Suffering and Art

Just as in life, often I think some of the best photographs are made as the result of hard work, planning, luck, and a bit of suffering. Personally, I think research and planning are the keys to increasing one’s photographic “luck”. But I think one’s willingness to suffer is often what pushes good images to become great images. Not only because suffering often leads to better angles/access/light… but also because I think with a bit of discomfort our emotions are more exposed and as a result, we become more creative. Perhaps taking a bit of a risk, getting cold, wet, or lost… helps our minds open to new possibilities and new ways of seeing the world. As one of my favorite environmental authors Edward Abbey once said, “may your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, and leading to the most amazing view”. Recently I was reminded of the value of suffering while shooting a windy sunrise in Torres Del Paine, Chile.

One of the trickiest things about photographing in Torres Del Paine is the ever-present wind. While with a little luck and time you may get some calm days, the general rule of thumb is to expect some of the windiest conditions on the planet. After checking the forecast on this particular morning, we decided to take a chance on a possible sunrise despite the howling winds. It was a bit rough packing our two sleeping boys into our rental truck for a predawn start, but once buckled in they continued to sleep as we bounced along the dirt road toward Pohoe lake.

Having scouted several locations, the previous day I knew exactly where I wanted to go for sunrise, and it had been windy at our hotel once parked on the shore of lake Pohoe the wind took on a new ferocity. After a short walk I scrambled down to a rocky bench along the shore, where I was now exposed to the full force of the wind. What had been a calm lake the previous day, was now a raging sea with big waves braking on shore. My previously chosen compositions were now constantly being swept with waves and spray. While Jen and the kids watched the sunrise from the safety of the dry cliffs above, I slowly made my way along the bench looking for a way to shoot while not getting soaked.

As the sunrise began to light up the amazing view in front of me, spray was constantly being thrown into the air soaking me and my camera. Still, I couldn’t quite line up the dramatic foreground with the shape of the clouds. Trying to stand on taller rocks, I inched closer and closer to the shoreline working to build my foreground. But the best compositions continued to be just out of reach where the waves were washing over the rocks. Eventually, I accidently stepped down from my rocky perch into the frigid water and soaked one of my feet. It was like shooting in breaking surf at the ocean, feeling frustrated I realized there was just no way to put the shot together while continuing to stay dry.

Knowing it was fresh water and wouldn’t be harmful to my gear, I finally resigned myself to trusting the weather sealing on my camera and committed to getting wet. As the kids laughed and Jen shot photos from the safety of the cliffs above, I slowly worked my way farther out along the rocks trying to build my composition. By standing on the windward/lake side of my tripod with my rain jacket held open I was able to offer a degree of protection to my camera. One moment I would be standing on wet bare rock, and the next moment an incoming icy wave would be swirling around my knees (don’t forget the lakes are glacial fed in Torres Del Paine). Making sure not to get too close to the edge of the bench I tried to time my shots between gusts of wind and waves swirling around the legs of my tripod. Between the wind and rushing water I was worried nothing would be sharp, so I raised my ISO up to 400 hoping a faster shutter speed would help.

Taking the time to dry the front of my lens between gusts, I shot as many frames as possible while the clouds were on fire and the waves crashed around me. By the time the light died down I was soaked from the waist down (and fairly wet on top), but by using my rain jacket I had more or less been able to protect my camera from the worst of it. Knowing I had just witnessed one of the greatest light shows of my life; feeling like I had just gone for an icy swim was well worth the price of admission.

As I scrambled back up the cliff to Jen and the kids, I couldn’t help thinking that along with creating some amazing new photos (if they were sharp) and entertaining the kids, I had also set an example. An example of being willing to commit to life, make sacrifices, and suffer for a goal despite it being difficult. All too often, we as photographers are unwilling to suffer for the sake of our art. In this case as crazy as it seemed to get completely soaked, it was eye opening for our boys to see how far I was willing to go for a photo, but more importantly how sometimes the best things in life take a bit of hard work and suffering to achieve.

As the boys laughed and I dripped my way back to the truck we discussed how creativity and by extension life means taking risks. Often, we tell the kids nothing worth doing is “easy” and that the best things in life are often “hard” or “hard things make us stronger”. Who knows just how much of these life lessons will actually rub off on them, but without a doubt they will always remember Dad getting soaked just for a “stupid” photo.