I have the world's least efficient hobby. I like to take photographs of people and of things I find interesting, cool, funny, beautiful, bittersweet, bizarre, sensual, or even nostalgic. I practice my hobby by choosing a camera and a lens and then driving or walking to an area that I think holds the promise or potential of providing any subset of these thing. Then I walk around all day long just casually looking. Sometimes I'll go to San Antonio and walk around the downtown area from early morning on a Saturday until sundown. Sometimes I feel like I'm coming home with little treasures captured in my camera and other times I'll be frustrated and feel as though I'm wasting my time.
As cities become more and more homogenized there are fewer interesting anomalies to look at and enjoy. When I come home empty handed I start to feel as though I should have worked on something commercial. Instead of roaming around in old clothes and tennis shoes with a jewel like camera in my hands I should be concocting some sort of marketing piece or spend a warm and viscous afternoon calling clients and potential clients on the phone, trying to set up an appointment to show them other commercial work that I've done.
If it's been a particularly fallow trip I consider that I may as well get a real job and spend eight hours a day in a building somewhere with canned air, sitting behind an industrial desk, working on templated software, getting up every once in a while to fetch and drink a diet Coke, all the while feeling the back of my eyes burning from the almost undetectable flicker of the sixty cycle fluorescent lights. Occasionally heading down the hall to ask Doreen in accounting if we can budget money to do something meaningless and mundane. I try to weigh the advantages of working for someone else and I always imagine that it would be in some company whose offices are in North Austin. I also imagine that the hours will be strictly enforced. I'll be on the Mopac Expressway in my little car sitting motionless or near motionless for forty-five minutes to an hour. In each direction. I'll listen to the same stories (at least they seem like the same stories) over and over again on NPR. Or I'll listen to the worshipful gun nuts on one of the other stations talk about which automatic weapon Jesus would have owned and how vaccines are turning us all into communist leeches.
But some days I go out into a city with my camera in my hand and twenty dollars in my pocket and everything is fun. Fun and strange images and juxtapositions erupt merrily with every few steps. I meet people who are a bit insane and generally far more interesting than most people you will ever meet in the sort of antiseptic, middle class existence that we create in the hopes that our isolation will ensure our personal safety. Is that scruffy guy with the old digital Rebel the next Robert Frank? Is the woman behind the counter of the donut shop really engaged in selling donuts or is she an actor playing the part of a woman selling donuts?
I'll bet I walked fifteen miles the last time I was in San Antonio pursuing my lonely hobby. I must have looked at more street level windows and doors than I could keep count of. I drank coffee at the Apache dinner but it wasn't very good. I found a Starbucks and the coffee was much better. Old men stopped to ask me if my camera was digital. Young people avoided me so I couldn't get a toehold and start off on a never ending story like their uncles or their parents.
My uniform was inconsistent. I could see that in the eyes of the policemen I walked past. The shorts were a green that was becoming so washed out that they are starting to look tan. I've lost weight and the shorts are just a bit too baggy. I was wearing ankle high, white sports socks. The nondescript gray pullover shirt was vague but it came from Barney's. And my new walking shoes were totally out of the consistent uniform pattern. They were a brand called Ahnu and they cost $125.
The camera of the day was something equally vague. A mid level Nikon digital or an early mirror less. My watch was a $15 Casio that is more accurate than my $1200 Fortis which sits on my night table running down, automatically.
In days past a camera was an invitation to learn more and lean in. To strangers it was a fun momentary connection. Some were happy to have been considered interesting while some just acquiesced for no real reason other than it was the stream of least resistance. In days past having a camera pointed at a person tended to validate their own idea of their own image. If you pointed it at a woman she may have assumed that you were validating her beauty. If you pointed it at a person in a military uniform it validated the idea that you appreciated their service. The bottom line was that having a camera pointed at a person made them realize that they were interesting. At least to one person and at least right now, at that moment.
Now the world is different. The mood has changed and the innocence of creating images just for the sake of creation is gone. It's been replaced by suspicion and the idea that photographers are participating in a mercantile skim in which the images, stolen from the subject, becomes so much irretrievable raw material for a giant stock photography site where everyone is getting rich but the subject. Now they want to be cut into the deal. Photograph someone of the other gender and you are suspected of devious intentions. Photograph a person in uniform and you are a de facto terrorist.
And in spite of everything I've said I still love it. I love the vagaries and uncertainty of just walking and looking. I love the challenge of winning over people to my fleeting and mostly ephemeral cause. I like the feeling of driving back up the highway with a card full of latent images just waiting their turn to promenade across my monitor and remind me of how the air smelled and how the heat played across my skin in the afternoon. I love to sift through the images of random people and piece together my fictional version of their story just from the images and from the bits and pieces we shared in our brief and shallow encounters.
And I am reminded that, in a sense, the real value of walking around the streets with a camera is the hard-to-describe but authentic and joyous immersion in actual, real life. Not a life of trading time for money or trading blunted curiosity for safety. In some sense the walk through other people's lives is a never ending search for some sense of universal belonging and understanding that I can interpret and weave into my own existence. The images are tiny, encapsulated visual novels. I can read and re-read them into my memory at any time. And every time I engage them their story seems to change. And I know that I've changed and even though I'm looking straight ahead at the same images I know I'm looking through them at a different angle.