On the hunt for fleeting emotions
I started working in my garage a couple of weekends ago. I was lifting boxes and neatly organizing unnecessary items on the shelves when I found the first camera I ever owned — a Canon EOS Rebel K2.
My rebel was upside-down under a box.
How could I have treated like that something I was so excited to get in the first place?
I immediately felt guilty.
Guilt is my default feeling when I don’t do something I should have.
I would like to blame my Catholic upbringing for those feelings. After all, there are very famous Catholics that became famous because of their feelings of guilt.
Take Descartes for example. He came up with an entire philosophy to deal with his guilt over doubting. I sympathize with him but he should rethink the cornerstone of his philosophy.
Descartes famously pronounced Je pense, donc je suis which translates to the famous proverb we know now I think, therefore I am. At first, he wanted his teachings to reach a wider audience, so he wrote the soundbite in French instead of Latin. Then relabeled it Cogito, ergo sum.
He reverted to Latin later in his career because maybe reaching a wider audience wasn’t a concern anymore. Maybe he was turning snootier. It is known to happen to philosophers as they age.
Descartes intentionally sanitized his teachings because they ignore a seedier truth of human nature or at least his nature. He developed his entire mental models because he felt guilty that he doubted the existence of existence — let alone god with capital g. For his maxim to reflect the true roots of his thinking, it should be I guilt, therefore I am, or Culpitas, ergo sum. Or if we are updating the French maxim, it could go from Je pense, donc je suis to J’accuse, donc je suis.
I know that j’accuse doesn’t mean to feel guilt. But remember, we are going here for marketing soundbites as Descartes did want to reach a wider demographic. Marketing looks different now than in Descarte’s time. Also, guilt is accusing yourself, so it kind of applies.
I’d like to say that the Catholic experience has a monopoly on guilt because it would make for richer stories, “hmmm, guilt, what is that? What an exotic concept?” Now I’m older, I know guilt is not only universal but also, at its core, part of the human experience.
There I was, and there she was. My Rebel is a she because it is a she in Spanish — la cámara. People have baggage; I have gender pronouns for objects.
But there I was, and there she was. I found her upside-down under a box, and I felt guilty, but I also felt relieved.
When the pandemic started, I bought a bunch of dry food provisions for times like this. I bought pasta and canned tomatoes. I bought canned soup and corn. I bought bulk rice and beans. Here is when I knew, I had abdicated my rational thought to mob thinking. I bought beans. Beans! I never buy beans.
If a catastrophe happens and the financial system collapse and we submerge into a dark age, I’ll be very unhappy but not for the reasons you think. Mostly because I boxed a bunch of food that I never ever eat.
I can only imagine what the post-apocalyptic world would look like to me. I would be worried about the end of civilization as I know it, and I would have intestinal distress because the only food I have, I can’t digest.
I got a bunch of water, too.
When I was working through my garage and I found my Rebel, I realized that at least 10 gallons of water had burst, and they were all over the concrete floor, and they almost made it to the camera. That’s how that feeling of guilt quickly turned into relief. I was elated that nothing happened to the camera.
I also wonder about my hypothetical post-apocalyptic situation. Would I have been happy then if I lost the water but kept the camera? Would I have been elated that I could have gone out to take pictures of zombies’ mobs and cockroaches while I slowly die of thirst?
I pushed thoughts of post-apocalyptic survival and how ill-prepared I always am for those events and reminisce in my memories of when I got the camera.
My first job when I moved to California was as a barista at Starbucks. I had always wanted to work with coffee. Before moving to the States, I thought about spending my time drinking coffee and reading books on benches.
For the first couple of years, I was here, I did. I also worked seasonally at Barnes &Noble in the same strip mall as the Starbucks I was working in. Once those two things were accomplished, I started playing with the idea of buying a camera and documenting my explorations of San Diego.
I didn’t know much about taking pictures back then. I still don’t. But it was a fascinating process. You take your picture, and then you wait days, weeks, or months; to see if you have something good.
I remember talking to some of my photographer friends and asking them what tools to get. They would say I just needed a point-and-shoot because the way technology was going that would be all that was going to be necessary.
I was annoyed by those comments. They felt like barriers to entry. They wanted to keep the field all to themselves. But if you have taken a picture with your phone recently, you know that my friends were onto something.
I’m not saying a phone can take a picture the same way that Ann Liebowitz would. But it figures out a lot for you, so you don’t have to, and with your limited time, you can focus on composition and creative expression.
The advancement of technology in every field is constantly striving to streamline and optimize the user experience. It happens in almost every field, and it is happening in photography, too.
When these advancements occur, it renders the old tools of the trade obsolete to the point that they become pieces of nostalgia and memorabilia.
The obsolescence of those artifacts shouldn’t distract us from why we gravitate towards taking pictures in the first place. We are trying to capture moments. We are trying to capture them because of the intrinsic impermanence of those moments.
We want to remember them. We want to immortalize them. We want physical objects that will jolt our memories of the last time our families got together, or when we took a trip to Yellowstone, or when we were kids, and we took a road trip with our parents.
I recently found the photo above. It is a picture of the highway to Lake Morena. If you are familiar with San Diego but have never heard of Lake Morena, don’t beat yourself up. It’s a remote town in East County somewhat close to the border.
My stepdad used to have a cabin out there, and I visited him the day I took that picture. On my way there, I just pulled over and sat on my trunk, and I soaked it all in. I pulled my Rebel, took a couple of pictures, and just sat there for a little longer.
When I look at it, it reminds me of how much I used to love driving in San Diego. When I’m driving through Sonoma County, I get similar feelings because I marvel at those rolling green hills. But the San Diego drives were different because their mountains are different. They are very rocky mountains. But they are awe-inspiring. They make you feel what it would be like to be a rocky mountain. To have that solid confidence in the face of inclement weather and emotional turmoil.
What a different world it was only ten years ago — taking a shot and then waiting a few months to find out whether or not you got something good. Then burying it in your archives to wait and make that decision a decade later.
This picture is a reminder of those times in my life.
We, humans, are hunters and gatherers of food. But we are also hunters and gatherers of moments, memories, and emotions. Cameras help us do that, and it doesn’t matter what the technology looks like. It doesn’t matter if it’s old or new as long as it serves the purpose of why we take pictures in the first place.
It is important to keep that in mind because, at times, the intelligentsia will tell you that your desire to capture moments is a crime if you don’t do it under certain parameters established by them.
Countermovements might feel exclusive because only a handful of people feel chaffed by the constraints of the predominant view of art. But in its exclusivity, it creates equality by toppling the privilege of the establishment who so desperately tries to control the conversation.
Now with artifacts like my Rebel, that’s all they’ve become. They’ve become mementos that remind us of times when we wanted to capture moments through complicated technique and artistry. I don’t anticipate using it any time soon.
I’m happy with the pictures my phone takes. The biggest advantage my phone has over my camera is that I can fit it in my pocket. I don’t look weird when I’m taking strolls downtown with my daughter because everyone has a phone but not everyone has a black box hanging off their necks pretending is comfortable when we all know is not.
My Rebel now sits on top of my desk. I’ve committed to treating it with the respect it deserves, more like a piece of memorabilia that will be irrelevant to generations to come or that might become popular again in the post-apocalyptic world.
It went from being a symbol of privileged and secret knowledge to a reminder of the desire to capture the impermanence of life. A piece of nostalgia of a technique that is no longer necessary.