What The Mountains Taught Me About Photography and Life
“It is not the mountains we conquer,
| Edmund Hillary
Last week, I decided to accompany my friend Samuel Bitton to a 5-day high altitude mountain photography trip. The plan was to stay above 3’000m almost all the time, cross some glaciers – such as the largest glacier in the Alps the Aletsch, jump over crevasses, traverse some high peaks and stay in some cosy mountain hostels of the Swiss Alpine Club over night. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and surrounded by several 4000m peaks, such as the Jungfrau, Mönch or Finsteraarhorn. Thus, it is potentially difficult to find a more impressive environment. While I haven’t had any expectation for the trip, nor any pre-visualization of images to capture and hunt, I had a lot of respect for this trip, its physical demand and the mountains in general. However, I would haver thought what the mountains are capable to teach me about photography, philosophy and life. Today, I can say that I returned as a different person. I did not conquer the mountains, but myself. Here are the ten take-aways the mountains taught me:
1. Economize, economize, economize
Our days were long. Often we were out in the mountains for between eight and ten hours, on the last day even more. With a too-heavy backpack (yes, I know, but well… my fault 🙁 on steep slopes, often with technical mountaineering ice crampons on, and roped up on the glaciers for security reasons. With my immense motivation I was very energetic in the first morning. Undiscerning and over-stoked I started my trails. Just to recognize in the afternoon that I am running out of energy, that my legs start to shake, my steps become less steady and insecure, and my foot ankles are twisting far too often. While I was always cautious at the difficult passages, I didn’t give the small steps enough attention. I realized that every step counts. If there is a possibility to split a large step into two smaller ones, then it is worth doing the small steps. If there is a chance to go up in small loops, instead of walking straight up, it is worth circling around. Instead of talking all the time, listening saves energy. Out of sudden, I discovered that everything counts in the mountains and that I need to economize my energy whenever it is possible. That I need to spend more caution to the small investments, the small movements and the small decisions.
| @photography: To make a transfer to photography, I have recently identified that more and more photographers talk nerd. They talk about combining exposure blending with focus stacking techniques in multi-row panos. Well, I so much love these discussions 🙂 Isn’t it exciting? Yes, it is – at least for us nerds. However, in the field we potentially then need to make three rows of 7 images each, that are all under-, normally, and over-exposed resulting in potentially 63 images. When triggered by the technical thrill, don’t we forget that light moves? Don’t we forget that conditions change? And that we at first want to make an image to express what we feel? And we potentially forget to focus better on what we feel and isolate the rest. Economize the photograph means to think about applying the minimal necessary (set of) technique to achieve the anticipated outcome. But not more.
| @life: This pattern is not uncommon to my life either. While I am thoughtful and reflective about every bigger decision in life, I do not invest sufficient enough time to the small decisions, the things we daily do out of a habit. Without thinking. We just function. But the accumulation of the many small steps consumes a lot of our energy. Every day and every moment. Economize, economize, economize.
2. If you are in a hurry, go slowly
Often the peak is the destiny and destination of many mountaineers. Reaching a peak delivers an incredible amount of satisfaction, joy and happiness. Does it? During our trip, I saw too many mountaineers who ticked off the peak from their list when they reached it, stop the sport watch and started to climb back down immediately (after they switched the watch back on). However, some applying this kind of behavior never reach the peak. I saw someone being eaten by a glacier crevasse, someone else waiting for the security helicopter, but I mainly saw too many unhappy faces. Why’s that? I believe in the old buddhistic wisdom that we should go slowly, especially when we are in a hurry. Some old Yogi wisdom says that you should potentially mediate about 10 minutes every day, if you have a bit of time. If you don’t have any time, you should meditate for 30 minutes. When we are in a hurry, we stop perceiving, we stop listening, we stop our senses to be open, but we also are not present enough for the careful next step. It is not only that we miss miracles when we are in a hurry, we also bring ourselves into danger. Therefore, if you are in a hurry, go slowly.
| @photography: We all know these moments. Incredible clouds, lights coming from everywhere, a double-rainbow lurking out of the clouds, sun rays bursting through them, and dolphins jumping out of the mountain lake. Sure, we cannot miss out. The fear of missing out this image is too high. Quickly, press the button and capture the image. Do you see yourself in such a description? Have you recognized yourself in it? Well, I did. While I captured the image, I wasn’t creating the photograph (see my blog article about my perceived differences between Snapshots, Images and Photographs). The photograph that expressed what I felt. The photograph that zoomed into the relevant. Finally, I missed out to capture my real intention.
| @life: We want it all. Now. And all at the same point in time. Too often I have this perception when I observe people in western cities. We multitask, because we believe it saves them time. We run, because we believe we are faster at our destination with the next coming bus. We accept many incoming request, because it helps us to progress. Truth is, we can’t progress when we are in a hurry. We progress when we are closest to ourselves.
3. Your breath is your measure
Our fabulous guide Jérôme Gottofrey told me a few times during our trip that my breath is too fast. He recommended me to walk that slow that my movement is aligned with my breath. Such that I won’t get out of breath any more. This was quite a discovery for me, I have to say. So simple, but so beautiful. I slowed further down. When I was aligned, I immediately felt the wonder of the rhythm. One step after one. Was was able to listen to the rhythm of my steps. Almost meditative. Zen. And I recognized that the breath is my measure.
| @photography: We we run up the hill just to make that beautiful sunset image, having forgotten the tripod, composing, and exposing, we photographers sometimes feel like biathletes. We have to calm down our breath to be able to focus and don’t blur the image. Isn’t that a sign that it is almost impossible that we are ready for the photograph? How can we express the essence of landscape, when we are not capable to breath? How can we listen to the landscape, when we cannot even listen to ourselves?
| @life: Breathing is the core of everything. It is the first thing we do in life. Our first verb. And it is potentially the last thing we do on the physical Earth. In between the beginning and the transition, our breath is there, but not often not present. So often we do not breath deep enough. We easily run out of breath, are gasping and do not fill our lungs with the necessary amount of quality air. Then, we should go slower, listen to the rhythm of our breath and align it with our movement.
4. Find your own path
There are always many paths towards a goal. I tend to always choose the “road not taken” – just to cite Robert Frost. I have a tendency to be tired of beaten tracks and enjoy the discovery. However, should I do this in the mountains as well? In the mountains, there often is a secured pathway. Although it might be the beaten track, better to be on the safe side and prioritize this one, right? In theory, I agree. In practice however, the “safe track” doesn’t necessarily mean that it is your personal safest paths towards the goal. In the mountains, the “safest” track might be along a steep slope. If you are suffering from acrophobia, this might not be your preferred track. While the safe track should always be in the set of our possibilities, I have learned to validate if it is also “my” safest track, if it fits me and if I am able to make it mine.
| @photography: Currently, there is a whole debate about imitating other photographers. It seems that there is an agreement that imitating is a great learning technique once we start with photography. We can learn from the masters. However, when we are more advanced the call for style or identity is getting bigger. And it is less accepted amongst artists to copy others without giving credit. We may want to find our own path. Sometimes the safest, but in difference to the mountains, sometimes we seek out for a riskier path. Riskier, but very personal.
| @life: Why should we do things we don’t like doing? In order to live a life we don’t like living? If we follow a professional path in a job we don’t like, we should we continue? The generation of the forties and fifties argued that one should follow a safe career path that gives security and helps to support a family. For their generation, after World War II, I believe that it was a very good recommendation. Today? I don’t believe so. We should find our own path with something we love.
5. Don’t rely on sham securities
In the mountains, especially when we are tired, we tend to easily rely on a few “sham securities”. We use sticks to find solid ground and balance ourselves. We use ropes to attach ourselves. We use ice crampons to stabilize ourselves and detect hold. However, this is quite a dangerous act. If we put weight on our sticks and they slide away, because the rock below was not rock-solid, then we will fall down as well. If we chain ourselves to a rope, then we are most likely connected to either someone else or to some anchors in the rock. If the latter are not reliable and dissolve themselves, we will tumble as well. If the crampons have hold of a glacier part that breaks, we will get into trouble. Thus, whenever we blindly rely on “sham securities”, we give away responsibility. We rely on something that doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to take back over again and just use these tools as support.
| @photography: Sure, I’m manual. Isn’t this a sign of professionalism that I use the manual mode on my camera? Honestly, I also use aperture priority quite often. And sometimes, I rely on autofocus, metering, eye-tracking or many other helpful tools. But do I trust them completely? No, for sure not. I always zoom into an important image, check sharpness, verify potential movement in the image or elements that bother me. Don’t rely on tools. They are just here to help and support you, but trust your own eye.
| @life: It is the same in life. Don’t we just often rely on the job that we have, on the financial support and security it gives us? That the systemic order around us is healthy and persistent? It might be important to make ourselves more independent from these sham securities we have created in life as well. Questioning material needs, thinking about which service we can contribute to the world instead of taking resources from her away, and rely on our own immune system and inner eco-system.
In this blog article I summed up my experiences from my recent 5-day high altitude mountain photography trip in the Bernese Alps. Most important I summed up my take-aways about what the mountains taught me on photography and life. I do believe that a natural environment is healing for us, helps up to stop our mind and reconnect with our inner self.
On my last mountain trip with my friend Sam, I can remember that after climbing a steep mountain slope, we saddled down and made a pause – enjoying the marvellous view over the Swiss Alps. We had something to eat and breathed in silence. Out of a sudden a local mountain farmer came by, hugged us from behind and told us: “Isn’t this wonderful. Everything you see here, is for free.” The best things in life are for free. Even the recommendations from the mountains. And they tell us to appreciate the quietness.
Have a great time!
P.S.: In the mountains, it is not about the survival of the fittest. While this is unfortunately often the case, the group should always come first. I had an amazing small group of people with completely different backgrounds that matched harmoniously to each other. We all shared the love for photography. However, for a group to survive in the mountains, it is much hard than for the individual. Groups do not only consist of individuals with different background, but also with different strengths, weaknesses, fears or experiences. In the group, the weakest person should always receive attention, encouragement, advice and support (which I thankfully received 🙂 . Thanks to an amazing group around me making this trip that special!