Catastrophe or Catharsis?

 

Let me just say straight away that I am 100% at fault. I heard what people said and dismissed it. I heard the horror stories of people who didn’t heed the advice of “professionals” and discounted them. I’d harboured a mistrust of those handling that mysterious “cloud” data so didn’t investigate it. All that complacency and mistrust of “The Man” did was lead me into losing thousands upon thousands of photos I’d taken since around 2005 when I got my first digital camera.

Shit.

To make a long story short, last week I plugged an external terabyte storage device into my laptop, the device with all my photos on it, and it failed to connect. That was the exact moment panic swept across my entire being. To make matters even more unsettling, we were leaving for a weekend trip so I’d have to wait until we got back to figure it out. I tried all weekend not to think about the “worst case scenario”, but it was hard not to.

Once we got home, I took it to some experts to see what the problem was and see if the data could be retrieved. The ugly verdict was the drive was fatally corrupted and there was less than a 5% chance they could extract any of the that data, even a little bit…at a cost between $500 and $1,500…with no guarantee. Ouch.

As I drove home from the data recovery place, it felt as though someone had kicked me right in the crotch with one of those fancy pointy-toed cowboy boots. The thing that made it doubly worse is I knew it was my own fault. I owned this one 100%, period.

But before I was home, I sort of came to terms with the loss. There was no more wondering if I could get those photos back because I couldn’t. I’m not saying it didn’t sting, but there was nothing I could do and the pain from that initial gut punch subsided. The unknown was now known, as ugly as it was.

I knew I had to let it go, and I did.

As I thought about everything on that drive, the photos I was most devastated about were my travel photos, especially from my sabbatical in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. My extended travel there was one of those times in my life where I can point directly at it and say the experiences literally changed my DNA. Honestly, I could’ve easily pulled over and cried for a day or two over losing those photos alone, but at the same time I felt sort of at peace. I knew in my soul I hadn’t lost the experiences, only lost the material representations of those experiences. In fact, the experiences there are what allowed me to accept losing the photos.

Over this past week, losing the photos has obviously still been on my mind, but it’s not consuming me. I can’t say I’m laughing about it just yet, but at least I’m not nauseous anymore.  I’ve purchased a couple more multi-terabyte storage drives and some cloud space to store things going forward with hopes this will never happen again. You could say I’m now working under the title of the “Department of Redundancy Department”.

I lived, I learned.

On a positive note, my buddy Jason who I traveled to Nepal/India/Bangladesh with still had some of the photo CDs I’d burned for him so I’m gratefully getting those back. A few other friends have sent me photos I’d taken of them in the past, so there’s that. I’d made prints of my favourite or more meaningful images from all of my travels so I still have those. I know I’ll never be able to get everything back, but at least there is something.

I’ve also decided to keep the corrupt external drive for a while with hopes that technology may advance to the point where something can be harvested from it. Not overly optimistic, but you never know.

I’m now looking at this miscue as a catharsis of sorts. Yes I lost the photos, but it also makes me appreciate all the associated experiences that much more. I’ve thought about all the travels and life experiences more this week than I have in years, which has been absolutely wonderful. Who knows, maybe this will even put me on a new path to becoming a better photographer, one who appreciates and treasures every single image I produce even more…and one who backs up their work in more than one place.

Climb high. Ski fast. Live simply.

 

Challenging Myself to Get Better

Transitioning back to ski mode after a long climb.

Later this year I’ll be returning to the Himalaya, this time to join a handful of professional photographers where we’ll spend three weeks photographing the cultural treasures and mind blowing landscapes of northwestern Nepal.  Having been to this region before, it’s hard to overstate my excitement to be returning to such a physically demanding and sensorially overwhelming part of the world.

I consider myself a semiprofessional/avid hobbyist photographer where I sometimes sell my work to individuals or publications, but my primary income isn’t from photography. More than that though, I truly love the art of photography and I’m constantly striving to learn and expand my skills. I know traveling with a group of professional photographers from all over the world will be a treasure trove of information, and I honestly can’t wait to immerse myself in it, but it also brings a certain level of pressure, real or perceived.

Much of our trip will be trekking at altitudes well above 4,400 metres (about 14,000 feet) with a couple of days over 5,500 metres (18,000 feet) and I think it’s safe to say the physical demands of this trip will be a given. Partner that with frenetic markets, language challenges and every other challenge that comes with international travel and the idea of trying to be “creative” all of a sudden becomes a little more daunting.

There is no way to eliminate all the physical and cultural challenges, but what I can control is my proficiency with the tools of the trade. I’m pretty comfortable with my camera and it’s controls, but in the time I have leading up to my trip, I’ve dedicated myself to reviewing the basics, gaining efficiency with functions I don’t use as often and digging into some of the things I’ve never used but always thought would be helpful. When I step off the plane in Kathmandu I want my camera to be something I know so well that whenever creative photo opportunities arise, I’ll need to spend a minimal amount of time faffing around trying to figure out how to make it do what my creative mind wants.

To help start getting myself used to more stressful shooting situations, I decided to give myself a little “pop quiz” in adversity during a photo assignment. I wanted to stress myself physically while simultaneously putting pressure on myself to cover all the photo basics necessary to make a competent photograph.  In other words, I wanted to see if my procedures for composing and capturing a photo were second nature enough to where I could do it instinctually and not have to think too much.

This was my challenge:

  • I would go to my local ski area well before sunrise and climb up to an observation point high on the continental divide. I wouldn’t be allowed to stop other than to adjust the risers on my bindings for the steeper parts of the climb. The point was to make sure I was physically “stressed” when I arrived.
  • I would “reset” my entire camera to the default settings in order to force myself to think about every single step in making a photograph.
  • I could meter in aperture mode but had to shoot in manual mode.
  • I had to hand hold the shot.
  • I had to shoot using f1.4 and compose to maximize the bokeh effect
  • I could use no flash even though it would be extremely low light (partly why I chose f1.4)
  • I would have a five-minute time limit to compose a photo, get my camera settings done and make the photograph…and only take one shot (complete pass or fail).
  • Finally, I had exactly one hour to complete the whole challenge…car door to car door.

I’m a pretty strong climber on skis, but I’m certainly no hyper speed randonee racer, therefore I knew I had to push the pace a little going up, but I also knew going too fast would redline my heart rate given I was already starting at about 3,350 metres (11,100 feet) to begin with!

In short, I was able to climb to Ptarmigan Roost in about forty minutes. It took me a few more minutes to get situated, get a sip of water, strip the skins off my skis and make sure nothing would blow away since it was super windy. After that, I started the clock on my five minute “photo” allowance.

I found a composition I liked fairly quickly, but because I was physically stressed and cold, I really had to stop and think through each part of my camera settings a little more carefully, which took time. Once I had the settings where I wanted, I quickly retraced each step since I only had one chance to get a “good” photograph, then I hit the button.

I barely looked at the screen on my camera to see if I got anything worthwhile because remember, I still had to ski back down to meet the one-hour time limit. I quickly (but carefully!) crammed my camera back in my pack, glanced at my watch and saw that I had about 6-7 minutes remaining. I hurriedly clicked into my skis and let it rip. When I hit unlock on my car’s key fob, I still had three minutes remaining.

The photo I took? Well, I was pretty happy given the circumstances.

 

 

Maybe these challenges are silly, but it truly helps put me in situations where I’m not 100% comfortable and forces to me to fall back and reaffirm my knowledge of the basic skills.

Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.