I stumble upwards, crawling my way up boulders, heading for the summit one hundred feet above. I’ve been hiking since dawn, my body aches, but I scramble forwards anyway.
Although the sun is hidden by the trees I know it’s going down quickly. The sky is turning from blue to purple, the first sign that the day is ending. My hands painfully scrape the rocks but I know it’ll be worth it. There’s a view waiting at the top. A view. What the hell is a “view” anyway?
Rewind 15 years. I’m 10 years old. My dad is driving the family along a steep country road. As the road winds around hills, I feel my stomach starting to turn. Motion sickness. I groan and my mam turns around. “Don’t worry. We’re nearly there.” Moments later I’m dry heaving into a plastic bag as the car stops. My parents scramble out of the car and look out at the “view”. Perfect green hills roll away from us, going on forever, disappearing into a misty distance. “Look at that view!” my mam says. “Isn’t it beautiful?!” I look out. I see. Well. Hills. Nothing but a load of bloody hills. Big deal! My mother smiles happily and I promptly vomit on the ground. No view in the world could be worth this.
Fast forward 15 years. I’m panting heavily as I climb up a large rock. All for a view. I guess those years of parental appreciation rubbed off on me in some way. There’s now nothing I like more. As I pull myself up one last boulder, I stand up, met with a beautiful view of the world.
The wilderness stretches out for miles around me. No roads or towns, just trees and mountains. Immediately I move my hand to my pocket. I need to photograph this.
When I’m hiking along a trail, or walking around a new place, my camera is like another limb. Whenever I see something interesting I quickly whip my camera out and take a few snaps of it before walking on. There was a problem this time though. My camera wasn’t in my pocket! I must have left it in my bag! Fuuuuuuck!
Immediately I fell into a sulk. Slumping onto a rock I started to beat myself over forgetting my camera. Why the hell did you forget it you idiot!? You hiked all the way up here and you can’t even take a photo!
It’s then that a thought entered my mind. “Why did you even bother to hike up here when you can’t take photos!?” After a second I suddenly realised how absurd the thought was. I was so upset that I couldn’t take photos of a beautiful view that I hadn’t even properly looked at it. All I’d done was assess the view. I’d glanced at it to see if it was good enough for a photograph, but I’d never really taken it in.
With a little more thinking I started to realise I do this a lot.
Like many people I am addicted to documenting my life. You maybe don’t see it that way, but you do it. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, WordPress (!). All of these help us to document our lives. It’s actually possible to pinpoint the most important moments in my life over the last five years by looking through my status updates and photographs. If there’s not a blog post about it, it wasn’t worth mentioning, so it wasn’t important. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has had something happen to them and immediately thought “I can’t wait to put this on Facebook.” We’re all creating mini historical documents for ourselves by every day taking photos and writing.
The downside of all of this is that the act of documenting has taken over the act of experiencing. We look at the world through the viewfinder of a camera. When something extraordinary happens to us, we don’t stop to take it all in, we stop to make notes.
But does this matter? Documenting something is just another way to experience it. Right?
Well, I’d say wrong. When you document something you are forcing a perspective onto it. When you take a photograph, the photograph doesn’t show us the entire experience. It doesn’t give us the smells, the sounds, the ache in the legs, the feeling in your heart. A photograph just shows you the aesthetic qualities of a view. By taking a photograph of a view, you aren’t experiencing the view, you are searching the view for a way to make it look nice for somebody else.
Experiences are about..well..experiencing, about being there in that moment. Documenting an experience takes you out of the moment as you are already thinking about the moment as something in the past – something to be documented – even while it’s happening! Surely if it’s in the past you aren’t experiencing it? Experiences do, after all, happen in the present.
I love photography, but I believe the beauty of a photograph can never surpass the beauty of the actual scene. So why is the scene (a view) so beautiful? I would say it’s because when you look at a view, it has NO perspective. When you look at a photograph you have the perspective of the photographer. The photographer has chosen their own version of beauty and that’s what you’re viewing. When you look at a view, there is no photographer guiding your eyes, there is only what is. A view is something pure, it is one of the only things you can view that is completely objective, no human perspective has been forced onto it. Maybe this is why we enjoy views so much. A pure thing is a beautiful thing and a view is the purest thing you can find.
Sitting on the rock I realised this and decided I should experience this view properly. So I sat and watched. Focused on the world around me.
I saw the trees trailing off into the distance. A faint breeze blew over my skin and taking a breath in I could smell the fresh pine forest. I saw snow peaked mountains a hundred miles in the distance. A sparkle of light on a lake. No sound around me, only silence. The land looked like a miniature world below me and I felt so small and insignificant. Even more so when I considered I was the only human for miles.
As the sun went down, the sky slowly started to change colour. Every shade of blue and purple imaginable could be seen above the horizon. A dark shadow started to swallow the land up until eventually only the tips of mountains were lit like a line of candles. One by one the candles blew out leaving only darkness, and as the last candle disappeared I saw one last thing. I saw the pure beauty of a view, and I was glad I had no camera to spoil it.