I am up in Rockport, Maine, halfway through a weeklong workshop. There are many other image makers here – amateur and professional, color and black and white, film and photo. In my mind, they are all doing important work. Some are documenting poverty in rural Maine. Others are capturing the hard lives of the coastal shore men. Last night, another teacher showed her 12 year project following the tragic yet poignant life of an overweight, diabetic adolescent girl who died before her twentieth birthday. All important stuff.
There are college students here as well, working on their craft, learning to be professionals, nurturing their creative spirit and exploring the edges of their discipline. I am teaching a nature photography class, sharing my techniques for photographing wildflowers, harbors, forests and shorelines with 16 other photographers. A little bit of focus, a touch of exposure, two dashes of depth of field, mix with light and, viola, a picture!
I have always felt that I was working well below the cultural art radar, subterranean, in fact. But that’s okay with me. My work will never appear in important museums, it will not bring viewers to tears or to arms and it won’t provoke deep discussions or be considered fashionable. I just photograph pretty things in pretty light and I occasionally wrap them up in pretty words. That is what I do. Not very exotic, not at all edgy and not really very important. I am not looking to change the world; I am just trying to open a few eyes. Lives won’t change because of my work….or so I thought.
A couple of days ago I was sitting on some rocks overlooking the well-photographed Down East coastline and lighthouse of Pemaquid Point. There were photographers everywhere and one of them who I didn’t recognize at first walked up to me and said “Well, hello, David Middleton!” People who I don’t think I know walking up to me and saying hi is a fairly common occurrence for me. This is not because I am particularly well known but because I have done workshops for many years and I have a terrible memory for the people who have suffered through them. His face was familiar but I apologized for not being able to remember his name. “My name is Bob, but there is no reason you would remember my name. You might remember, though, that you saved my life.”
Two years ago at the end of a workshop one of my students took me aside and said to me “Last year at this time I was having a really rough time. I was out of work and in the hospital in considerable pain. I had no hope and I was on a suicide watch. A friend visited and knowing of my interest in nature photography gave me a copy of your book, The Nature of America. I enjoyed the pictures and your writing but what really hit me was the Nature Photographer’s Calendar you included in the back of the book. You listed a different place to photograph for every week of the year. That calendar changed my life and gave me a reason to live. I wanted to see and photograph every one of those places. I wanted to live again. You gave me hope. You saved my life.”
I was asked the other day “If I don’t care about earning money with my pictures why should I show them to anyone?” I told him this story as my answer. Don’t underestimate the power of your work. You may be unaware of the positive influences of what you are doing, of what you are creating, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I was lucky, Bob sought me out and told me of how I had changed his life and in doing so he had enriched mine. Keep shooting; keep sharing. You may think what you are doing is not very significant in the grand scheme of things but I know otherwise. And so does Bob.