"The Information Has to Be There"
On Writing and Photography
The camera is like the mind and its eye. That simile has been around since cameras were invented. Like most metaphorical insights, it’s useful, but it’s a metaphor, not an actual description of how the mind works. The power of the metaphor comes from comparing one phenomenon to another to generate additional insight. Sometimes an old metaphor returns in unexpected ways and we find ourselves re-appreciating it.
I spent four days with friend and nature photographer, Joe Messina in San Gerardo de Dota trying for in-flight shots of the Quetzal. But many of his shots were of “birds on a branch” as he calls them, deep in the shade of avocado trees. They were interesting but dark and against complicated, leafy backgrounds. Joe showed me how this is handled using his state of the art cameras, lenses and software. Dark and complex photographs became bright, crisp and useful bird images. Useful for telling the story Joe wants to tell
“But the software cannot create something that is not there,” he said. “The lens and camera have to see and capture the bird’s detail even in low light. The information has to be there before you can craft it into a useful image.”
The information has to be there. Right, I’m thinking. I’ m aware of the emotional filters and other biases that color my experience. How do I, the writer, increase the likelihood that I can use my own life’s experience? In essence, I’m asking how can I fully experience the situation and store what my senses have collected for future use? Sometimes I want to use the data in my writing pretty much as it sits in my mind’s eye. Other times I want to adjust it, work with certain aspects of the “image” to tell my story. Regardless, I need to have recorded the experience in some detail; the information has to be there.
I need to see, not just look.
In El Peon, I have a protagonist who has uncommon experiences. Some of those are situations in which the extraordinary part is so only because of the exceptional level of attention he is able to bring to a setting. It is the intensity of his attention that may make the scene intriguing or even unrealistic to the reader. Very little in these scenes is mysterious or remotely metaphysical, just an astonishing level of attention.
On the last day, Joe and I talked at breakfast on the same theme. He elaborated from a photographer’s perspective. “Each image tells a story,” he said. “We start with the core information then edit it to tell the story that the photographer wants to tell.” Haven’t we all heard the same process applied to writing? We start with our basic life experiences and then subtract out that which does not support the story* we want to tell. It seems to me, that such editing is as much a part of non-fiction writing (like photography) as of fiction. In rewriting El Peon, the story I want to tell about Guito is under-told in some aspects and I have to add a few scenes to make his arc apparent to the reader.
It may be serendipity, but when I arrived home today (Sunday), Austin Kleon’s weekly blog was waiting:
How to Pay Attention: 20 Ways to Win the War against Seeing
You can find Joe’s photo galleries at http://joemessina.smugmug.com
* I use “story” to include more than just plot.