h o t o g r a p h y  &  R e f l e c t i o n

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It had rained. The depressions in the bike path were filled with water and some of the falling autumn leaves blowing about were trapped by the pockets of water. I looked down as my wheel went by what I thought was a small puddle of wet leaves that was in fact a speckled frog sitting in the water. Another rider was approaching me on the path and I quickly shouted out, ‘there’s a frog there.’ She thought I meant for her to avoid it. I had wanted her to stop and look at it. Like skirting around the frog in the pathway, our culture seems to have us skirt around any indication of decline, deterioration, loss, abandonment or dying. Funeral Services training is one of the programs taught where I work, but nobody would know it. Future funeral directors aren’t walking the halls in their dark suits, like the future chefs in their whites, the future graphic artists with their portfolios, or the future filmmakers with their cameras. To find the funeral program, you have to know about the obscure door, stairs and long hallway few know about.

It shocked me when I returned along that bike path two days later, and saw the carcass of the frog lying there. I quickly pedaled past it. We avoid the darkness. It threatens our pursuit of comfort which seems to be the driving force of our cultural, political and personal ambitions. Comfort is what the politicians promise us in order to gain our support and it’s what we look for from the products we buy. In a material and consumer culture, that notion of safety is seemingly entirely defined by things we surround ourselves with that ease our discomfort. Just consider all the sugar we consume.

In our culture, there is little value for choices that embrace regress, loss or abandonment. These are to be avoided. Avoiding these define us as successful, admirable people. Should we get trapped by the shadow --have a breakdown or lose a job- we lose status, and respect and with that our sense of self also crumbles. Downsizing is only forced upon us.

Other cultures embrace the shadow. Friends familiar with eastern tradition and belief describe darkness, not as evil, but as the devourer, an archetype that is seen as a part of life, essential to it. There must be erosion and decay for the new to be born. Death is part of life, essential to it. Not for us. For example the shadow we avoid might be not telling others of our lonliness. It could be never making a call or writing a note to someone we love. The shadow we might avoid by holding on to the security of a job when  we know we should be doing something else. Can't risk the security, the dependance. The shadow might be not facing up to changing a lifestyle or behaviour.

By avoiding the dark and hard things, we also deny ourselves the light, that is, a more fulfilling life, the birth that comes from death. Richard W. Bulliet takes this to another level in his book Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers. He writes of a time when humans saw themselves more as animals living with other animals. Today he points out, we are disconnected from the animal world. We don’t slaughter the animal we eat. Animals aren’t much more than than products, objects of our comfort as leather and food, or as images of self-reflection such as in the power of a lion,  freedom of a dove or a pet.

Bulliet says this disconnection with the animal world results in a loss of understanding. Bulliet describes a time when humans regarded animals as objects of worship, shamans transmigrated into animals and birds, the slaughter of animals inspired awe and incurred guilt. To kill an animal meant something. In native tradition, one embraced the tree and asked forgiveness of the tree before cutting it down. The tree, as the animal did, sacrificed itself for our sustenance and the sacrifice of the animal was a great cost felt deeply by humans. West Coast indigenous people spent six months in ritual communing with the whale they would hunt in the spring. They speak of the hunting, not that they go out in search of the whale, but that they meet the whale at an appointed place and time. In that prior six months or so of ritual communication with the whale, the whale has agreed to give itself over to them for their need to survive. The whale asks that they do it as respectfully as possible. As these West Coast indigenous people, humans deeply connected to the earth and its way embraced the darkness, knew what it was like to draw the knife across the throat of an animal, and by drawing that knife, knew what it means to celebrate, honour and worship life; dying and ecstacy were part of the same whole.

The old Semitic story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that humans ate from and by that act were cast from paradise wasn’t a tree of goodness alongside evil. Instead the expression good and evil employs a literary convention of the time called a merismus that represents a totality, in this case, the total or complete human moral order. Good and evil are not polar opposites in conflict with each other, but together are a full and complete experience.

A camera sensor reads the light and calculates exposure of a picture based on a median 18% gray. The meter balances the light and dark in the image for a well-exposed picture, but that doesn’t mean all photos are gray. If the subject of a picture is mostly black or in shadow, the photographer must compensate for the meter. Otherwise, the camera sensor would try to make the darkness a middle gray. Or if the subject of the photo is mostly light and white, then the photographer must compensate so that all the white doesn’t become middle gray. What does that say about balance in life? Balance is not making everything gray, staying in the middle, but rather life is about finding meaning in the light and the dark – the meaning it has for each of us.

To ignore the dark is to ignore the light and live with everything gray. Hiding from the full experience of light and dark, hiding to be safe means we lose the full spectrum of our human experience. To avoid the fear is also to negate the joy. The photographer finds an ideal image by allowing for the dark and the light, by letting the dark and light shape the photo; that seems to be living bravely. Living in an affluent society, many of us can shield ourselves from difficulties and the hardship of others. We live in a plastic and passive state, foraging for our emotional needs in buying products, or watching movies or looking at ads. TV shows and magazines let us live our lives in the celebrity of someone else, which we think safer than living it ourselves.

We couldn’t bear to slaughter the animal we eat, but we watch TV or internet news. Hundreds and hundreds of times, we have seen people  killed, every time to stare at human suffering and misery, and at the same time we watch the upbeat laughing happy ads: watch both with the same gray passiveness. Hardly caring about either, because neither we embrace.

And we know so little about life despite the hours we spend in front of the TV, online or at the mall. Consider this past year in Canada. We have racked up a 55 billion dollar deficit in one year. It had been a huge national accomplishment when for a few years we had 5 billion dollar surpluses. Where are we now? We spent a 55 billion dollar deficit in one year because we were unwilling to face the loss and erosion of economic prosperity. By ignoring the shadow, sticking to the false gray, we delude ourselves and deceive ourselves.

Eventually the shadow will force itself on us. We die slowly. It’s harder to get things done. We compromise more. We are more forgetful. We slowly let go. We end up in a room, on a bed, never to go outside again, never again to feel the wind on our cheek or feel the warmth of the sun on our face. Someone brings us food. And we lie in our bed, get moved to a chair. We look out the window. And a day comes and it’s our last day ever, our last sunrise, we exhale our last breath. We die, some of us dead long before that.

Riding my bike on the Humber River Trail, I saw an older couple standing at the side of the river, holding hands. Their bodies were old, didn’t move so well, were failing them, but their happiness struck me in the moment I rode by. Even though they were in their declining years, little left for them now but to take slow steps down to the park, they were enjoying what they had. It struck me that old age is a time to honour life by saying our last goodbyes to the world, thanking the world for all the sunsets and all the storms, all the laughing and crying.

I felt the two people standing with each other by the river, facing towards the sun, holding hands, had embraced death and by that found life. Death is life. It seems so much better to welcome death, than ignore death. Photographs honour life when they capture the moment as it is, in the harmony of light and dark.

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