The full effect of loss usually doesn’t impact us until it is too late to go back. In the typical fashion of 'do what I say, not what I do', a large portion of my photographic work from the last couple of years was lost recently when my WD Passport decided to have a hard collision with the wooden floor in my husband’s office. We keep our images stored in the Cloud, but I knew I hadn’t been diligent lately with backing up my files. The loss hit me quite hard. When the time to write this article arrived, I knew exactly what I wanted to say: our photographic legacy can only be built on the value we place on the images we create. Do we give our creative imagery the credit it deserves as a valued and treasured piece of our legacy?
As soon as I heard the crash of the hard drive, thoughts of 'why didn’t I back up?' swirled like ribbons of regret through my mind. I inevitably knew that I had been so busy with the business of nature photography itself that I had neglected the very act of creation that caused me to fall in love with image making in the first place. In fact, unknowingly and ever-so slowly, I traded in my photography as my creative outlet for a business. The effect of that was laziness with my backup, and carelessness.
Later that week I spoke with my neighbor who let me know that her ninety-year-old father had passed away. Jim ‘Pops’ Riley was a man who always had a smile in his face. Years back, when he was in better health, he asked my husband and I to bring some of our prints over so he could look through them. He slowly and intently looked at each one, enjoying them. In fact, we left them with him for a time. When we returned, he had his own collection of photography (complete in the old plastic protected album) on the kitchen table and asked us to look at them. We did, and while looking through his travels he told us the stories of his adventures. We connected that day.
Upon his passing we were back in that same kitchen and the album of his adventures was laying out. While we looked through them again, I noticed how intentionally he must have placed each image, in a specific order to adequately document and communicate the adventures he had. The first image in the album was appropriately his mother. As you flipped through the album you could see waterfalls, images of him on his motorcycle and even some delicious looking mushrooms on the grill. Certainly they wouldn’t ever be published; to most aspiring or even amateur photographers, they weren’t great works of art, composition or post processing, but they were powerful.
His daughter lovingly traced each picture, while she talked about her dad, and I knew what I would write about – legacy. I highly doubt that Jim Riley knew how special these images would be to his family but, now that he is gone, they are tangible pieces of his life, his adventures, his relationships and his heart.
Several years ago I received a random call from a woman I had never met. She shared that her husband had passed away ten years ago and she had all of his camera equipment sitting in a closet. She hadn’t been able to part with it because she had known how hard he had worked for that gear and how much it had meant to him. She called us and asked if we would be willing to pass it on to someone who might appreciate it and use it.
A number of months went by and nothing showed up in the mail. We had forgotten about it, until one day it arrived. I had asked if she would send a picture of her late husband and a few of his images, so we could keep them with his camera gear. We wanted to share his story and legacy with the recipient of the camera. The camera was an extension of who he was and it felt only right to keep the memory of him with the gear. We are still waiting for that perfect person to come along who we can give this gear to, but we have always trusted that we will know them when we see them.
The reality of our busy, virtually-virtual lives is that we no longer take the time to truly value our images in a tangible way. While social media sharing has allowed us to share our moments, travels and adventures, I have to wonder if we are losing something longer-lasting that can negatively impact our ability to leave a legacy with our photography. Are we trading in legacy for the immediate gratification of sharing on social media, so that our images can be looked at for less than five-seconds and then disappear in the news feed?
If I can personally write to you today, can I ask what your legacy looks like in regard to your photography? Have you documented the story of what drew you into this medium? Have you chronicled the journey that has grown you in your art? Where do you keep the logs of your adventures?
Self-reflection questions such as these are challenging. I am writing this as I sit in the middle seat of a non-stop flight to Dallas and I have to stop and ponder: if something happened to me today, how would my photography, as I have left it today, add to my legacy?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I am currently in a state of reconstructing after this loss, but I have to find my silver lining and acknowledge that maybe having lost my external hard drive has led me to this pondering about legacy.
I am personally challenged (and I hope you are too) to extend my creativity into an album, or a book, where my journey thus far can be documented. There is no doubt that we all spend a great deal of money on not only our gear, but our travels to capture amazing images. We have all made friends along the way and, no doubt, there is that unforgettable time where our limits were tested and we met adventure face-to-face. The stories behind our images are married to the photographs themselves and are deeply valuable when we create.
So, to all of my photographic colleagues, let us make this the year that we get intentional about documenting our legacy, both in digital and print. Let us be intentional about leaving a trail that our relatives and loved ones can follow, so our footprints are traceable.
All images ©Keith Briley www.keithbriley.com
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