On Conscious Photography
How do we decide that this moment is photo-worthy?
Why do we need to “capture the moment”?
What would happen if we just didn’t take that picture?
How does the act of taking a picture alter our experience of that very moment?
During the past 2 years of travel I’ve come to recognize my photographic patterning, the situations during which I feel safe to shoot, and those where I wouldn’t dare. For one, I find much more ease photographing either animal or inanimate subjects than those of the sapien variety. Lots of rapturous landscapes, captivating flora and fauna, and a little architecture for good measure, but rarely are people captured in my frame. It’s odd, because it’s often the people I want to remember more than anything. Those unexpected encounters which shift perspective, interactions of immense depth that appear without warning. I often realize, while rolling away from moments like these, that I’ve not taken any photos… but it feels impossible to pose someone after-the-fact just to create a selfish and artificial mneumonic. It’s not that I wouldn’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t. It’s that I just don’t think to record powerful emotional experiences as they’re happening. Once in a while I’ll remember to grab a group shot of kind people who’ve hosted me. I’ll awkwardly pull my camera out of its case attempting to avoid distracting the conversation, then almost as if burping, sneezing or farting I’ll quickly raise it and squeeze off a shot in mid-sentence. But most of the time it doesn’t even occur to me. Most of the amazing people are only held in my mind’s eye, and in those precious moments I’d not have it any other way. The camera is an obstacle to full presence and can interrupt the flow of a connected moment.
It would however be nice to have reminders of those faces that have speckled my journey Southward, not only to remember those surreal moments of Seussian serendipity, but also to evoke the sensory experience that occurred in a simple shared smile or nod. Faces that seemed to have leapt off of a National Geographic spread with their chasmic wrinkles, their skin weathered into leather, framing eyes that have captured stories I would never grasp. Bodies adapted by genetics, nutrition, working/living conditions, and trauma in unique ways that sing our capacity to conquer extreme challenges. Those vibrant handmade garbs frozen in some specific temporal era which I know I will not revisit further down the road. So much I wish I could remember and share.
It just feels like such an intrusion to pull out my camera in front of these amazing humans. On one level to take a photo without asking, even though the best shots are always of those captured unaware, feels like stealing. On another it feels like a simplified objectification of a complex life, somehow deeply disrespecting the person by distilling them into a “thing”. I already feel like an intruder at times, barging into a quiet rural town with my big bike and unusual appearance, to then pull out my camera feels like quite an affront. I forcefully overcome this resistance from time to time to steal the odd shot, usually from behind or in passing. But those stolen glances do not hold the magic of the grand gazes, stunned stares, and gregarious greetings I encounter every day. THOSE special moments I mostly hold close to my heart, trying to remember every gorgeous detail as their stories replay in my mind’s eye.
Other photographic deterrents are those moments that are particularly challenging emotionally. Those incidents while overcome with fear, sadness, anger or pain do not inspire encapsulation. My attention is so fully captured by the moments as they happen, I don’t consider to pull my camera, and myself, out of the experience to record them. It’s a shame because a specific image would be more effective than anything to elicit their richness and the insights accompanying them.
Quite curious to note, however, how intensely positive emotional experiences seem to do the opposite:
This image for example, despite seeming quite generic, will be etched into my memory forever. Riding through Yellowstone National Park during my first bike tour on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 2013 to the setting sun. An epiphany. Carrying a slightly inflated fear of bears and a nagging inner voice that I needed to have had that night’s camp site planned already, I realized that I had everything I needed. I was carrying food, water, shelter and clothing for warmth and I could just stop anywhere to sleep. That very moment, surrounded by the beauty of the golden hour, the hot sulfur scent flowing though my nostrils, was PERFECT. I would not have changed anything. It rocked my consciousness so deeply that, having consciously felt it, I could now die in peace if that should come to pass. Sometimes it’s not about having the perfect camera, the most developed skills, or any thing. I just try to succinctly capture the essence of life-changing moments, using whatever skills and tools are available. That said, I must take time to FEEL the moment, BEFORE choosing to record it. Only through that presence can a picture carry such power.
This phenomenon of photographic lacking during peak experience happened most recently during my time in Mocoa, Colombia, a weekend that I will never forget. I’ll do my best to replace images with detailed description.
… But let me back up a bit to frame the moment…
Mocoa is a small city/big town in Southeastern Colombia near the Ecuadorean border. Cradled in the lowlands to the East of the Andes, at only 2000’ of elevation (low for Columbia) it is quite hot and humid. Though not fully into the Amazon itself, dense jungle was abound, with all the density of insects, animals and plants it brings. Mocoa is increasingly appearing on many tourists’ radars as it’s a hot bed for indigenous plant medicine in Colombia. By plant medicine I specifically am referring to what locals call Yage (Yah-HEY), and what in other areas is known as Ayahuasca. The medicine is derived from a sacred plant that grows commonly throughout the Amazonian jungle and administered during very ritualized ceremony by experienced shamans (called “Taitas” here, which translates as Father). A powerful hallucinogen, the medicine will often help people to purge their unwanted and unneeded baggage both physically and emotionally, and can help provide insight into improved physical/emotional/spiritual health. Having experienced the medicine only one time prior with little effect, I hoped to find another chance to invite insight into my own path through this sacred ceremony. I was however very cautious. Ayahuasca ceremonies have become increasingly popular for westerners and I did not want to find myself in an altered state of consciousness accompanied by a charlatan shaman in search of a quick buck. I know what a dedicated and sincere spiritual teacher feels like to me, and I would only go through with a ceremony if I felt 100% safe and supported.
I rolled through the Mocoa center after a very long and hot day in the saddle into the first cheap hotel room I could find. The next morning I packed up and rolled to the outskirts of town, in search of the Casa del Rio. Mocoa’s only hostel was said (by the Lonely Planet, first offense) to be beautifully oriented on the shores of a raging tropical river with monkeys abound. It was also purported to be a good place to begin my search for Taitas and plant medicine ceremonies. From the moment I walked in, the vibe was not good. The shared dorm room price was significantly HIGHER than a private hotel room in the town center (rare for a hostel). The reception area was cold and barren for such a humid tropical place, the staff similarly frigid and reserved. I was shown to my dark dormitory room to find a man completely passed out on his bed (it was noon) — my entrance and unpacking didn’t raise a stir. Adjacent to the dorm rooms was a strange open-walled, cement-floored rectangular structure. Itts edges were lined with hammocks, an array of moldy foam mattresses randomly strewn about the floor. at the center was a large weathered aluminum pot filled with black ashes, seemingly having served as a makeshift fire pit. This was clearly the location where the hostel’s “sacred” ceremonies were held, but the energy of the space felt more like a college frat house the morning after a rager. As I wandered through the space a woman sauntered in and laid down in a hammock, haphazardly greeting me while lighting a cigarette. Part of an Italian tour group organized by the company “Ayahuasca International”, they’d participated in 7 straight days of ceremony while staying at the hostel and would be leaving that afternoon. Definitely not the energy I was looking for. Having spent many nights in sweat lodges out of the Lakota tradition in the Pacific Northwest and Mexico, this did not feel like a sacred space in any way. I did not photograph any aspect of the hostel, the ceremonial space or the people I met there. I just wanted out.
Clearly I’d only be staying one night, I got directions to ride my bike to one of the various waterfalls in the area. I left my gear at the hostel and rode towards a famous waterfall outside of town, El Fin del Mundo (End of the World). It was quiet and gorgeous, the kind of refreshing river I needed to help clear myself of the hostel’s dingy energy (A few more pics of this gorgeous spot are in my previous post).
When I returned to the hostel, I happened to speak with another traveller who was going to have an introductory interview the following morning with a prospective Taita she’d heard was of high integrity and great experience. I decided to tag along for the meeting and see where it led… 4 of us hopped into a small taxi and were dropped at the front door of an indescript house in downtown Mocoa.
A young man in his early 30’s opened the door with a smile, introducing himself as Taita Robinson (that’s his Father in the above pic. He is the third generation of Taita in his family. I grabbed the shot upon leaving his home). Handing each of us a cup of juice, we sat around a couch and chatted for a while. He began with a long oratory about the desecration of the shamanic tradition in Mocoa. So many people who call themselves Taitas were carelessly doling out Yage in unsafe environments, not caring for the safety and psychospiritual health of their participants. Despite the emotional intensity of his words, his voice remained calm, clear, and grounded. He sounded more disappointed about the situation than angry. He then clarified that in his Makoka (ceremonial space), there were no drugs, alcohol or cigarettes allowed. Each person would have to ask the spirits for permission to enter the space and take part in the ceremony. My trust in Robinson and his profound integrity grew with each statement he made and each question he answered. After an hour of conversation I was convinced, I’d come to the right person.
We all made arrangements to check out of the hostel and return to his house to head up to his Makoka with 3 days of food and supplies. There would be There would be access to clean drinking water via a jungle spring. I returned to the hostel and packed up, and as I waited for others to gather in the common space I remembered to tie a crucial loose end I’d left unattended. I’d written a post on Facebook 2 weeks prior:
“TAKING SPACE FROM FACEBOOK.
It has become progressively clear how much vital growth can only be accessed by entering the dark, fearful, anxiety-filled places. It starts with a tightness in the throat, chest, or stomach that I so quickly cover by reaching for food or phone, internet or exhaustive exercise. But what happens if I STAY with that tension when it arises? What insights lay beyond the walls of fear and anxiety? The exploration requires removing as many of the distractions as possible. Facebook is a must.
It’s not easy for me to step away. Facebook has served as my most effective means of communicating with my family and community during my extended journeying, but that connectivity comes at great cost to presence and consciousness.
So, just letting y’all know if you try to reach me here, I’ll be on Facebook hiatus for a couple of weeks, perhaps more. I’ll be deactivating my account in the coming days to limit the temptation. Stepping into the quiet space that all too often gets steamrolled by likes, updates, and scrolling through endless posts.
But PLEASE, if you’d like to reach out for any reason, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Definitely not cutting off personal communications. Just taking some more intentional space.”
It was time to follow through with my word. I signed out of the site moments before leaving the hostel.
2 hours later we 7 were in 2 taxis bouncing around the dirt roads above town, the urban density fading into sparse shacks as we climbed up the mountainside. Upon reaching the end of one road, we all got out and walked uphill and into the dense jungle along a small footpath for a 30 minute hike of slipping and sliding our way up the wet, muddy hillside.
At one point Robinson, who’d been walking a bit ahead, turned to stop us all. We formed a circle and he began chanting as he took mouthfuls out of a small bottle he’d been carrying and began spraying our faces and bodies with the liquid as he wafted us with a small bunch of specific leaves he’d tied together. We were each told to ask in any way that felt right for permission to enter the space, and he seemed to pause intently after each person’s turn, appearing to listen for the response. Luckily we were all permitted entry. Walking another 50 meters through a barely worn path, we arrived at an open space with a large covered structure.
One of 2 photos I took while at the Makoka. Taken moments after we arrived as we were all getting settled just before I put my camera away, with Robinson’s permission of course.Over the next 2 1/2 days at the Makoka we would hold 2 distinct Yage ceremonies and a few other ceremonial cleanses.
We were instructed to drag whatever we needed to be warm and comfortable through the night from a pile of foam mattresses and blankets. We then teamed up to build the necessary fires and collect all the water needed to drink, cook and flush the outhouse toilet. With 2 fires gently smoldering and our individual spaces arranged around the main pit, we gathered to begin. Robinson explained some guidelines for maintaining the ceremonial space: No smoking. No alcohol. No drugs. During the ceremony we were to remain near the ceremonial circle, leaving to use the outhouse as necessary, but we were not to wander away. He would be drinking the medicine with us, at times singing and playing instruments, and would be guiding us through the experience as necessary. Not a whole lot of structure other than that.
We were each called to sit with him by the altar to be administered various medicines. One was tiny amount of tobacco powder which he gently blew up our nostrils, preparing us to receive the Yage. Later, we were called again individually and given a small wooden cup of liquid, the Yage. I had felt a very personal connection with Robinson since the moment we’d met, and this private moment amongst the group focused my attention to the poignancy of the night. I looked up at the big glowing moon, recognizing two important facts. The moon was full on that very night which was also, by chance, my second anniversary of the day I rode away from Seattle. Upon sharing this this with Robinson, he glanced back at me with a soft, empathetic smile. Nothing more needed to be said.
Once everyone had drank a cup, we returned to our pads and sat in the silence of the circle, allowing the medicine to permeate our systems.
I will not and can not attempt to explain with words the experience I had from this point forward over the next 2 days, as doing so would not even approach conveying its depth and breadth. I will share that I received two very important insights, one on each night, that I will hold with me so long as I live and breathe.
1. Music is within you.
2. Let it out.
The first insight I feel stands alone and needs no further words.
The implications of the second insight reach from the earliest parts of childhood into the deepest parts of my psyche. Essentially, I need to let out what I hold so tightly inside of me. On the visceral form, it’s withholding sneezes, the urge to purge, or even bowel movements since I can remember, afraid of making a mess or that now is just the wrong time. Socially, it is those words and feelings I have for others that I’ve withheld in fear of criticism or judgement. Creatively, it’s the gifts I have to offer the world that I resist manifesting out of fear that I have nothing of value to contribute to the world, or that what I do offer is not enough. But the experience in that Makoka drove like a railroad stake into my soul that this withholding has caused pain and suffering. Release from that suffering can in part be found through the path of least resistance: Stop fighting and just. let. go.
At the end of it all, the group gathered for a closing ceremony before cleaning up the space and beginning the slip-slide down the muddy hillside to return to Mocoa. Robinson (center, with guitar) requested a group photo as he likes to remember all the groups he’s guided over the years. I really appreciated that he did that as it’s the only photo I have of him and that group of soul-searching seekers.
We returned to Robinson’s house and he generously offered to let me stay with him for a night rather than return to the yucky hostel. Meeting his beautiful wife, daughter, mother, and extended family that lived with him in his simple home, I felt welcomed as a part of the family. They all play in a traditional Andean music group, led by Robinson, and usually all conduct ceremonies together at his Makoka when possible. I was deeply struck by the integrity in which Robinson lives. He composes music and songs directly from his heart which he plays both at ceremonies and public events. He is a kind and respectful father and integrates his family into all aspects of his life. He lives the words he speaks and speaks from the way he lives. He is not drawn to turn his passion into the most money possible if it is out of alignment with his principles. He offers love and respect to all those who cross his path, and speaks softly of those who do offer him that same love and respect.
Now on the second day of my second year of continuous travel, I left Robinson’s home with renewed resources emotionally, physically and spiritually. While I still have many lands to explore and even more internal questions to answer, I felt calm, clear and ready to move forward. I would seek ways to express the insights I received in that Makoka, and hold the beauty of Robinson as a model of integrity.
… And maybe try to take a few more photos of the amazing people that shape this continual Southerly unfolding when it feels right …