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Some Thoughts on Photography

The 777 jolted and swooped, dropping through the night. It hammered into some invisible pressure fluctuation, and jolted me out of a vague state of half-sleep. Somewhere over the wide flung arms of a vast Western Pacific super typhoon, my first sight was Christopher McCandless grinning back at me, his starvation thinned lips curled as he posed in front of the bus that sheltered him in the Alaskan wilderness. This famous picture, glowing out of the headrest monitor's showing of the movie "Into the Wild," is likely McCandless' final selfie.

On a flight across the Pacific, a person has very little to do to distract them from the simultaneous boredom and terror of trusting a machine and the people who command and repair it to ensure safe passage over a timeless graveyard. (I'll write in a later post about my fear of flying.) As the movies get increasingly boring, I tend to get deeply philosophical in an attempt to ignore the claustrophobia and turbulence.

Ever since seeing "Into the Wild," I've found it disturbingly ironic that Christopher McCandless' story was sensationalized into first a book, and then a movie. From what I understand of his motives, all he really wanted to do was to find an existence in a state that was free of excess and commercialization. His journey ended in a long, excruciating road to a young death, and his tombstone was etched and polished in Hollywood. From what the movie tells me, he found himself, but when he tried to return to civilization with his newfound knowledge, the giver of this wisdom blocked his path with a swollen stream. Nature gave him the answers, and nature would not allow him to return to the outside world to spread his message, leaving only his diary to be left up to interpretation of bystanders. Even if nature had allowed him to return, bureaucracy would have surely destroyed who he had become were he to attempt to live how most of us do in the "civilized" world.

What does this have to do with photography? To me there are two categories of photos. There are photos to commemorate the past, and photos to shape one's future dreams and desires. The past was something that happened, something that was real for a brief moment, even as memories fade and twist as time erodes them. As to the future, our media-driven lives are guided by what we see.

Photography provides a vision beyond the present circumstances. This can be a very positive force, or it can be destructive. This is especially true as we get thousands of images daily blasted through our optical nerves into the pleasure seeking centers of our brains. How many times a day do you see an image and attempt to live vicariously through it in some way? How many images inspire you or calm you, making a positive impression on you? How often do you see media of somebody who is a celebrity just for celebrity sake? If you can explain to me why the lives of celebrities have true importance in your life other than entertainment, comment below.

While the best pictures of moments that we have not personally lived through inspire us to compassion, give us further understanding of our world, or help us to become greater as individuals, none of them are as powerful as experience. You could hand me the best picture of a sunset, and I'll tell you it doesn't touch me as much as any of the other sunsets I've watched. The picture is one dimensional. It doesn't awaken my senses like my memory of looking out the window of a 737, watching the sunset over Mt. Hood while the plane raced daylight to its termination on the western horizon.

Lately, it seems like if you don't have photographic proof, what you did never happened. As was too jet lagged to sleep this morning, I found myself looking at the logistics of climbing Jade Mountain, Taiwan's tallest peak. Jade Peak doesn't appear to be a very technical climb, and the biggest challenge seems to be obtaining a permit for a one-day climb. Supposedly, as a foreigner, it is easiest to go with a guide company to get around the permit issue. One guide company required photographic evidence of the applicant standing on top of a high peak. I wondered if my experience this September of getting to 11,000' on Mt. Rainier would be acceptable given that Rainier is a well recognized challenge. I don't have a summit selfie because the weather forced us to turn back, but in order to get to 11,000', there was glacier travel and carrying a full pack up steep terrain for long periods of time.

Would a selfie at 11,000' on the imposing Mt. Rainier convice the guide company that the dry scramble up Jade Peak (12,966') would be a possibility at my level of fitness? I'm going to leave that question unanswered because a guided trip on Jade Mountain costs nearly twice that of a guided climb of Rainier. If I was given the money to spend, I'd choose attempting Rainier again.

Can a selfie on a mountain prove one's actual ability and fitness level? I don't think so. I think only the mountain itself can prove it. If you really want to know the answer, then go find it. Maybe someday I'll get a permit for a one day climb up Jade Mountain, and then I'll know.


Holden Caulfield would love selfies. This is me on Mt. Rainier.

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