In addition to habituating my offspring to the natural world, I’m also here to photograph the Silver River and its inhabitants, including the nonnative monkeys that have made the river their home for the last 85 years. Ordinarily, photography from a canoe or kayak isn’t too much of a stretch for me, because I have a partner who sits in the stern of the canoe and does most of the paddling, while I sit in the bow with my camera carefully sheltered in my lap, looking for shots. He also has a keen eye for wildlife, and sometimes spots animals and moves us into position to photograph them before I’m even aware of their presence. , I’m also usually unencumbered by other concerns when I’m sitting with my camera in my canoe. There is no responsibility on my plate more pressing than to capture the moments I see along the river. It’s not an over-ask.
Conditions on the river yesterday, though, were much more challenging. My paddling partner is at home, working, because our list of trips this year has become worringly long. He is a family therapist, and has clients to serve. So if I want him to accompany me to look for tarantula migrations later this year — and of course I do, because who would want to do such a thing alone — then I had to do without him this time. My twelve-year-old is not yet experienced or strong enough to take up a position in the stern navigating the boat, so that was my job this time.
When you are downstream of a first-magnitude spring, keeping the boat in a more-or-less stationary position is a matter of constant maintenance and correction. I would set my camera in my lap and take up the paddle in order to maneuver the boat where I wanted it, taking care not to drip water anywhere near my equipment, then set the paddle down again, take up my camera and watch for a shot. Then I would notice that the bow of the boat where my son was sitting was drifting too close to one of the monkeys, which can be aggressive if approached too closely. There have been stories of monkeys jumping into canoes, and even if those stories are apocryphal, I still wanted to avoid that outcome. So I would set my camera back down again and take up the paddle, and start the process all over again. This, combined with the fact that the monkeys move rapidly and the light was like quicksilver, I had no idea how I was going to get any decent images.
When it comes to photography, I don’t have much natural ability or talent, notwithstanding the kind words of my family and friends. That’s not meant to be self-deprecating. Photography holds the ironic distinction in my life of being one of the things at which I’ve worked the hardest for the longest time — some 15 years — but has felt the least like work of any pursuit I’ve ever undertaken. I do think I’ve become reasonably good at it, thanks mostly to all that work. But every day I see people take up photography and immediately put out images of a character that took me years to achieve — and more frequently than I can achieve even now, after the fifteen years I’ve worked at it. It doesn’t really bother me, though.
Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic writes about his efforts to learn French, a language he loves:
I remember returning from France at the end of the summer of 2013, and being convinced that I had some kind of brain injury which prevented me from hearing French vowel sounds. But the real enemy was not any injury so much as the “feeling” of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t care. As Carolyn Forché would say—”I’m going to have it.”
To “have it,” I must manage my emotional health. Part of that long-term management—beyond French—is giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things. There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.
I, too, long ago decided I was going to “have it.” Shortly after I began studying photography, I read a study in a magazine purporting to show that of all the professions, dentists made the best photographers, and lawyers among the worst. I slammed the magazine shut. I was going to have it, and that was information I didn’t need. I would manage my emotional health, dentists and lawyers be damned.
And yesterday on the river, I was going to have it. I sat patiently in front of a group of monkeys for more than an hour, waiting for the shots I wanted in the small snatches of time in which I could hold my camera instead of the paddle. And there was one, and then two, and then perhaps three. The full-grown, adult monkey that sat on the hill in front of me began to assume several poignantly human-like expressions, and I tripped my shutter. Then, at precisely the same moment that a ray of sunshine burst through the cypress trees and shone down on him, he got up to investigate some activity in the tree just above him. My shutter tripped again. And I had it. Briefly — and sort of. There are still flaws in the images. But that’s all right. They pleased me.
It doesn’t matter how long it took me to “have it” with images, because every moment of working to have it is and has been a joy. One of the bigger mistakes of my life has been thinking that one should have great natural talent at their most passionate callings. Instead, the most important thing may be the love, and the insistence on “having it.”