Many people ask the same question: Why pursue photography in this age when everybody owns a camera and thinks they are photographers?
I can be sarcastic and say the advent of the pencil didn’t magically make everybody a writer. But a more thoughtful answer might be to explain what photography means to me.
I have known photography longer than I have known my wife, my children and most of my relatives. For a half-century, this magical medium has been both a vocation and an avocation.
Like many of my generation, my first camera was a Brownie Hawkeye. Actually, it was my mother’s camera, but she let me use it. I must have been 11 or 12 when I began trying to get close enough to opossums, skunks, raccoons, bobcats and other animals to shoot good pictures of them. I risked my life climbing out on tree limbs—high above cliffs and creek beds—to photograph crow and hawk nests.
A few years later, I began photographing human animals.
That is when the camera became more than just a way to capture pictures of creatures, record places I had visited or people I met. It became a therapeutic tool, a way to frame, to analyze and make sense of the world. It was my filter, my screen to sort through many confusing emotions and separate the small stuff, the gravel of life, from the gold nuggets. It helped me organize what I saw and felt, and taught me lessons I could never have learned in a classroom. My subjects have always been my greatest teachers.
Photography—photojournalism in particular—built my self-esteem. A camera around my neck was my Superman cape. I felt important. I had purpose. It gave me the courage to enter any environment, and I often ventured into dangerous and intimidating situations where I would never have gone without a camera.
The “magic box,” as some have called it, continues to lead me to people and lands I once only dreamed about. It is a passport that opens doors and carries me on adventures across the globe. They are places I would be unlikely to explore without a camera.
Photography also helped me slow down, pay attention and observe life more closely. It allowed me to see the beauty and the stories in simple things others pass by unaware or discard as worthless. A bird feather caught in a bush; a discarded toy on a roadside; or two fallen leaves gliding to earth and arriving in the same spot on a wet sidewalk: each tells a story.
The camera also has challenged me to question and see my own reflection play out in the faces and actions of others, for better or worse.
But above all, the camera has been a loyal companion and a trusted friend that has made this experience that we call life more profound.
I never feel bored or alone when I have a camera. Unlike a dog or other pet, it doesn’t shed, have to pee or need shots. Nor does it get jealous and chew the dash of my car or steering wheel when I leave it alone.
And the camera tells me the truth when I need to hear it … or see it.
Looking back, I realize what an incredible gift photography was to an insecure kid from Creek Road. I thank God for the camera’s healing power, and I cannot imagine what my life would have been without it.
David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.