There is a Bible verse—a rhetorical question—that asks, “You, then, who teaches others, do you not teach yourself?”
In a rare moment recently, I decided to leave my camera and cellphone in my hotel room and take a walk on the beach with a friend I see once every two years. I had just finished three days of photographing and teaching photography and decided a walk without a camera might help me be more fully present.
Though I preach to others to always carry a camera, there are times—though few for me—when a camera can become a distraction, a buffer or even an impediment to a meaningful conversation. Sometimes I intentionally hide behind the viewfinder.
It was just a walk on the beach. Bad move.
We immediately noticed a child pushing another child in a wheelchair across the wet sand near the surf while two other children joyfully frolicked in the water. It was one of those beautiful, joyful, innocent, life-affirming moments I live to record.
My friend, Craig Reed, smiled and stated the obvious. “There’s your story,” he assured in his slow, deep radio voice. He had participated in many workshops with me through the years and was keenly aware of the type of candid moments I sought to capture.
“I decided not to bring my camera,” I painfully admitted.
“Well, you got a cellphone.”
“No, I didn’t bring it either.”
I felt embarrassed. Naked. Like reaching a mountaintop, spotting a bull elk, then realizing I left my gun at home.
Another hundred yards later, while still beating myself up for the uncaptured moment I would never be able to share, dark morning clouds parted and golden sunshine washed over an assembly of gulls, their white chest feathers glistening against a gray-blue backdrop. In the not-so-far distance, stretched proudly across the horizon, the silhouetted skeleton of Newport’s Yaquina Bay Bridge completed the postcard scene—the same bridge assigned as a subject of a photographic scavenger hunt.
My heart dropped.
All week I taught about seeing light, anticipating light, feeling light. Here I stood watching, with nothing but my memory to capture this awesome beauty.
Of all the photographs I had seen made this week, both by myself and others, nothing compared to the beauty of this magical, fleeting landscape.
It was as if all the elements were laughing at me, teasing me for my poor judgment.
The clouds slid in front of the morning sun and the vibrant colors left.
The moment was gone.
I know there is a time for everything—even a time to put the camera down and experience the moment. I really believe this. This just wasn’t one of them.
The next morning, still feeling tender for pictures missed the day before, I grabbed a camera and one lens and took a train to downtown Portland. Soaked in a heavy rain, I roamed the streets looking for a picture—a moment that captured the cold, soggy day and that perhaps would help me forget my failures from the day before.
I made several pictures that wet afternoon, but none that cut my heart more than the one outside Starbucks.
The image doesn’t take away the sting of the pictures I missed the day before, but it does put life and making pictures in perspective.
Internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer David LaBelle has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He spent his magical boyhood years taking photos. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.