Or why I love my sometimes under-performing camera and you should too.
A spiral bound map of Vancouver Island skidded across the console and slapped my gas-station pizza sub from my hand. The seatbelt bit into my sternum. I glanced up just in time to see a beige blur emerge from the forest ahead. Without so much as turning her head, the 250 kg elk trotted across the West Coast Highway and disappeared again into the dewy firs.
"Holy shit." I felt the stupid grin of adrenaline begin to form.
"And that's why you always obey the signs on this highway," Jordan said. His dashboard hula girl gave a series of spastic salaams, ceramic face coming dangerously close to her moulded plastic base. "I don't care how you drive in Victoria." He fingered the stickshift as we shuttered North along the uneven pavement. "Out here you always obey the signs."
I first drove this road to Port Renfrew in 2009. I'd come up as a student journalist to report on Canada's first ever wave skimboarding competition and, although I hadn't returned in the four years since, 750 words of overblown metaphors had burned a particular version of the place into my mind—groves of bearded giants, near-glacial waters, and endless coastal fogs. I love the setting, but am embarrassed every time I reread that story. Still, I keep it in a green binder on my desk, despite the fact that l'll never use the tear sheet and my byline is spelled wrong. It's a physical memento of the first time my words were published at someone else's discretion. As a result it feels like one of the most significant things I've ever written. Even if its one of the worst.
By the time I met Jordan in a festival photo-pit, three years later, I'd published hundreds of pages of slightly better prose. In the process, I'd graduated from first-time student paper contributor to the hardly more lucrative position of covering arts and culture as a staff member for a local online publication. I'd also been shooting my own stories for a couple months. Jordan ran his own photography company.
He laughed at my dirty old D7000, my sweat splattered 30 mm lens, and proceeded to whip out gigantic piece of glass—probably three times the value of my own but up kept as if it were worth even more.
"Whatever dude, I'm new to this." I shrugged. I definitely had one of the more 'compact' kits in the pit but I justified this by telling everyone I was a writer who just happened to shoot photos. A professional rig came with a responsibility I wasn't ready to bare.
"It's not how you get the images, it's what you get." I overhead another photographer say. He pointed to a young girl none of us recognized. She's just stepped into the pit with a shiny plastic point and shoot. "Just by being here she's done most the work already. Plus, if she pulls this off she'll probably have some of the most interesting content of the weekend."
Shuffling along a muddy logging road, mid-way between Port Renfrew and the Cowichan valley, Jordan and my gear discrepancies were as pronounced as ever. We'd reached the furthest point we could by car. Jordan sniped a distant coil of Gordon River, emerging from the forest below, with his two-handed telephoto. I spent my time trying to compose an image of his Landcruiser standing off against a series of impassible potholes. I wanted to document how far we'd come. I borrowed Jordan's 18-24 mm for a shot or two, and although I noticed the increase in image quality the superior glass allowed for, I circled back for my faithful 30 mm now caked with dirt instead of beer and speckled with dings from living in the base of my backpack.
I'd been shooting with it nearly exclusively for just over a year now. It had been around the world with me at the expense of more dexterous lenses but I loved the way it lightened my bag and forced me to physically engage my subject in order to get the shot I required. I'd had a countless conversations with portrait subjects as I clambered around their house in order to get the composition and lighting I couldn't construct with additional gear. I'd come far closer to wildlife than I probably should have as a result of leaving my telephoto at home.
Trade journals are filled with stories of artists equally faithful to their gear or method. Steve McCurry captured a dynamic portfolio from around the world with a single lens. Jack White once famously claimed that we should learn to write songs by removing the bottom three strings from our guitars. Both with argue that by limiting your toolkit you force yourself to rely on creativity. The mastery of both artists in their respective mediums will confirm the success of this approach; however, probably more important is noting that although both follow a radically different methodology than the mainstream, neither's process is immediately apparent from their work. When I first started writing, not long before I penned my Renfrew piece, I did so because I was equally interested in constructing beauty with limited resources. The idea that I could build worlds out of 26 characters arranged in a series of permutations was mind boggling. And although the initially products were far from perfect, I learned something else about story-telling.The word 'Storyteller' says it all, really-- that the story need to come first. After that, we can focus on the way that story is told, as long as it remains derivative to the narrative itself.
Despite me having proficiency of a literary toddler, my Renfew piece it still ran. It did so because the content resonated with an audience: a couple batshit skimboarders charging the frigid waters of a Pacific Northwest in order to bring attention to a sport they loved. Despite my best attempts I couldn't ruin that. You can fake the medium but you can't fake the message.
Obviously mastery of both form and function is ideal, but even grainy photo essays, citizen journalism, and lo-fi cellphone videos, can succeed if the content they highlight is touching and true. I have no doubt that my images from Jordan and my trip to Renfrew are technically the weaker of the two. I probably still have years of catching up to do before I can consider myself more than a 'writer who just happens to shoot photos.' But by tracking down a story worth telling I've done most the work already. The rest will come with practice and time.
The other day I was asked if I would ever upgrade my well-loved camera kit. Eventually, I said. But that's something I don't plan on doing until it's absolutely essential for the content I'm trying to produce. A higher dynamic range and wider shots would cost me more than a plane ticket to Iran, Ethiopia, or Papua New Guinea (maybe even two or three combined!) Which images would you rather see?