Every now and then I work on images which are only for me and are destined to never be seen by anyone else. This was to be such an image but I decided to share it, along with an explanation of how it came about.
Aesthetically and technically these images are generally of low quality (as shown by this particular example). However, what these images lack in artistic worth, they make up for in their practical purpose. The creation of these images involves a mental process and a physical process (this image is made up of a dozen photos or so, taken over a period of a year or more).
Like most photographers, when I am out shooting and I come upon a scene, a number of things happen. Some of these things are physical and have to do with selecting camera settings and placing my body (sometimes through various contortions) into a certain position in order to get the right composition. Then there is the mental aspect, the mind stuff that goes on which sometimes goes unnoticed while at other times, seems to take centre stage.
This picture started to emerge a little over a year ago when I was out walking with my camera. I was taking a stroll when a shop window reflection from across the street caught my eye. I aimed my camera only to find that I was too far away. Before I was fully aware of what I was doing, I crossed the street to get closer and when I was about three metres from the window I took aim. What I didn’t realise in the moment was that I was now standing in the middle of a traffic lane and the screech of brakes and tooting of horn brought me back to “reality” in time to instinctively jump out of the way and unto the footpath. This little escapade could have been described as a close call. I don’t know if I would have been killed but I would certainly have come off badly had I not reacted quickly enough. I am normally much more careful around traffic but there are always situations that occur where, upon reflection, I wonder: where the hell was I?
Anyway, I ended up taking the photo from the edge of the footpath. However, it wasn’t quite the composition I was after and the photo didn’t turn out to be anything exciting which left me a little disappointed but it was connected to a moment where my life had been in the balance and as such it served to remind me of my mortality. As I sit here now, recounting the event I realise that it sounds a little melodramatic but at the time, the incident did leave me a little weak-kneed and it did initiate thoughts about the transiency of life. In any case, to cut a long story short, from that moment, over a period of a year, I took a number of photos that brought up various thoughts of mortality until one day, at home, while contemplating the matter (I’ve written before that I do not regard thoughts or discussions of mortality as morbid or sad or depressing but rather as a means of appreciating life and creating a sense of gratitude) I decided to revisit all these photos and build a montage, a visual representation of my contemplation, a memento morti if you will.
Ironically, I find the process of creating such images quite uplifting despite their dark overtones and death-related connotations. In this instance, as I was putting together this particular image, the thoughts meandered more towards ideas of existentialism than mortality, at least in terms of me as an individual and the meaning I give to life and the values by which I live.
As I manipulated and layered the images in Photoshop, I was fully aware of my existence—I was aware of my hand on the mouse, the breeze blowing in through the window, the taste of coffee in my mouth, my body sitting comfortably in the chair—and I was also aware that it was I who was associating the various meanings I had come to attach to the individual parts of the image. The meanings could only be relevant to me because I had created the meanings as surely as I had taken the photos.
In this image, many of the elements have a connection to death and as such they each represent a connection to life. Each thing was seen as separate from everything else, not just in space but in time too (as I said, the photos were all taken over a period of a year). However, as I bring them together their independent existence begin to fade. As I mask one layer into another they merge into an expression of… well, something else, something more complete, something undefinable but equally undeniable. But then I realise there is still me, merging, dodging, burning, blending, pushing sliders, manipulating pieces into a whole. But what of me? I too am a thing like any other, separate in time and space and yet as I work I sense that I have no existence of my own, I am an expression of something else, something more complete, something undefinable but equally undeniable.
I was born, I live and I will die. Every aspect of the universe exists only from my frame of reference. Nothing existed before me other than in the memories of men and nothing will exist after me other than in the imaginings of men. But this notion is absurd is it not? Yes, it is. It is absurd when I see myself as having an independent existence but what if I was merely an expression of something greater and bigger than this temporary story of me.
This story of me is like a wave on the ocean. That I forget this as I rise above the ocean and look over at other waves matters not, it is simply how things are. I watch waves rise up while others disappear. The waves are but a pattern of ocean, they were not born and they do not die but their appearance, their existence, is transient and they are my reality; I rejoice their appearance and grieve their passing and I know that I too will pass; in such moments my mortality can weigh on me like shackels around my neck and limbs. But then, as I complete the image, imperfect as it is, I see it as an expression of me and I blend myself into it and somewhere, not inside me and not outside of me, there is awareness, gentle and silent, pointing to the ocean and with that comes a realisation: I cannot exist without the ocean. I have no existence that is independent of the ocean. What I am is simply an expression of ocean. But it is only as a wave that I can grasp this. The ocean expresses itself through its waves and the waves then speak of it in terms of its expressions, through relationships, through art, through photography, through whatever means feels right. Reality appears as a collection of things and events, births and deaths, comings and goings, all of it nothing more than transient existence. This very idea of transience conceptualises my reality, the idea of me, of what I am but somewhere, not inside me and not outside of me, there’s an inkling that the comings and goings are not actually possible. What exists is the ocean and I cannot be anything but that which always is; not coming, not going, just being.