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Spirit or Substance?

Sometimes, photographer Jim Richardson says, a little voice inside him whispers, "Kind of repeating yourself, don’t you think?"

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

Towering cliffs shelter the tiny village of Hattervik in the North Atlantic's remote Faroe Islands. When our ship came around the bend and into Hattervik’s snug bay, I knew exactly the shot I wanted. But I didn’t know if I could do it.

That we were at Hattervik at all was a gift of enterprise. The National Geographic Explorer ship was faced with rough seas at its scheduled island landing, so the ship’s captain, Oliver Kruess, and expedition leader, Tim Soper, scoured the charts for an alternative destination—someplace in the lee of the weather yet full of island character. That would be Hattervik, all right.

It seems ours was the first cruise ship ever to stop at this remote village. When Tim telephoned an islander to ask permission to bring guests ashore, the question came back, "Where are you?" To which Tim replied, "Look out your window." With good humor, the islanders gave permission.

I could only wonder what the Vikings arriving here thought after battling the tempestuous Atlantic in nothing more than a longboat. Today, the seas are as rough and the landscape as rugged. However, the village is like a fairy-tale vision, with lambs playing on the one road, geese honking and hissing on another, and islanders (each with the requisite sheepdog) as curious about us as we were about them.

In short, Hattervik is an easy place for a photographer to get distracted, and I vowed to avoid the trap. So I started climbing the hill above the village, focused on my photographic mission along with several other photographers from the ship. With the white church and cluster of houses down by the bay, I could see the spot farther up the hill where a lovely scene would fall together in my viewfinder. The hill leading to the cliffs would wrap around the village, the bay would sweep in from the right, and the Explorer, resting at anchor, would look tiny in a vast sea. Through the gates and over a fence or two, we came to the spot where a high waterfall cascaded down the glacier-carved slopes.

Perfect. Wait. Not perfect. There were two problems—one that could be solved then and there and another that would continue to annoy me.

First problem: lighting. It was cloudy. If the village and church were going to be the focal point of my image I needed a shaft of sunlight to pop through the murky skies, bringing the scene to life. Promising holes in the clouds were visible behind me, lighting up the mountains. With patience, perhaps the winds would blow them my way. So I waited—and waited. Time after time, the promised shaft of light faded before getting to the correct position. (Clouds over islands form and re-form over high peaks, and while they look like they are moving, they are actually just forming and dissipating in place. Smoke and mirrors.)

But it was nothing that doggedness couldn’t cure. Finally, as our time on the island was running out, the longed-for light swept across the valley and the chatter of my Nikon motor drive echoed off the hills.

But I had paid a price. I had spent all my time going after one picture while other photographers onboard enjoyed their explorations and collected a whole raft of fun images. I was happy with my image, but that trade-off—the trade-off of working one image to its maximum—is a choice with which all photographers must live.

The other problem was something deeper, more profound, and one that I would try to solve in countless places along this trip. It comes down to this. The picture I had done of Hattervik was a lovely picture, one that I'll treasure having. But it was nothing new for me. I had known what I wanted for a simple reason: I had done it before. Another village, another bay, I had taken this picture any number of times. And I knew that when people were praising the picture, the little voice inside me would be whispering, "Kind of repeating yourself, don't you think?"

So I vowed—again—to do some stretching. On the last trip, of the British Isles where I was returning to known locations, I tried to overcome the problem by exploring techniques I had never conquered before, applying new techniques to familiar situations. On the Viking Atlantic trip, everything was new. It was a perfect time to try to invest my pictures with something truly fresh.

So I set out to make images that were more about spirit than place. More about color and atmosphere than location and whereabouts.

If I succeeded as the journey progressed, perhaps I could reply to that little voice. I would say, "Now, just shut up and don’t bother me."

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