An image with no name

This photo came about last winter (southern hemisphere) while on an outing with my kids to a city park. There’s a story to this photo which I thought I would share.

This photo, like others on this blog, was made in one of those timeless, thoughtless moments that last an eternity and are over in the click of a shutter. Quite in keeping with the paradox that is life.

Before I continue, allow me to re-iterate something. I do not try to do anything specific when I make photographs. I’m not out to make art or even so much as a statement. There’s nothing to ‘get’, though viewers are welcome to perceive whatever they desire. I take full responsibility for all that I do but only because there is a social expectation to and adhering to this expectation makes life easier. However, and people can take this anyway they wish, I don’t know that I have a choice in anything I do and I daresay that I doubt anyone else has much say in the path they lead either. When it comes to photography these images make themselves. I just happen to be there in order to press the shutter. I am not alone with this view.

Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.
Ansel Adams

I don’t know much about god but I do only see myself as an instrument perhaps, in the creation of these images and I do not see that credit should go to ‘me’. Taking credit just seems illogical. For the sake of communication and ease of writing however, I will continue to refer to these images and to these writings as mine, as ridiculous as that concept may be.

I’ve digressed. Back to this image. If a photo ‘succeeds’ for a photographer or for a viewer, it is probably due to the feelings one associates with it. I am talking about feelings that go beyond the “ooh… pretty picture” reaction. I am talking about feelings that are deep and borne of memories perhaps even forgotten ones. If we are truly lucky then we may even experience feelings that are pure and fresh. By this I mean new and previously unexplored. Those pure feelings are the ones that can teach us something about ourselves. If we are paying attention and if we are not scared off by the sudden revelation.

The moment that this image captured evoked just that kind of feeling and the reaction was all too natural. The mind ignored it as if it had never happened. The image of course, begged to differ but for months it stayed on my hard-drive, mostly disregarded without so much as a title. An image with no name. The problem was not so much that I could not face the feelings, more to the point, I could not conceptualise them. I could not verbalise what I felt. For the mind, such a situation is… well, unthinkable.

It was months after this image was made that I came across three words. I do not remember where I saw them but that is not important. Having never seen these words in that particular combination and being ignorant to the fact that they were Japanese, the mind did the only thing it knew how to do. It made something up. And so, “mono no aware” got translated (in the mind) as “non awareness of one”. Quite amusing in hindsight. Interestingly, that image I had taken all those months before on that cloudy winter’s day while sitting on that park bench came to mind when I saw those words. It came quietly and without fuss. I could not see the connection though. My so-called translation did not match up with the image or the feelings it evoked. But I liked those three words and every time I thought of them the image popped into my head. At this point I looked it up on the web. Amazingly those three words had their own Wikipedia entry and with the reminder that Wikipedia has almost no credibility whatsoever here is the definition I found:

Mono no aware (物の哀れ mono no aware?, lit. “the pathos of things”), also translated as “an empathy toward things,” or “a sensitivity of ephemera,” is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of mujo or the transience of things and a bittersweet sadness at their passing.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to say:

The word is derived from the Japanese word mono, which means “things” and aware, which was a Heian period expression of measured surprise (similar to “ah” or “oh”), translating roughly as “pathos,” “poignancy,” “deep feeling,” or “sensitivity.” Thus, mono no aware has frequently been translated as “the ‘ahh-ness’ of things.” In his criticism of The Tale of Genji, Motoori noted that mono no aware is the crucial emotion that moves readers. Its scope was not limited to Japanese literature, and became associated with Japanese cultural tradition (see also sakura).[1]

Ok so I wasn’t even close with the initial translation but when I read the proper meaning the image popped back into my head with a fanfare as if it was trying to say “that’s my name, that’s what I’m about”. At this moment I realised what had just happened. I had conceptualised the feeling. I had put it into words and with the birth of this concept some of the magic was gone. Because that is what happens when I name things. I name something so that I can lock it away into memory. I put it in memory so I can recall it at will to try and regain the feeling I once had but of course it’s never the same, somehow it’s diluted, a mere shadow of the original. But that’s life; chasing memories rather than living the moments.

Anyway, there was certainly a feeling of ‘ahh-ness’ when this photo was made and it had a lot to do with the transience of things. When I ‘saw’ the scene pictured above I thought about how everything I take as being real, all the things that my senses tells me exists are transient, ever-changing, non-lasting. Every thing ages, decays and dies. There isn’t a cell in my body that existed seven years ago. People come and go, events come and go. The trees lose their leaves in autumn and these leaves eventually break down. They change not just in colour but in texture as well. They lose their moisture, they dry up, they get crushed under foot and their energy, their life returns to the ground and is transferred to the insects, the grass, the original tree itself. And  in spring new leaves appear. And on seeing that every thing changes, including that which I care about, I realise that there’s nothing to cling to and it may just be the desperate holding onto things that brings on suffering. I cling to the comfortable life I have for fear of losing it, I look at my children playing in the park and prefer not to think about how they too are changing, how one day I will not be part of their lives, or worse, that they may no longer be part of mine.

These thoughts come and I cannot stop them. I do not know how. But I can watch them pass by, I can stop grasping at them, holding on to them. I can let them go and in doing that I recognise each new moment as they materialise because I don’t need to cling to them anymore. I sense the bittersweet sadness at the passing of things but that too is let go… eventually. Each new moment means the death of the previous one and it in turn, gives way to the birth of the next one. I can try to hang on and suffer the consequences or I can die to each moment and discover something beautiful.

I don’t know if I have done justice to the feelings this image created. That’s the problem when you conceptualise that which cannot be named. You lose something. But the experience wanted to be shared and I have no way other than words to do so.

So this is what this image brought to me. A quiet acceptance of life and what life offers. Life is the ever-changing constant.

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