What's better than wallcrawling? Read on to find out.
So, it’s Friday afternoon and you’re stuck in traffic. Behind you, alongside you, as far as your eye can see, nothing but other people in their cars, going nowhere. All you and your fellow escapees from the grind want to do is GET HOME. And you wish you had some sort of superpower to eject from your seat, leap across all the cars, and land gracefully (in a killer Lycra bodysuit) at your front door. But there’s no such thing as superheroes and certainly no such thing as superpowers. Don’t be ridiculous.
Well…maybe not the sort of superpower that leaps tall buildings, but perhaps there are other superpowers. And maybe everyday folks like us have them, but don’t think of them as special, like the ability to breathe under water, a la Aquaman. But maybe we ought to.
Let me share a recent experience with you.
I’d received an invitation to talk to some kids at a local school about being a photographer. The guidelines were simple: twenty minutes, share what I liked about photography, and why I chose to pursue it. Pretty standard fare, as presentations go. The one caveat was this: the class was comprised of special needs kids so I had to be sensitive to that and tailor my talk accordingly.
Twenty minutes wasn’t enough time to get into anything complicated, so I knew I’d have to find the most immediate link between the kids and me and not meander down the gear head path. So what did we all have in common that could start a conversation about the importance of photography?
And then I realized that there’s not a soul left on earth who hasn’t heard of Superman.
Like almost every kid, I grew up watching superheroes save the world with their special powers. The idea that an ordinary looking person can do extraordinary things with hidden strengths is not new. The sentiment has been attached to the human psyche for millennia. But the concept for the Marvel universe is relatively modern and it never fails to intrigue. Batman saves Gotham City with cool tech toys while being tended to by a British butler. Clark Kent (as Superman) and Ironman save the world, too, the former disguised as a lowly reporter who’s actually the savior of the universe; the latter because his haughty ego was taught a lesson and he now wants to serve humanity rather than create weapons to destroy it.
But what do superheroes have to do with photographers?
The day of my presentation, I went armed to the class with cookies and one of the new instant cameras (link here) from Fuji, loaded with film and several extra film packs. Both are available here for purchase on Amazon. The kids were enthusiastic at my arrival, and immediately upon entering the room, I noticed one young man was wearing—if you can believe it—a Superman T-shirt and cape. My inner kid fist pumped a silent YEAH!
Because my last name is so unconventional, there was some initial debate after the hellos as to its pronunciation, with one of the girls nailing it spot on right away, which is tough to do. The niceties out of the way, I launched into my discussion.
“You guys,” I said. “Let’s talk about something interesting. Who here likes superheroes?”
The boy in the Superman T-shirt got excited, and shared a high wattage smile that lit up the room.
Everyone raised his/her hand.
“Superheroes?” the kids asked, confused about where I was going.
“Yup,” I said. “Let’s name some.”
So we ran through the popular list.
Then I asked, “What do superheroes have?”
Me: “What’s a superpower?”
Kids: “Special stuff they can do, like climb walls.”
“Yeah, that’s a good one,” I said. “Can everyone have a superpower or only superheroes?”
There was mixed reaction. One young lady said that she thought other people besides superheroes could have superpowers. Maybe.
“Well,” I said. “I’m here to tell you that I have a superpower.”
“Who knows what it might be?” I asked.
Some speculation ensued among the kids. The teacher, an absolutely wonderful man we’ll name Mr. C., raised his hand and said, “Freezing time.”
(Dammit. This dude stole my punchline).
“Yes,” I responded. “I freeze time. What does that mean? Anyone want to take a guess?”
Lots of heads shaking ‘no.’
“It’s like this,” I continued. “I have a dog as a kid. I love this dog. We’re best friends. Together all the time. But I grow up and the dog gets old and one day, the dog dies. And I’m heartbroken. But I remember that I have photographs of my dog. So I gather them all and spend hours every day looking at them and I recall all the special things about my dog and all the fun things we did.”
I paused to take a breath, because I got a bit choked up.
“I can see her clearly in my mind,” I continued. “Smell her wet fur after a swim, feel how soft her ears were when she came home from the groomer. I’m there with her again. And because of those photographs, my best friend isn’t really gone. And that’s why I take pictures of people. So that they’re never forgotten and so that their lives are always honored.”
Several kids offered that they, too, had dogs, and whipped out their phones to share photos. A discussion of breeds and names followed. But I needed to stick to the twenty minute rule.
“I brought some goodies with me,” I continued, to bring the conversation back on track after the photo sharing moment. “Cookies and a camera so we can take each other’s pictures and you can share my superpower with me.”
I walked to the large carton I’d brought with me which contained my props. There was a general murmur of appreciation about the cookies. The instant camera was new to them, although I grew up when they were all the rage in the seventies, and I looked forward to using one again in this context.
“Who wants to go first?” I asked.
By then, most of the kids were standing around me (I think because of the cookies), so I made sure the camera was turned on and handed it off to one of them, followed by a brief run down of how to find the light when you want to take a photograph of someone. Then I turned them loose and watched.
At first they were shy about how to use the camera, but Mr. C., helped them figure it out. They took individual photos then spread them out one by one on the desk next to me to watch them develop, laughing as the images came to life. Finally, they handed the camera back to me and I took a group photo of them all and let it do its thing on the desk alongside the others. Afterwards we talked briefly about the fact that now they had a collection of memories they could hold and look at to remember this day and cookies to make it a sweet memory.
There were lots of giggles and I think the kids generally had a good time. It was nostalgic for me and reminded me of my own school days. As I left and said thank you to the class for having me, I was filled with a feeling of great satisfaction that I had perhaps managed to connect with the kids and given them something to think about.
I later learned that the class was quite enthusiastic about our time together, just as I’d been. In fact, it was one of the most satisfying things I’d done since starting my photography business back in 2012.
And it stayed with me for several weeks afterwards because the experience had forced me to think in ways I wasn’t used to. The entire time I’d been in business, I learned about gear, technical lighting, shadows, gradients, Photoshop, my camera specs, the art of making portraits and all the million, million things about business that make every entrepreneur crazy. And I knew in my heart why I did what I did, but I’d never been challenged to articulate it in the precise way I had for the kids in that classroom.
Photographers generally do not have a mandate to save the world. But we have superpowers that go far beyond that: we make the intangible tangible and capture it for all time. Wedding photographers photograph love, captured in moments during the most important day in many people’s lives. Other photographers capture innocence and hope through newborn photography. Still others capture ambition, via head shot photography. I photograph women and men of every age who want a high touch experience and legacy portraits, so I guess you could say I capture self-love.
“Freezing time” is not just a superpower for photographers. It’s available to anyone who picks up a camera. Photographs create a living, breathing pictorial of life that says: you were here, you were loved, you mattered. And they’re all that will be left of us once we’re gone.
Just like I said to the kids about my dog: photographs bring back loved ones. You can relive precious, even forgotten, moments by holding their image in your hands. You’ve frozen the time they were here and that you were lucky enough to be with them. You documented a legacy for all future generations.
You want to be a superhero? Take a picture.
Now, where’s my cape?
Product Review: the new Fuji instant cameras are cute and fun, easy to use right out of the box.They make ideal gifts for kids who want to play with an inexpensive camera and get instant gratification while they watch the film develop. By and large, it's a pretty good little camera for that purpose and only that purpose. Great stocking stuffer, birthday gift, etc. My only complaint is the film quality, although I really had no expectations, because I purchased the camera specifically for this presentation and not for everyday use. Prints are small (about 2"x 3") and not as large as the vintage Polaroids were. And they tend to be on the blurry side, with the images rendering darker than the actual scene. But again, no expectations.