Alyse Butler
September 19, 2015 11:11 am

For my graduation gift after high school, my parents bought me a Pentax K10D DSLR camera. Like its Nikon and Canon cousins, the Pentax has detachable lenses and manual options, and it takes high quality photos. Big, expensive purchases were rarely made in my family growing up, so this was momentous—right up there with my first sewing machine they bought me at the beginning of high school.

I thought at the time— after taking a film photography class my senior year— that I would eventually be a photographer, that I would become proficient at it and make art. (I can’t draw or paint, and graphic design was a real struggle; it seemed my only viable creative outlet option.) So for years I lugged the camera everywhere: my parents’ house; the alley behind my apartment building; New Jersey where I nannied for a summer; Ireland; Czech Republic; Yellowstone National Park; Mongolia; China; Russia. I told myself I was improving my skills, getting better at creating solid compositions with appropriate lighting and white balance and all that professional-sounding stuff that I still haven’t fully grasped. Eventually, all the lugging and struggling with the dials and adjustments would be worth it. (And there was also the small-yet-important fact of the gift’s monetary value that I was trying not to waste.)

At some point, I started to leave the camera in its case for longer periods of time between uses. Daily life loses its novelty after a while and with it goes the urge to capture it for all posterity. I made it a point to bring it with me when I left the comfort of my everyday life, however, because no matter how many years go by since receiving the camera as a gift, I continue to carry the guilt of not using it for all its worth. When I traveled around the States visiting friends for a few weeks, the camera came with me. When I went to France this summer to backpack around, the camera went backpacking, too.

The difference with this last trip to France was that I cared less than I ever had. Every day that I had to [as in, made myself] carry the camera across my body, I could come up with fewer and fewer reasons why. It didn’t help me enjoy the trip any more than I would have without it; I wasn’t working on learning and practicing the ins and outs of digital photography with a DSLR. I was basically just pointing and shooting, the same as everyone else with a camera phone. It was hardly comforting to remember that the DSLR photos would have a higher quality. I couldn’t take credit for the quality, so that fact just made me feel even more like a fraud.

But I want to describe the psychological impact guilt had on me in the form of persistently taking my camera places and taking pictures with it despite not wanting to and not feeling the motivation to improve my skills at all. I like photography. In fact, I love it. I’m just not actively pursuing it as a personal hobby at this point in my life. Still, I carried the camera long after the desire to try faded, and it was only because I felt guilty for not using an expensive gift from my parents and an expensive possession of mine that could not justifiably remain in my house if I weren’t using it.

This is where the weird psychology comes in: maybe for a lot of people, they can have unused possessions lying about their home and not feel anything—good or bad—about it. But for me, if I own it, I must have a reason, and that reason must be better than, ‘Just in case I feel like picking it up one day…’ If that’s the best reason I can come up with, then I see it as a red flag that I need to get rid of the thing. And I’m a get-ridder of things. I didn’t used to be, but with all the moving I’ve done over the years and all the time I’ve spent with only part of my possessions actually with me physically (while the rest remained in ‘storage’ at my parents’ house), I have become ruthless in eradicating the unnecessary.

So after fighting this internal battle for most of the three weeks I was in France, I was sick of it. I didn’t want to be weighed down by the camera or its associated guilt anymore. I didn’t want to have one more thing to worry about while traveling in a foreign place. For the last two days I was in the country, I left my camera at the bottom of my pack in my host’s home and excused myself from the burden of taking pictures. I was so tired of having to carry this extra thing around when I wasn’t even interested in it, when it wasn’t making me feel any more confident in my photography skills or composition skills, and when I was dealing with emotions and relationships that had nothing to do with the country I was in but that were exacerbated by and therefore somehow connected to the country I was in, that I just dropped whatever self-imposed pressure I put on myself not to take such an expensive gift from my parents for granted.

I had been carrying around my camera as proof to myself that it was being used to prove to another part of myself that it shouldn’t be given away. The circle started and ended with me. The only person putting pressure on me to do anything with it—take pictures, keep it, give it away, whatever—was me. So I let it go. I was overcome with the need to work on me, and I couldn’t feel free to do so until I was carrying only the things that served me in a very immediate sense, until I was relieved of the extraneous, both physically and psychologically.

What I realized was that I was in control of turning those inner voices off, the ones that defined the rules for using possessions to their utmost value and for cleansing my space by getting rid of everything I didn’t need. If I didn’t want to carry my camera around or learn to use it better, then I shouldn’t. But just because I don’t bring it doesn’t mean it’s not worth keeping. And maybe I should give it away! But that doesn’t have to be contingent on whether I have taken 5000 pictures or just 5. I can enjoy my travel experiences however I want to enjoy them, whether that means taking pictures with a fancy camera or just walking around and breathing the air. If I’m just going through a phase, then I should let myself go through it. Photography can be learned later. But the Parisian air is not a constant in my life, so I need to figure out how I’m going to experience it and then get to it. Until then I’m just wasting time.

The result of this impulse was exactly what I was hoping for. I felt light. I walked around with more mobility and more open eyes. No longer was I looking for photo opps. I could see the entire landscape, the whole horizon, without wanting to splice it into a bunch of smaller frames. I could drop all the pretense of being an artsy creative-type and just be whoever I was that day: a tourist with an affinity for local art markets and cemeteries. Not carrying my camera let me be; it let me breathe.

I flew back to the States the next day, and I edited the pictures I took and uploaded them into a Facebook album, just like I always do after a trip. The pictures from my DSLR were high quality; I like looking at them. But the pictures don’t make my trip, and they certainly don’t capture what happened. They are fantasy, existing in a separate world from my internal experience. Without them, I would still have a story to tell. Without my camera, I still have an experience to remember. It just took me a long time to figure that out.

[Image via iStock]

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