Text and photography by Jim Austin Jimages.
What do we do when our creative light goes dim?
"I'm not feeling creative with my photography", "I'm out of subjects to photograph", and "My camera's been on the shelf for a while" are all things we may feel. Indeed, dark thoughts and creative ruts happen to each of us at some time. We might even think there's nothing for us to photograph. While these thoughts are a natural part of our path, when we brood on them, a sense of self-doubt may take over.
We may feel like quitting photography altogether unless we can find our way out of the darkness of a creative rut.
One way is to st small goals that tie into our habits. When we first started taking pictures, the craft of photography probably felt bright and energetic. To reignite our craft, we need a spark. Our habits provide the fuel to get out of a rut. Since there are things we do repeatedly every day, we can harness our picture taking to these actions. Make the bed. Put on our shoes. Ride the subway or bus to work. The key is to put on our camera like a piece of clothing, and then commit to a few pictures. To escape the immobility and powerlessness of a rut, go through the motions. Get your camera shutter moving on any subject. For instance, I think: "I'm going to take five shots between the bedroom and the front door."
The subject matter can be mundane. We have to put aside ideas about "epic" "good light" and "photogenic subjects." Just make yourself, and the shutter, move. Get more oxygen to brain and minds eye, and you will be surprised by the ideas that emerge from your subconscious.
Taking a photo walk is a time proven way to reignite our process. To her delight, I walk our dog about four times a week. The camera always goes round my neck after I get shoes (and mask) on. The dog pulls me outside, and then I just snap a few shots of ordinary things along the way.
To paraphrase Thackery: "There are a thousand pictures lying within you that you don't know until you get moving and raise up your camera to shoot.”
(For my pal EB).
The dog pulls abruptly on her leash. Ahead of her, a tiny fawn flits away and bounds around a dogwood tree. Virginia rain lashed the pines moments ago, yet in minutes the sun and humidity have returned. Encompassed by emerald radiance, the world of tech, devices, speed and stress melts away and disappears.
We are walking a dog-friendly, well-marked forest trail that winds between the marsh and the Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal. We came not only to walk the dog, but to enjoy some morning forest bathing. Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is not about filling a tub in the trees. A health practice among the Japanese, shinrin-yoku embodies respect for the divine nature of the trees. It involves a myriad of ways to improve mental and physical health. For the Japanese, whose working culture suffers from "overwork death" (Karō shi 過労死 ), forest bathing is a way to balance stress with the benefits of immersion in nature. Studies from Japan suggest the practice can improve sleep quality, reduce heart rate, and lower cortisol levels.
Virginia is a forested state. We saunter by a diverse group of tree species. Overhead, stately pines are graced by sunlight beams. The ground is moist and needle-covered. As we walk, we pass native magnolia and sassafras. By the museum and parking lot, docent master gardeners who specialize in historic gardening are planting trees with deep roots in American history. Docents Linda Bradley and her husband have planted Eastern Redbud, Regal Prince Oak, Sweetbay Magnolia and Allegheny chinquapin (dwarf chestnut). The tulip poplar tree is also here; it was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who had one planted at his Monticello estate in 1807.
Two Local Heroes from Long Ago:
On the walk home, we soak up details of the Battle of Great Bridge, fought here on December 9th, 1775. Trail plaques mention heroes of the battle. Polly Miller, a single 35-year-old owner of an ordinary (or inn) served spirits and food at her establishment. Miss Polly ordered refreshments for the Patriot troops. She gave aid and comfort to injured Virginians but took charge of the British wounded as well. According to historian William S. Forrest, she saved the lives of half a dozen men.
William “Billy” Flora was cold. A rime of ice encrusted the march grasses of the Great Dismal Swamp that lay on both sides of the narrow spit of land where Flora was posted. An African-American sentry and freight company owner, Flora was the last to leave his post as the British advanced. He was crouched down in the lee of a pile of shingles next to a burnt out building. Less than 70 yards ahead, on the other side of the Great Bridge, British soldiers were about to charge. Amidst a shower of musket balls, Billy kept firing his Old Betty musket at the red-coats before he turned, crossed the causeway and lifted up a plank. This obstruction prevented the British regiment from crossing. Under fire from the Virginia Patriots, the British retreated. Flora was one of 5,000 Black free men who helped bring about American Independence.
LINK to an interactive map, click gbbattlefield.org/The Great Bridge Battlefield & Waterways History Foundation (757.482.4480.Open 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday-Friday)
"You don't know how I feel." We have said this. We've been told this. Like you, I know the experience of being misunderstood or have my feelings discarded. I have misunderstood others as well.
Some people are just not able to know how others feel. They have no theory of mind, and thus no compassion. Simply unable to imagine the mind or feelings of another person, we see this as we watch what they do.
To become more compassionate takes effort. First, I try to be aware of people's feelings and moods when I photograph them. This may mean listening instead of photographing. It might require putting the camera aside for a while. Compassion can mean returning at a better time when your portrait subject is feeling better. At times, we might have to work at a slower or faster pace to match the pace of our subject. It can lead to making a game of the photography process or giving control in a session to someone who objects to being photographed. Compassion always demands a change from self preoccupations to thinking of the needs of another person.
Compassion is not passion. While they may be two wheels on the same drive train of our mental energy, passion is more about the self and comes from inside. Compassion is about feeling for another and it's more often impelled from outside of us. It starts outside of us when another person is suffering, and we are moved to suffer along with them. Compassion is not altruism. It is not empathy.
Compassionate people are described as patient, kind, wise. I was not born with these traits, and I have to work at it, to practice to become more compassionate. I've found compassion an immense challenge. Often I find it hard to maintain compassion and transform it so it lasts.
Compassion Exercise: Keep a gratitude section in your diary or journal. I began to keep a gratitude journal in 2019, writing down all the things for which I am grateful.
“ PEOPLE THINK THE CAMERA steals their soul. Places, I am convinced, are affected in the opposite direction. The more they are photographed (or drawn and painted) the more soul they seem to accumulate.”
~ John Pfahl (Photographer, teacher. Feb 17, 1939-April 15, 2020)
Gardener, opera fan and photographer John Pfahl knew about intimacy. He had, according to his loving family, a deep interest in people. Mr. Pfahl's recent passing, from multiple life-threatening issue complicated by Covid-19, was a loss. His work, and the quote above, inspires a question: What brings us back to a place?
Perhaps the accumulated soul of special places loosens a space within us that had been confined. Returning to our evocative places can add layers to our experience of it. Our appreciation of the setting grows as our memories of it deepen. Place familiarity, instead of breeding contempt, grows into intimacy.
Locate in the Bahamas, Saint Saviors church is one of these healing places, as it invites a photographic effort to evoke the invisible though the visible. If saying so appears not too pretentious, photographing Saint Saviors church is a search for the soul of a place.
An Anglican parish on Cat Island in the southeast Bahamas, Saint Saviors was the 'mother church' of New Bight community, and to many it is still an important part of its faith. To get to the island, we sailed from Florida and then south and east of Nassau. Located off the Queens Highway near a gas station and store, the structure of the building still stands. The roof is almost gone, its beams taken away from hurricane winds. The grounds around the edifice, dried bushes and encroaching trees, were cleared in 2020 by a restoration committee of devoted Anglican community members.
Cat Island is the cultural heart of the Bahamas. It's residents preserve their history. Speaking to an Anglican elder who was born on the island, I heard about Saint Saviors' furnishings. Rose Johnson, a church member in her late 70's, told me she had preserved Saint Saviors' pulpit. Father Eric Miller, an Anglican priest, shared his plans to eventually restore Saint Saviors' edifice itself, so he is fundraising and rebuilding several Anglican churches on Cat Island.
Why go back to this remote ruin? Inside its walls, Saint Saviors radiates the light of the world. Shadows scamper across its walls in a dance. Near the Baptismal font, dark shadows from a few remaining roof beams play across the walls when the sun appear above the clouds. Through its western windows, green tendrils advance into Saint Saviors open interior. It is easy to imagine what a vibrant place of worship the church had been, and could become again. Seated on the church floor near the baptismal font, I recall words of writer and photo instructor Minor White: “ Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you. When you approach it, you will feel resonance, a sense of recognition. Sit with your subject and wait for your presence to be acknowledged.” Once again I begin to photograph.
Saint Saviors keeps calling to the soul. Its ethos speaks in the hushed voices of a spiritual community. These murmurs are promising. They echo with the hope that, under the guidance of Father Eric Miller and a faithful community, this Cat Island mother church will once again become a place of worship for many souls.
A LOGGERHEAD TURTLE skull stared out from the corner of the Dungeness Mansion wall. I placed and photographed it there. It symbolized the endangered condition of that sea turtle species.*
We'd arrived at Dungeness, the ruins of the Carnegie mansion, after a hike. With our leashed dog making tracks along the River Walk trail, we hiked through a tunnel of twisting live oaks adorned with resurrection ferns and Virginia creeper, to arrive at the Dungeness dock. Robin, a National Park Service Ranger, answered our questions about Cumberland's wildlife and history. The island horses were feral. Wild pigs, coyotes, armadillos, turkeys, bobcats and whitetail deer all roamed the island, he said. As we walked east through the oak forest on a sandy road, with vultures circling overhead, rustling sounds from raccoons and armadillos in the saw palmettos created an eerie mood.
Robin also told us a longer story when we'd asked him about the island's history. The Coast Guard, during World War Two, was stationed on the island and routinely patrolled the Atlantic beaches on horseback. There were many American ships sunk by German submarines at the time. In a panic, one beach patrol returned to base and breathlessly reported that the Germans had developed an amphibious tank, which had come ashore from a submarine and left its huge treads on the the sand. In fact, the tracks were those of a loggerhead turtle**, whose kin had been laying eggs in the Atlantic beach sand for countless generations.There were human generations nesting on Cumberland, too. The Carnegies, Rockefellers and other prominent families have left their tracks, vehicles, and homes on the island.
Today the National Park Service oversees the island, and our admission fee was waived due to the economic impact of the coronavirus. Cumberland was closed April 3rd 2020, but reopened May 4th, and we arrived on May 9th.That day was World Migratory Bird Day. Cumberland's birds seemed to know about the event; present were blue-grey knatcatcher, Carolina wren, tanager, and yellow-throated warbler.
On a previous trip, one rainy day in January, I came across a motonless great horned owl. To the pique of a group of fire ants, I sat on their colony while photographing the owl. Practicing slow photography, I made three bracketed frames of the owl with a tripod-mounted camera. Later, combining the frames, I used photo editors to boost contrast and tonality.
Timeless and historic, Cumberland Island is a sanctuary of great contrasts. Upon its beaches, the textured tracks of loggerhead turtles stand out in stark contrast to the wind-swept sand. My experiences on this pristine Georgia barrier island have been equally indelible, leaving their own tracks etched into my dreams.
* I found the loggerhead turtle skull washed up on a remote Bahamas island in 2019.
**There are three kinds of turtles that nest on the island: leatherback, green and loggerhead. A turtle research group counted eight loggerhead (Caretta caretta) nests when we were on the island in May 2020. Loggerhead turtles are an endangered species per the Endangered Species Act; only one of 1000 sea turtle eggs reaches maturity.
Plan A Visit: https://www.nps.gov/cuis/planyourvisit/index.htm
Sea Turtle Rescue: https://www.jekyllisland.com/activities-category/sea-turtle/
"Compassion is a necessity, not a luxury." Dalai Lama
When I photograph someone, something deep inside says: Jim, this is a human being, make kindness and compassion your lens.
We see thousands of ads about the lens you need to make a portrait. We are invited to spend a lot on lighting, fashion for the model, and photo style. Yet, I believe something is missing: compassion. Painters understand this. Picasso painted Guernica, a masterpiece of compassion for Spanish Civil War victims. I learned from Jeffrey Stockbridge's portraits of heron addicts (Kensington Blues) that our lack of compassion comes from a failure to see others as human beings. For the six portraits here, I've only begun to try to see with more compassion. Thanks for looking! Jim
Photograph: Puffin on open ocean off Grand Manan, New Brunswick.
It rained all day. Water from condensation dripped down the inside of our boat. Outside, winds blew thirty. Sailing in rain and fog for almost a week, we were bound for Grand Manan, New Brunswick, Canada, where we hoped we might catch a glimpse of a puffin.
But the puffins were invisible, perhaps hunkered down somewhere dry. On our last morning before tying up to a mooring, the seas calmed as it grew light. Far off, we spotted a flock of five birds at rest on the water. We cut the engine to drift towards them.
Seeing the boat approach, the puffin flock took wing. A sole puffin remained on the water’s surface. It began to paddle away from us. I lay still on our boat’s bow, moving only to focus the lens. The puffin’s body filled the frame. In that instant before the bird flew away, a shutter opened and mortal time expanded beyond the rhythm of wing beats. Then all was still again.
In his book, The Art of Stillness, writer Pico Iyer touches on the essence of stillness. He wrote: “Movement makes most sense when grounded in stillness. In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention.”
Teacher and photographer Minor White at the Rochester Institute of Technology often demonstrated the power of stillness. He advised: "First, be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence."
White’s suggestion is apt. I believe this puffin image only happened because we remained still until our presence was acknowledged.
The next time we feel pressured while photographing, perhaps then we have an opportune time to practice a slower photography. Being grounded in stillness and silence, we clear the mind of all but the heartbeat of our passion for photography.
A sea of green palmettos. Piercing the palmettos, above the horizon, a branched stalk wavers in the island's dune heat waves. Atop the century plant, a bird is jumping up and floating down: a mockingbird doing a courtship dance.
The bird rises up, hovers, then puts two feet down and wafts gently back to perch atop the century plant. Once again, the bird flies up ten feet. Comes down, sings loudly, and flies up again. The camera clicks. A trill of bold, rapid notes pours out from the bird after it lands. Its mating song carries over the soft sand beach to the teal shallows and out over the ocean.
Listening to a mockingbird dancing on an island, one can wonder: "Are our courtship dances as persistently choreographed as the one by this mocking bird?"
"The Courage of Every Day Life"
a serendipitous collaboration of Guillaume Rivest, Bentley Smith & Jim Austin.
Photographs courtesy Bentley Smith.
Bentley Smith was walking his dog with his husband on the shore of Robbin Creek on south Cat Island when he found a message in a bottle.
Sailing Salty Paws north from Long Island, the live-aboard couple had not intended to anchor so soon. They stopped early on their passage because the wind began to blow from the north. At about 2 pm on a March afternoon, they dropped the anchor and rowed ashore.
On a rocky shoreline of the creek, enveloped by mangroves, Bentley picked up a clear, shiny bottle with white paper inside. The bottle's cork was loose and fell out as he took the bottle from the sand. A wad of white paper was stuck inside. The sailors took the bottle back to the rowboat, rowed out the mouth of the creek and back to their floating home.
The next day, after a short sail north to Fernandez Bay, Bentley broke open the bottle to remove the paper. Immersing the paper in fresh water, he could discern a few items of French handwriting in pencil. The only line that he could clearly make out was the name, Guillaume Rivest, and the date of 27 Juin 2106.
What happened then? Bentley searched Facebook. Finding 20 matching names, he sent a note to each person using Facebook messenger. In under 10 minutes, at 7 pm that Saturday night, he got a reply.
Four years previously in 2016, Guillaume was part of an historic re-enactment, sailing aboard a square-rigged barq. His voyage was documented in a Canadian film called La Grande Traversée https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6678790/. La Grande Traversée is film about the adventures of six men and four women, ages 23 to 44, who took on the challenge of crossing the North Atlantic by sail aboard L'Espérance in colonial era conditions.
The film shows Guillaume on the bowsprit in period costume, composing his letter, rolling it up, putting it into the bottle, and then launching it into the sea off Madeira Island, 3600 miles away from the Bahamas (https://youtu.be/haOfgf6Wd5Q).
The bottle's message had a hopeful voyage. It began in writing. It drifted 3600 miles across ocean currents. It was captive inside a bottle, abandoned. Finally, the message was transformed and shared digitally. Its hopeful message was empowered by the character of the sailors aboard ship and shore, almost like a rare chemical catalyst prompts life to emerge. You might gather the same materials and order their sequence, but you would duplicate what happened next, as Guillaume added to the story:
Yesterday, something amazing happened to me!
Almost 4 years ago, during La Grande Crossing, I wrote a message in a bottle that I threw off the Madeiras Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.
Yesterday, four years later, by the greatest chance, I get a message from a guy named Bentley Smith telling me he found a bottle with my name inside. No contact in common, I immediately think of a scam, but it sends me in the seconds following a picture of my name, written by myself on a paper in very bad condition.
Bentley found my bottle on the coast of a bay in the Bahamas islands. Living on his sailboat, he had thrown the ink in it to protect himself from the wind. That's when he saw the reflection of the glass on the edge of the water.
The cap had lost its volume and contract letting the water in. The message was in very bad condition only allows Bentley to read one thing: my name. After contacting about twenty Guillaume Rivest, he finally found me.
When they say there's no chance in life! Imagine!!!
The bottle travelled almost 6000 km, for almost four years. She didn't break, she was found and by any miracle, the only thing that was still legible on the message was my name!
Guillaume posted an English translation of his message on Facebook, an enduring message of courage:
Know that this particular bottle you found contains a particular message. A message of courage and hope.
This bottle will have settled in a destination unknown to it at the time of departure. Place where she now delivers her message. His journey is reminiscent of that of the French colonists who left their mother country to settle in America.
In their wooden bottle, push by the wind, these settlers carried a message of hope. Hope for a new life.
Like this message, these settlers did not know their final destination. The unknown, the fear and the doubt had to gnaw them constantly. Despite this, their courage and perseverance have contributed to making the French fact in North America much more than an anecdote.
Newly landed on Aboriginal land, these settlers had much to learn. It is through contact with first nations that they have been able to survive on these hostile and yet, welcoming lands.
I, Guillaume Rivest, one of the 10 colonists of La Grande Traversée, agreed to relive this same journey in the most authentic way possible. This adventure is a tribute to my ancestors, but also a tribute to the First Nations who welcomed us to their land.
The difficulty I have in living this adventure is only a fraction of that experienced by my ancestors.
Wherever you are, know that courage does not only manifest itself in an act of bravery. It is manifested in everyday life, through actions and decisions that sometimes seem trivial, but that will have immense repercussions on the world.
The courage of everyday life is true bravery.
[ Dedicated to the loving memory of sailor Douglas R. Hansen (1945 - 2020) who lived with true bravery ].