Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Experience and Image: The Essential Connection

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Recently I came across a picture I took in British Columbia. A father and his children were down on the dock, admiring the sunset together. It was a nice moment for them, though I suppose my image might be a bit maudlin. Somehow it connected me again with another place and time, which resulted in a powerful image, but not of the photographic kind. On that day I didn't take any pictures at all.

That image is still fresh in my mind, even all these years later. Strange how some sights get burned into our brains and come to stand for so much.

It is late afternoon in Bryce Canyon National Park. The sun is just below the rim of the canyon, casting the valley floor into cool shadows. Light reflects from the sandstone walls, bringing a bit of warmth to families enjoying their precious shared summer moments of memory making.

Suddenly a car scoots down the road, with husband driving and wife standing high on the seat, emerging from the sunroof like a turtle sticking its head out of its shell. Soon enough, the video camera was visible in her hands. Determination was in his eyes. Without blinking or slowing down, they made the loop at the end of the canyon, the video camera panning all the while.

Then they were gone, the wife retracting her head inside as the car sped away with their canyon images safely digitized. Maybe the scenes would be enjoyed in some dark room back home, I suppose—or maybe never.

A collective silence gathered over all of us left in the canyon, our jaws still gaping open like barn doors. We glanced around at one another, our eyes conveying the same message: Did you just see what I saw? Soon enough the gentle sounds of the canyon were mingling with the happy laughter of children.

The incident occurred more than two decades ago, but the image never left me. My conclusion remains firm, as well.

The images they captured had no meaning.

That is because the images represent only what the camera "saw." Divorced from any real human experience of the place, the images became mute. The linkage is broken between seeing and feeling. However technically sufficient the images may have been, they don't actually mean anything to anyone. The images are worse than bad: They are a waste of time.

How different they were, I thought—these fleeting images of opportunity lost—compared with the simple snapshots I saw families taking all around me. Some may have been blurred or a little crooked; maybe some heads got cut off. But these images were precious and full of life, replete with meaning and tender moments and just the plain ordinary great stuff of life.

Perhaps I should have forgotten all about this by now. But the image flashes into my brain at every castle in Europe and every monument in America. I am seeing more of us adopting a new posture when we travel. Arms are cocked to hold the camera. Chins are tipped high to ogle the screen. Eyes dart and brains are not quite in the moment as we make the world small and slightly late.

Meanwhile, everyone else around us is made to duck and weave their way out of our line of sight, lest our pictures be ruined by real life actually happening. The spectacle is as sad as it is comical. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. What I actually want to do is to say, "Put the camera down." (Of course I don't. I am, after all, from the Midwest, where suffering in silence is an art form.)

Photographic technology has not progressed so far that we can tell when the photographer could "smell the roses." But we can almost always tell when the photographer slowed down and actually experienced a bit of the world.