Thursday, August 14, 2014

Life's A Journal


 Amidst the sterility of the surgical environment, the antiseptic trays, cold mayo stand set ups and the endless gloving and de-gloving sometimes the human element is over-shadowed by volume and simply referred to as a case. 
In my particular niche of surgery (I work as a surgical technician)  the case if often referred to as a body part.  The nose in 5, or the eyelid in 6.  I drive in dark morning hours, greeted by security in a high-rise setting deep in the city. Many times while setting up a case I have stared out the window to view the downtown city lights twinkling as the concrete jungle prepares for a new day. I think of where I want to explore next and how I'd rather have my tripod in my hand and my hiking shoes on.  I count myself as very fortunate to have been gainfully employed in a medical specially that funds my gear, explorations and gives me the room and time to roam the American Southwest. 

One wouldn't think there would be any sort of connection between the two worlds but there is.  For several years,  I've come to work with elderly patients. I'd venture a guess that the average age of the patient I spend my days with would be about 70-80 years old. Most patients I work with are in poor health and are no strangers to cancer, Alzheimer's, PTSD and the effects of long term smoking and chronic disease processes.  I've seen humanity at its frailest and I see it often.  Surgery is fast paced and I don't often slow down much during the day but every once an awhile, I find myself at the bedside of patient who needs to talk.  Many have no family, many have survived their own children or a long term spouse and are simply alone, scared, confused and reaching out for a sympathetic ear.  

I've held the weak hands of strangers as they've talked about what life is like losing their partners of 50 plus years. I have held their hands and they've told me about how most of their friends have passed. I've heard stories of the veterans and wars and what they've seen.  The fighter pilots and medics, the nurses, the teachers and mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers.  I've seen the memory fading and the pain of the loved ones left to watch those special to them slip away. I've seen a lot.  No one could work in this environment and not be profoundly moved by it and not be cognizant that  some semblance of all this is coming my way, in time. 

During our conversations, I've noted how fear often dissipates when someone delves into a happier time, a beloved memory of a person or a favorite place. Often even a foggy memory will recount with great detail stories of travel, exploration and adventure. We had a long time patient who, in his prime, had been a well-known high-altitude hiker and we often swapped local hiking stories.  He always asked me where my next trail was and gave me pointers. I started to notice a decline in his mental state over time. His stories become less vivid and detailed.  I brought in my cell phone to show him images of a recent trip to Monument Valley and he suddenly recalled a story about being involved with an old John Wayne movie filmed in the same area and how he became friends with the actor himself. His mood completely changed and his wit sharpened.   My images had sparked his memory and some great stories. That one moment  had a profound effect on me.

 I'd been a hiker and a backpacker for many years but rarely ever took photos or recorded my hikes. My work in the medical field and my exposure to patients suffering from memory loss brought about a pivotal change in my thinking.  I decided to start recording my life, more importantly my encounters with nature. I started carrying a small Olympus C-770 in my backpack and took images of my hikes, my backpacking and my camping trips. I took the time to write about my experiences as though I were talking to myself many years in the future.  I want to remember with great detail where I've been.  I want to remember the smell of sage on a damp monsoon morning and how the sun would rise over a certain creek and illuminate the forest canopy in a deep emerald green.  I will be the storyteller to my future self at a time when my wanderings have ceased.  My details and my photos will re-create a life once lived and cherished. 

Once I started the project, I wanted to write more creatively and create more inspiring photos.  I wanted to remember not only details of the locations but all emotion and thoughts born out of a quest to explore my southwest surroundings. I sought to provide for my aged self some wonderful words, thoughts and memories.  I want to remember and document my life with as much passion as I feel it right now. The more I wrote about the experiences, the richer the experiences became.  I wrote about lighting, reflections, personal discovery, disappointment, disillusion, wildlife and encounters with other hikers, photographers and locals. I wrote about friendships gained and friendships lost. Mistakes, misjudgment, regret  and growth. Not a perfect life but a life lived with enthusiasm, curiosity and gratitude.  

The more I wrote, the more I understood myself.  The more I photographed,  my  photographs evolved into more unique views and became less iconic . The project brought a sense of purpose to my life and I became fully enveloped and comfortable using my photography as a means of communication and retrospection.

The project changed everything about my take on the world around me. I started reading  more and studying the writings of others. I've upgraded my photography gear slowly but surely.  I continue to educate myself on all things photography, the great masters, their works and their own writing as well. I'm on a constant quest to technically better my next image. 

I never question why I photograph, I'm a girl with a purpose. My photography and writing are  a gift I'm giving myself at a much later date, wrapped with care and meaning. That sense of purpose shapes my subject matter and frames the compositions.  It eliminates any sense of competition with others (in the here and now) in a fairly competitive field. The unexpected dividend has been how much it has enriched my life today and continues to be a constant source of inspiration, adventure, education and complete contentment.   Sharing these stories and images with others in the past few years has been one the most rewarding endeavors. 

Someday, when my hands are frail and the memories are a bit soft.  I scroll through my journal and recount the story of the hundreds of baby frogs in a pond I encountered one day during a hike.  I'll remember the soft ground that morning and how they all sang (meeped) in unison but would suddenly stop when I tapped my foot on the ground.  How I dropped my gear and all my cares to simply play, tap and compose with the baby frog symphony.  I'll recount with a huge grin, how when I stopped thumping, hundreds of little eyes popped up to peer at me just barely above pond level awaiting the next cue from their enthusiastic maestro, like it was yesterday. 

What will your photography say , all those years later?