Who is Sean O’Connell you ask? He is a fictional photographer played by Sean Penn from the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The movie is about a meek, soft-spoken, pre-occupied man who finds the courage to travel to unpredictable and potentially dangerous places in search of a lost photo negative for Time Magazine. Walter, played by Ben Stiller, finally finds the photographer, Sean O’Connell, seeking out the elusive snow leopard in the Himalayas. Watch what happens when the snow leopard appears:
‘When are you going to take it?’ Walter asks.
‘Sometimes I don’t…’ Sean replies.
WHAT THE $@#!%%!? As a wildlife photographer and lover, I could not imagine having a rare, seldom-seen ghost cat in front of my lens and NOT taking the picture. I recall watching this movie for the first time, my inner self was screaming at the screen, ‘take the picture Sean! What are you waiting for!?’ Not take the picture is the last thing I would expect a photographer to do.
I can honestly say, I am not spiritually, emotionally or mentally capable of doing what Sean did, of forgetting about the camera and just ‘being’ in the midst of such a miraculous moment.
Case in point – a couple of nights ago I was out photographing the aurora. It was a magnificent display, with vibrant green ribbons dancing on a star-speckled canvas. The northern lights are truly one of the most amazing sights imaginable. The other-worldly beauty should bring you to your knees in awe. But for me, the technical aspects of getting a photo, of experimenting with a new lens, of trying to get my focus right – the list goes on – over-shadowed the splendour of the moment.
When I was in bed later that night, I felt a sudden pang of disappointment. ‘You know what Kerri?,’ I said to myself, ‘you completely forgot to appreciate the beauty of what you just witnessed!’ Crap. I drifted off to sleep thinking about Sean O’Connell and the snow leopard.
It is really difficult for me to detach myself from the camera. I’m not saying I don’t experience a sense of peace and joy when I’m out in nature. I absolutely do. Watching the sun rise over the misty hills, driving through the vast mountain valleys, walking among a maze of vegetation – I am often absorbed by the sheer beauty of our natural world. Frankly, such moments bring me as close to Zen as I ever get. Nature has the power to overwhelm my senses.
However, I’m always looking for potential photo opportunities. The appearance of wildlife, particularly interesting/rarely seen animals, elicits a response verging on insane desperation – grab my camera, check the settings, aim, focus and fire – quickly – before the moment disappears! This powerful force has lead to some great encounters, resulting in photographs that I love. But it can also take me to an obsessive place where the desire to get a great image consumes every fibre of my being. When I cross the threshold from appreciating to obsessing about the resulting image, I don’t feel present and alive, as I experienced a couple of nights ago with the aurora.
I don’t mean to paint a bad picture of photography. Like everything in life, there is always the risk of getting too attached to the results, of losing the joy of the present moment in a cloud of expectations.
I simply wish I could be more conscious, to recognize when a sense of awe is transforming into an obsessive monster. The fictional photographer Sean O’Connell seems to have struck a balance. In the movie, he is a famous photographer, so of course he often takes the picture – he doesn’t always allow the moment to take him away. But he has an uncanny ability to recognize when he needs to put the camera down and just ‘be.’ That is what I want. Sometimes conditions force me into this state, as the lack of light did when I visited the grizzly bear ranch a few years ago, but I wish I could make the choice on my own.
I’m sure some real photographers have this ability as well. I’m not sure exactly how to develop it myself, but for now I will continue to relish in the simple joy of appreciation, even if I don’t feel it until after the moment has past. I may not have Sean O’Connell’s Zen-like qualities in the excitement of the moment, but I can alway look back and say ‘Wow! That was remarkable!.’ In the spirit of appreciation, I have sprinkled some aurora pictures throughout this post.
Until next time, continue loving (and appreciating) life and all things wild! 🙂