These last few years have been rough. Really rough. But as with all challenges, there are some positives to be found and some lessons to be learned from them. I see these past few years as a way to reset our priorities and make positive changes in our future based on the things we’ve learned. That includes changing our mindset–for the better–about our photography. Here are five things I’ve realized during the pandemic, and how they relate to my art.
We can adapt & thrive with less
Photography is a costly endeavor. Camera bodies, lenses, tripods, travel… it all adds up, and quickly. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought most of us at least some level of financial uncertainty. It has also shackled a lot of us in place, as a necessary means of controlling the spread of disease. Talk about a culture shock. So much of today’s generation have never experienced restrictions on freedom or faced the spectre of real poverty. The transition to a post-pandemic world was a difficult one. At the end of the day though, much like any other challenge, there are lessons to be learned from it.
Can’t afford a new camera, lens, or gadget? That can be an opportunity to get creative. Maybe you can’t buy that wide-angle lens you’ve dreamed about–but you can use your nifty 50 to stitch together a panoramic. Is it the same? No. But is it necessarily worse? Also no.
Can’t travel to <insert famous grandscape location here>? That’s all right! There is still joy to be found in shooting locally. Playing with small scenes, abstracts, or in-camera effects can be immensely satisfying. I spent much of the pandemic lockdown re-visiting local waterfalls, parks, and watching birds at my bird feeder. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have loved to be in the Dolomites, or Yellowstone, or photographing the volcano in Iceland… but shooting smaller scenes locally still gave me a sense of peace that I so desperately needed at the time.
Travel restrictions also gave me an excuse to look at my archives. I found a surprising number of images that I loved but never edited for one reason or another. Photography isn’t just about making beautiful art. It’s a way to capture beautiful memories, and having those memories at my fingertips helped get me through the hardest days of lockdown.
Solace in nature
I’ve always believed in the restorative power of nature. I would guess that most landscape photographers do, as it goes hand in hand with the job. However, when cities went into lockdown, and scientists realized the safest place to be around others was outside, then nature truly became our refuge.
The spike in trail usage was unprecedented. For example, the number of hikes logged on AllTrails went up 171% between 2019 to 2020. Cycling and running also saw a surge of new enthusiasts looking for ways to stay fit without access to gyms. I was no exception. I’ll be the first one to tell you that hiking and biking have kept my household sane, helping us manage the stress that comes with living through a pandemic.
The effect of time spent outdoors really hit home for me in the fall of 2021. My grandfather was diagnosed with brain cancer, work threatened to overwhelm me, and the house repairs we committed to during the summer had finally begun. In short, I was stressed. There was never enough time or money, or energy to give any of the things that so desperately demanded my attention.
Then Grandpa passed away.
I had to work the morning my family left for the memorial, so I drove myself that evening. All told, I spent about fifteen hours in the car listening to books and trying not to cry. On the rainy ride home, with about four left to go, I decided I needed a break from both driving and my grief. I stopped to photograph some waterfalls. The slick hiking trail followed along a river’s edge and, truth be told, I took a lot of care to place my feet and tripod just so. The cold cascades wouldn’t be kind to me or my camera. As I hiked from waterfall to waterfall, losing myself in the patter of the rain, and the crash of the falls, searching for this composition or that, I noticed myself relaxing. For the first time in weeks, I was able to just breathe. To come to terms with the loss. To find solace with my camera in nature. My melancholy wasn’t gone, but finally, it felt manageable.
Living life in the slow lane
The initial shift from busy pre-pandemic life to lockdown terrified me. People we cared about were dying, and no one knew why or how to prevent it. Days dragged into weeks, though, and being the glass-half-full person that I am, I eventually learned to appreciate the slow pace of life. I was still sad and frustrated and frightened, of course. But there was also a sense of relief that came with not attending every social function under the sun. I realized how much I despised commuting to my day job. I came to cherish my daily lunch walks with my dog and camera. I loved being able to cook my lunch instead of rushing out to grab whatever fast food was nearby. Unfortunately, when the restrictions loosened and life returned to some semblance of normalcy, all of the stresses from my pre-pandemic life crept right back in.
Every day I miss photographing the birds at the feeder, or the snowy trees on my lunch walks. Every day I miss swapping my commuting time for creativity time. Every day I miss living life in the slow lane.
For months I have struggled with finding a balance between the things I loved about lockdown and the hectic pace of capitalist America. I see now how unhealthy the rat race mentality is. We burn ourselves out chasing just one more dollar, or building up just one more employer’s dream, and for what? Obesity. Stress. Depleted energy for our families. Depleted motivation for our own creative pursuits. And maybe, if we are lucky, the chance to do it all again the next day. Many Americans are taught that their career defines them–and while I love the stability and health care insurance my day job provides, I still can’t help pining for a slower pace of life. I still hope that someday we will find a better balance.
The value of a creative outlet
When I come home from my day job, my brain is zombie-level mush. I’ve spent the day studying spreadsheets, putting out the latest “fires”, and drained my dregs dry in the process. I have no real energy for creativity, and it frustrates me to no end. I want to take photos. I want to edit. I want to write. But instead, I sleep, get up the next morning, and do it all again.
Weekends aren’t much better. I have two days to cram in family time, laundry, dishes, and some exercise to keep my battered body limping along until the next weekend. At that point, finding time to create something meaningful seems like a monumental task. Even so, I try. Maybe I only write a few incoherent sentences. Maybe I edit the dust from one corner of a photo. Maybe I just research a location I want to shoot. I make the time to do something, though.
For me, a creative outlet is self-care. One of the things commonly told to women–who frequently give too much of themselves caring for others–is that you are useless to those who need you if you’ve neglected yourself. With that in mind, I’ll drag myself away from the pile of dishes to photograph a client’s sleepy newborn, edit until an hour past my bedtime, and nap in my car the next day on my lunch. Or harder still, I’ll drag myself out of bed at some awful hour, neglecting the dishes completely, to photograph a sunrise. I am decidedly not a morning person. That said, I’ve never once regretted seeing the first hints of pink and red on the horizon, or the feeling of joy I get watching the day unfold. Putting in the effort to be creative always pays me back ten-fold.
It is difficult to find time for the things we are passionate about, but nothing worth doing is easy. In end, you’re not going to think back on how often you mowed the lawn or attended board meetings. I’d wager good money that you’ll smile when you remember a comet reflected on a still pond, though, or the feeling of accomplishment you got from finding just the right composition. Those are the stories we cherish. Those are the memories worth making.
I have always been a traveler and by March of 2021, after months of closed borders, my state lifted travel restrictions. We spent that weekend two states over, walking around a nearly empty city, and learning about naval history. Now, that may sound silly. Why put in all that effort to walk around a ghost town in one of the coldest parts of the year? Because I was downright twitchy and miserable to be around. I needed to get out of our town. I needed some relief from the sense of claustrophobia that had been plaguing me. I needed something to break up the monotony. I am not passionate about military history, but I was positively giddy to walk the deck of a naval ship.
The feeling of gratitude followed me throughout the rest of the year. We drove to Ohio, a place I never thought I’d spend much time in, and I was thankful for the chance to hike and safely explore some new parts of the country. I watched the sunrise on the rolling fields of Kentucky’s horse farms for the first time. I marveled at some new waterfalls in Pennsylvania and enjoyed views of the Hudson River valley in New York while camping with friends. None of those trips was big, exciting photo trips, but I loved them despite that.
I’ve always tried to be grateful for the things I have. I appreciate the freedoms and blessings that come with being born in an advanced country. I try not to take my situation for granted. After experiencing lockdowns for the first time in my life, I am more determined than ever to practice gratitude and kindness wherever I go.
The pandemic has been scary. There are so many unknowns, but every day we are learning more about best practices. It can be confusing–changes in procedures happen fast and there is often conflicting information–but if you approach each day with caution and compassion, and embrace the updates as they come, you're at least moving in the right direction. Better still, if you learn to thrive with less, take time to care for yourself, and make note of the things that brought you joy despite the difficulties we face, you’ll be better off when the world returns to...well...normal-ish.
Have faith that better days are ahead. Be grateful for how far we’ve come. Without the rain, there would be no flowers. And without the flowers, what would you photograph?