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january 2023

Learning to choose


by Hans Durrer

Right: Between Santa Cruz do Sul and Sinimbu, Brazil, 16 December 2022 (photo by the author)

In the early 1980s, at Matala Beach on the island of Crete, Ilse from Unterföhring told me that when she's taking pictures she always concentrates on something specific like chairs, doors or windows. I thought this an excellent approach and so I copied it for a while. And, I felt enchanted by the results. I'm still at a loss to explain why I eventually stopped pursuing it.

Twenty years later, I began to develop a rather intellectual interest in photography. My focus was on what pictures can tell. Not as much as we would like to think, I eventually concluded, for we mostly see in a picture what we bring to it: If I judge a person as a moron, I will very likely see a moron in a photograph of him (or her, of course).

When, about three years ago, I started to use my cell phone to take photographs, I had no plan what to photograph. I simply took pictures of objects and scenes that my eyes felt pleased by. My taking photographs, it seemed to me, was mainly defined by the possibilities that my cell phone camera did offer — mostly, I felt attracted by its ability to zoom in on flowers by the side of the road that so far I had not even noticed were there.

  Another aspect of my taking photographs is my fascination for framing that I consider the essence of photography. Contrary to painting, where you create everything from scratch, what you photograph is already there: You only decide what to put inside the frame and what to leave out of it.
  Most of my time I'm on autopilot; I rarely pay conscious attention to what's in front of me. Using my cell phone camera has changed that — slightly, that is, for my unconscious (that is working 24 hours full time) still controls my life. Taking pictures means you have to stop and to pause. There are of course photographers who do not subscribe to that and who constantly shoot.
Next Dorothea Lange's quote — "The camera teaches us to see without a camera" — sums up nicely what photography nowadays means to me. In order to see, we do not only have to open our eyes, we also have to understand what our eyes are showing us — hence the expression I see. Gradually, my taking photographs became an eye-opener — more and more I became aware of the beauty of planet Earth. And that I experience as immensely helpful. As Richard Rorty once stated: "Existence with all its horrors is endurable only as an aesthetic fact."
  While to discover the world might be my goal when taking photographs, quite some are more interested in asserting themselves that they exist or, differently put, they want to assure themselves of their identity — hence the ubiquity of people taking pictures of themselves and their friends.
  Modern man, it seems to me, feels increasingly lost in this vast universe. The more he learns about it, the more incomprehensible it appears to be. No wonder, he looks for something to hold on to — and that might be one of the reasons that the selfies-culture is so dominant nowadays. Look, that's me, I'm here, this proves it — these "certificates of presence" (Barthes) seem to say.
  Photographs, we believe, document reality yet reality exists without being documented. As the Zen proverb states: "If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are." So why then take photographs? Needless to say, there are probably as many answers as they are people taking photographs. For me, it represents what I consider one of the defining characteristics of man: the ability to choose.
  When deciding what, when and where to photograph, I'm choosing not only object, location, light, angle and background, I'm also choosing from a vast spectrum of possibilities that I'm often not aware of. A photograph basically states: This is what I chose. It is one of the riddles of life that we are constantly making choices without realising it. Yet to photograph means to consciously choose, to create one's own context, to say: This is how I see it. Also: This is what my eyes were showing me.
  To photograph means learning to choose.
  2023 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes