Bittersweet: No other word better describes much of my life and most of my photography.
While talking to a group of high school students, I realized my favorite images—the ones I keep sharing—are bittersweet moments, where pain and comfort meet and where love triumphs over tragedy.
These storytelling scenes awaken and stir my God-given sense of compassion and connect me to the lives of those in the photographs.
Bittersweet pictures—often made during a loss of some kind—reassure me that even during the deepest, darkest crisis, there is light and hope and goodness in this world.
When I began my photographic career, I was drawn to clean, action-packed sports or wildlife photos. Obsessed with trying to record peak action, I climbed trees and waited uncomfortably with telephoto lenses trained on hawk nests, waiting for them to return with prey. I crawled on my belly, photographed high school, college and pro football, baseball and basketball, always hoping to capture that one great action photo.
Just as my taste in music changed with age, so has my taste in photography.
These days, I have little interest in one-dimensional action photos, such as someone catching a ball, throwing a ball, hitting a ball. I need more than a single face or action to hold my attention.
I need a story.
The more layers—the more sophisticated the photograph—the more I am drawn to it and the longer it holds my attention.
I feel the same way about movies. I no longer have an interest in loud, aggressive action films.
Occasionally, a photograph of a single face or subject is compelling and even storytelling. Yet the photographs that most often move us emotionally are those that tell a story. Often that story involves a loss, coupled with an act of comfort, reassurance or courage.
How would we know true joy if we had never experienced grief or sadness?
Just as our perception of a particular color changes when placed alongside different colors, so does our grasp of tragedy and love.
When Jesus asked the rhetorical question, “Does a fountain send forth from the same opening both sweet water and bitter?” the answer was no. With documentary photographs, the answer often is yes.
The pictures above, showing one dog grieving and holding a vigil for his fallen playmate killed after being struck by a car, are examples of bittersweet photos, where love and grief are present in the same images.
The sadness of loss is apparent, but so is the affection and connection between the dogs.
Titled “Forever Friends,” the scene tugs at our hearts and reminds us of true friendship.
Bittersweet images do more than entertain us. They teach us important life lessons.
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 applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.