Nicaragua Notes: Free Shoot”

  1. Charlene says:

    I’ve spent the last 8 months back in a place I’ve been wanting to leave since I was a little child, fighting all these demons in my head, being angry, then sad, then angry again because it feels so impossible to move here – forget professionally, it’s the personal stagnation that fuels the sort of angry despair that for me, is associated exclusively with this place. It is a place of plenty – wealth, commercial opportunity, education, anything at all. Success, recognition and prestige are waiting to be had.

    (Ah sweet, sweet irony.)

    But in the last month or so I too have been doing a lot of unlearning, and consequently, a lot of learning to let go, let be, and stop fighting because the world isn’t moving as I think it should be. Weigh the cost against the outcome, the intent against the direction, and figure out if it is meaningful to life, in the moment, outside of vanity, the desire for affirmation, and all those other things that shouldn’t matter.

    They are good lessons.

    • Smogranch says:

      It used to be so great, not easy, just great. And then one day you decide this is going to be what you are going to do and then it all changes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this discussion with REALLY established folks who have traded so much for a “career” in the game. So much. I’m able to fly around in circles with some amazing folks and they seem me with Leica/TRI-X and say “Oh man do I miss those days.” We have all resigned ourselves, seemingly, to the idea that life is lived in “days” or “eras” and when the masses consider those days over then everyone must move on. I just don’t get this. Does this mean that Rushdie needs to write like 50 Shades of Grey?

  2. Mike says:

    I once read of how W Eugene Smith gave a photo lecture and spoke only about music. At the question and answer someone complained that he had not mentioned photography during his talk. He replied that what goes for music also goes for photography.
    This day will not come again. Seize the day!


  3. Sean says:

    These words aren’t wasted Dan. They make more sense than ever. Since ‘giving up’ photography and instead cycling with a camera in my jersey pocket I’ve been enjoying both ‘photography’ and cycling a lot more.

    Dropping all the fluff and just getting back to raw basics – the pure essence of ones life – is what it’s all about. It’s totally liberating.

    • Smogranch says:

      Liberating is a great description. I find the same to be true. I also find myself looking at less and less work. Reading more, writing more, etc. Cycling my mind…at least.

  4. lionelB says:

    I think it is about exploring. That doesn’t mean that the subject has to be exotic or even unfamiliar. It just means that it has to be something not yet properly examined but sufficiently interesting to make it worth looking.

    When we are born we are natural explorers but then as the conceit develops that we “know”, we feel less need. We have built a simplified version of everything and with that, we manage to get by. And so become lazy.

    I suspect that some time with a large format camera would do us all some good. Seeing the world upside down would unpick some of the stitches.

    • Smogranch says:

      We could talk till the end of time about the explorer we are born as then have this slowly drummed out of us. I love traveling and seeing some 80-year-old out there giving it a go. Always trying to get my mom out too.

  5. scott says:

    Really digin’ the sounds with the words (nice cover of Simon & Garfunkel on the flute).

  6. Loved this — all of it — the images, the spirit and the place. (I found you through Charlene who’s been following my blog and become a friend I have yet to meet.)

    I spent 8 days this year in rural Nicaragua, traveling by van and dugout canoe even, to work with WaterAid and document their work there as a writer; our shooter was Rodrigo Cruz from Mexico. It was life-changing to come back to crazy $$$$ obsessed NYC and simply…turn on a tap and have fresh, clean water at my beck and call. The kindness and welcome we felt there (5-member multimedia team) moved me as well.

    I hear you on the challenge of “career” versus…just seeing, listening and experiencing. I’ve been a freelancer since 2006 and it has to be all about the $$$ and the getting of it just to pay bills. The creative satisfaction is increasingly elusive.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Caitlin,
      The moment this becomes a job almost all of it changes. Today more than ever before. I know a lot of photographers who haven’t shot a single picture of their own in YEARS. Some on purpose, others because they are trying to cover the bases each month. Photography has been devalued to such an extent I’m not sure where it goes from here. Just roaming around with a camera is the reward.

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