Parts of this article will read as if I’ve lost my mind. If not my mind, something else. My confidence, maybe. Or my perspective. Or maybe I’m just feeling lost. Maybe you are too. Maybe we’re all a little lost right now. Maybe we can find each other here, or come up with a way to find ourselves. Maybe a camera can help.
I’ve not written an article for this site, my site, since November 4th, and even then I was using old photos and outlines from the summer of 2020. It’s impossible to overstate how unusual that is. I had to look back in the archive to confirm it. I didn’t realize it had been that long. It’s surprising and strange. More than that, it’s indicative.
Beginning in April of 2014 and continuing until September of 2020, there hadn’t been a period of more than two days wherein I hadn’t written something for this site. Even throughout precious family vacations I’ve continued to work (those readers who’ve pointed out that my Disney World photos aren’t useful as test shots will know). Daytrips to Martha’s Vineyard have served double duty as article fodder for years. But this year has been different.
It’s tiring to hear and to read, and these are things we’ve all read and heard ad nauseam. But it’s also the truth. The past twelve months have been exhausting, challenging, and for some of us disastrous, for others terrifying. There are psychological dynamics happening in us, in me, which I’m neither educated enough nor emotionally intelligent enough to fathom. But I feel it. And this writing is an attempt to plumb it. Call it a self-indulgent piece of writing (some readers will, and with fairness). But these words are as much personal introspection as they are a reaching hand to any potential readers who might recognize themselves somewhere in these paragraphs. I’m trying to help – myself, yeah, but others as well.
In September I had a panic attack, the first of my life. In a piece of writing in which I attempted to hint to my readers that I might need to take a break, I described the sensation as “drowning in open air… An animal feeling.” I feel that feeling now still, and have (to some degree) every day since that day in September.
Not long after that, my wife, who had been pregnant for four months, went to a routine ultrasound where alone she learned that the baby inside her was dead. He was a boy who we’d named Henry. I was home with my two daughters, loading dishes into the dishwasher when my wife walked through the door. There are things in life which one can never forget – one, for me now, is the persistent sound of rushing tap-water as I fearfully begged a relentlessly sobbing wife to tell me what was the matter.
The time between then and Christmas feels distant. I can’t cast my mind back, and I don’t know that I want to. There’s a few blank frames (there, I did a film reference for you). Months haunted by the specters of grief and pain. Sealing those ominous wraiths within coffins, to be exhumed in places of meticulously crafted privacy – after pandemic-induced home-schooling is done, after the house is clean, after the work is finished, when the kids are fed and happy and in bed and the house is quiet.
On Christmas morning I felt that I should shoot some photos. I found my Nikon SP in the office, the frame counter of which showed that eleven frames had already been shot. I remembered what this camera had begun recording, what I’d intended to record with it to completion. A lovely idea. A phenomenal photo project. A full-term, nine-month pregnancy shot on a single roll of film, the final frame the first minute of my son’s life.
What an article that would make. What a project. I recalled frame one – the positive pregnancy test. I recalled frame two – a candid mirror shot of my wife moments after learning that she was indeed pregnant. Frame five – an enlarging belly. Frame eight – the “It’s a Boy” sign which my daughters made in their boundless enthusiasm. Frame eleven – tiny socks fresh from the dryer.
The loss has changed things for me in ways which I’m only beginning to realize. Predominant is a persistent feeling that life is tragically fleeting. That we all have almost no time at all. That many of us have less time than most.
When I was six years old, I saw a local television news reporter reporting live from a public restroom in a mall in middle America. From his square of linoleum he proclaimed in a cadence of studied weightiness that the then widely misunderstood AIDS epidemic had reached our state, and that it would be possible for any good citizen to contract the fatal disease “even from surfaces in a public restroom.” I cried every night for a year because I’d been inside hundreds of public restrooms in my six years on Earth. Surely no kid could roll the dice that many times and not come up snake eyes. I researched the life expectancy of AIDS patients and planned to tell my family of my infection only after I’d reached age fourteen – no sense worrying them until the very end, I reasoned.
Of course, I didn’t have AIDS or die. But since then there have been countless periods of weeks or months during which I’ve convinced myself with perfect certainty that I had… something else. I was dying of cancer because I was tired. I had Leukemia because my legs ached for three days in a row. I had Eastern Equine Encephalitis because I was bitten by a mosquito and two days later felt a little bit hot.
Nevermind that I was probably tired because I’d not slept for more than five hours a night over the span of three years. And my legs couldn’t hurt just because I’d done squats at the gym for the first time in two months. And yeah, I was feeling unusually feverish – but not because it was summer, nor because I had a sunburn. It was that poisoned mosquito bite. Three real-world examples out of hundreds.
Intellectually, it sounds foolish and laughable. It’s hard to laugh at it when you’re living it.
From the moment I learned the word, I’ve suspected that I’m a hypochondriac. I don’t say that in the same way that some people like to say they have attention deficit disorder (ADD) because they can’t focus entirely throughout a boring movie, or in the way that other people say they have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) because they like things to be orderly. Everyone gets bored and everyone prefers that things be neat. I don’t take this lightly.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic I’ve panicked myself over the idea that I have COVID-19 (the disease brought on by the novel coronavirus) at least once per week. This is no exaggeration. I have visualized with perfect clarity hundreds of times the moment in which I die and leave my kids behind, unable to say goodbye or see them. When I wake up in the morning I instantly think about dying. Every day that I feel fine, I remind myself that the symptoms can appear days or weeks after infection, and that I might already be infected. I might already be dead.
I try to recall how much I can remember of the years of my life before age six (my oldest daughter is six years old) in order to calculate how much of me they’ll remember when they’re adults in the event that I die sometime this year. Dozens of times a day, I imagine my wife and kids living their lives without me. At the worst moments I imagine the inverse nightmare – my family dying and leaving me alive. Countless scenarios of loss and absence. It’s hell, and I really don’t know what to do about it.
Remember when I said that some parts of this article will make me sound crazy?
When I woke up this morning I immediately felt my throat. It was sore. A few panicked moments later, after a glass of water had relieved my throat dried overnight by the winter air, I felt fine.
It had snowed overnight and the ground was covered. I could do all the usual descriptors – pillowy hills. Blankets of downy snow. Fluffy, white sheets… Why are they always bedding?
My kids are in that glorious phase of life in which everything is a novelty to be treasured and lived. I love that about them. They remind me to look up at the clouds and to wonder at how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. From the warmth of their beds, they ran to the window and begged me to play in the snow. So we did. And unusually (of late), I brought a camera out with me. Not a great camera. Not even, I thought, a very good camera.
I thought Let’s shoot the worst camera I have in the office right now. Something nobody wants. Something nobody would waste their time using, or writing about, or shooting a video about. It will probably be lifeless and I won’t have anything to say.
I chose the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX9, a point-and-shoot digital camera from (let me look it up) 2010.
Twelve megapixels. Touch screen. Bunch of shooting modes including background de-focus. Do we really need to do this? The best parts of it are the slick sliding lens cover (which slides vertically) and the optimistic warble that it sings whenever we turn it on.
If you like Walkmans or Sony Minidisc players or the PSP Go, or if you drive a 2001 BMW Z3 and want a period-looking camera to put in the car’s center console (and never use), you’ll love this camera. I do. But this really isn’t the point, is it? Not this time. (I’ll review this camera properly if just one person tells me to do so in the comments – please don’t.)
Out in the snow, we did all the snow things one does in the snow. Snow angels. Snow balls. Snow men (or women, what the hell, patriarchy?). My old dog did what he does – chew sticks, bite snow, roll around. The kids squealed with delight, swung on a swing set covered in snow, took photos with their own cameras, reveled in their tiny, happy lives.
As happened many years earlier when my wife and I struggled for over a year to have our first child, photography was an escape. The camera gave a point of focus, crowded out the anxiety and worry. Then again, the camera isn’t really doing anything. It’s just a camera, a pretty unspectacular camera, at that. But over the years I’ve found that even the worst cameras end up pointing at what’s important. And that sort of makes any camera “the best camera.”
I ended the morning feeling buoyed. My kids did that for me. Cameras let me record it. We’re all going to die. Photos leave something of us behind, the smallest of comforts.
The temptation for the blog writer is to write this experience into something greater than it is. To come up with a snappy headline – How the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX9 Saved My Life, or similar nonsense. It didn’t. It’s just a camera. But it gave me the extra nudge I needed to get out of my office, out of the house and into the snow. It got me moving, it helped me ease up for a while, and it helped me have a fun day with my kids.
I’m the editor of this site, which means that I choose what gets published and what doesn’t. I’ve vacillated on publishing this article dozens of times while writing it, and later as it sat in draft form. It’s a weird one. From a business perspective, from the perspective of building on the “brand’s” synergistic content profile, it’s not a good fit. But then again, exposing things to light usually leads to good things.
Perspective is everything, as photographers know better than most. Things for me are tough at the moment. But they could be worse. For many other people, things are worse. Maybe things are worse for you. Maybe you feel like shit, too. If so, this article should tell you that you’re not alone, and that a camera can help. Family and friends can help. And as long as we keep engaging with the parts of life which are meaningful and good, everything eventually will be fine.
But damn. Just stick me with the vaccine already. And I’ll take a therapist, too.
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Very good article, James. Stay well!