Will or Fortune
Oregon · USA
Some people will never believe as I do, and that's okay. My convictions are my own, and I don't know them to infringe upon the right of others to believe differently. As Morpheus in 1999’s “The Matrix” calmly responded to his rival Commander Lock’s assertion that not everyone believes as Morpheus does, “My beliefs do not require them to.” I realize I'm eschewing a millennia-long history of great religious leaders and philosophers throughout humankind’s existence by dredging up a pop culture reference here (and a sci-fi one at that), but my repository of wisdom is shallower than a kiddie pool, and quite frankly I've never seen this notion so succinctly and elegantly stated.
Accordingly, I feel no particular need to defend my work to others who might care far less about portraying a natural scene more faithfully to their audience than acquiring raw source ‘material’ in the field with the intent of cobbling together a fictitious set of circumstances they conceived in their minds. So what if I swapped a sky out from one photo and placed it over a terrestrial landscape from another place or time? Or if I painted in some fictitious light here and there? Why does it matter? It’s all art, after all…goes the common refrain. And they're absolutely right, of course: It is all art. It's just not my art. And all too often I see this type of dismissiveness or rationalization by artists who, even when queried about the nature of their work, hypocritically veil their fiction behind a shroud of obliquity or, in its most extreme form, outright deception.
It's not that I have any issue whatsoever with compositing images...I don't regard it as any pursuit of lesser or greater artistic merit than what I do...I just distinguish it sharply from the type of nature photography I choose to pursue. The only part I don't understand (or maybe I do, all too clearly…) is why an artist who finds such creative practices perfectly acceptable in their photographic art would be so deliberately evasive, obscure, or misleading about it when asked (yes, some people actually do this!)? Why instead would you not step up and own it, front and center, if it's what you truly believe? This admittedly long-winded response to that question of Why does it matter? is not any kind of self-defense, then, but rather an explanation...an answer--my answer...not to why this should matter to you or anyone else, but to why this imperative toward a more faithful reproduction of natural phenomena matters so much to me.
The fundamental thing to understand is that I consider my very existence to be a privilege. My ability to hike as an able-bodied, relatively healthy man, my ability to care for patients and their families at times of immense vulnerability for them, and my ability to muse and believe and wax philosophical as an able-minded individual (presumably)...it's all an immense privilege to me. Even if you feel these very basic tenets are all unalienable, God-given rights, I'll unhesitatingly point you toward the human tragedy that has scripted itself out innumerable times over the eons (and sadly) still to this day that should strongly suggest to you otherwise. I don't believe that that reality is by any stretch just or right, but I do think it's irrefutably true. Unfortunately.
And so with every privileged moment I have available to seek out and walk amongst the natural beauty of our world, I remain keenly aware that I am not the one who sheltered me in the womb through months of famine and slaughter. I am not the one who forged and then executed a perilous escape plan for his young family on the eve of a murderous communist regime’s invasion of his country’s capital city. I am not the one who left all he'd ever known half a world behind just to give his wife and sons--one five years old, the other still unborn--a shot at the freedom and opportunity that his convictions told him was their birthright. I am not the one who had to start completely anew in an alien culture but took care to infuse the fundamental ‘old-country’ values of family, respect, deference, education, sincerity, and humility throughout their children’s upbringing.
I very much am, however, the one who recognizes the innumerable sacrifices his family has made in order to ensure that their hardships would never burden my shoulders, and that their tribulations would only serve to pave the way to every success that may grace my life's journey. And I know that whatever victories may punctuate the story of my life will never be exclusively mine to celebrate, but fully theirs as well: my graduation from college...my acceptance into medical school...my completion of an at times excruciatingly difficult residency (physically and emotionally) followed by fellowship...my first job in medicine...my first major job change and three years later my second and hopefully last change of employ...my eventual engagement followed by marriage to the most amazing woman I could've ever dreamed into being...none of these could have germinated in the vacuum of space, untethered to the fabric of historical impulse. No--they are all ripples in the pool of fate set in motion by some unseen guiding force that has shepherded us through the tumult and bloodshed of war, the uncertainty and trepidation of relocation, and the awkwardness and at times embarrassment of assimilation.
So what has any of this to do with my photography? In a word: everything. Whether being stunned to mouth-gaping silence before the dancing plasma of the Northern Lights in the arctic sky, feeling the finer reverberations of my soul as I stand within the mesmerizing narrows of a slot canyon, or delighting in the tingling cool spray of a waterfall, I am always keenly aware that my presence there in that exact moment is as a privileged witness to it all, and the fact that conditions are so rarely photographically ‘ideal’ on the overwhelming majority of my outings only further underscores this truth. Because by rights my family should have perished by genocide as two million of our countrymen did within Cambodia’s blood-stained borders, and I should never have been born. But instead, whether I succeed or I fail in whatever endeavor I choose to undertake, the sovereign point is that I had the choice--the opportunity--to begin with. So to fabricate or otherwise deliberately misrepresent what I was privileged enough (or not, as the case may be) to bare witness to feels distastefully dismissive of the forces of history and fate that ushered me to that exact fleeting moment in space and time.
Ultimately, then, what makes a visually-pleasing photograph truly resonate with me is not the fact that it was fictitiously manufactured by sheer human will and wit, but that I know it to reflect a genuine moment that someone was fortunate enough to be privy to. I don't believe we are entitled to any of it, but the more I see of ‘photographers’ covertly swapping out skies, painting in artificial light, warping mountains out of their natural proportions, moving rainbows this way and that, or imploring others for GPS coordinates to ephemeral features or obscure landmarks just so they can produce their own facsimile of an existing photograph--rendering their pursuit from a creative one to a replicative one--the more I begin to think I'm in the rapidly shrinking minority in this increasingly consumeristic direction that photography appears to be taking. If that is indeed the case, then I’ll gladly take my leave of the mainstream...
As I said way back at the start of this all, you may never agree with me or with this ethic, and that's perfectly okay; it is your right. But perhaps on some level you can understand that where I'm coming from is inseparably rooted in what I'm coming from. And so, on a day forecast to be glum and rainy and when I didn't expect a single photographic opportunity to materialize, I ventured out for nothing more than to answer my need to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. And perhaps I could have cobbled together an image like this from bits and pieces of various ‘digital negatives’, a fair bit of editing software know-how, a decent understanding of basic physics, and some artistic gumption, and perhaps you might have felt compelled to say a few kind words about my artistry, creativity, and/or technical prowess. But given all I’ve said up to now, for me that would ultimately feel like utter betrayal--to you, to my family, to my countries, to their history, to my incredible fortune, and, above all, to Him, for it’s not my work that I wish for you to praise, but His. At this magnitude of scale, I would never dare to demand something I feel I have no right to ask for. I will, however, do my best to graciously receive what is graciously given to me.
And so at the fortuitous moment this image was taken, the sun peered through a gap in the broodingly gray cloud cover and illuminated Lower North Falls' cradling canyon in an airy, exhilarating light. And when it moved on just thirty seconds later, two words subconsciously escaped my lips and hung there like gossamer suspended in the crisp winter air: