Photography came out of nowhere in my recovery efforts from alcoholism and played a role as brilliant as it was unexpected.
There’s a measure of irony in this. I’d had my spiffy DSLR camera for a few years prior to sobering up. However, my regard for the thing was best described as from a vantage of abject intimidation—so many damn buttons and features!—which was of course exacerbated by the lazy cognitive disposition of my addled brain at the time. If you’ve ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you know the big deal that book makes about our relationship to tasks, to things. As a drinker in the presence of what seemed a wildly complex piece of machinery, suffice to say I had a bad relationship to my camera. I could turn it on, set it to Auto, snap away, and convince myself that I was doing photography. Which is sort of like firing up your Maserati to go fetch your mail and convincing yourself you’re performance driving.
As the fog then lifted during my recovery, my camera (heads up: pun imminent) took on a new light (!) for me. I stopped saying to myself, that little bastard’s impossible, and instead took a deep breath, did a quick Google search, and discovered there was a fantastic video series out there that walked me, baby step by baby step, through every last feature of my camera (and thank you, John Greengo, for providing it).
You’re already seeing the connection there, I know. Recovery is itself every bit a baby step by baby step process, as one learns to reengage with pretty much all facets of your life in an effort to redefine them in a sober light. And it’s the act of taking it slow, and immersing yourself in the fullness of every little task’s demands, and staying present, and aware, and unafraid of the emotional experiences involved, that ends up being so commanding an experience for you that you begin to realize there is no room in this life if fully lived for the dimming, damning aspect of alcohol.
(Which I do not assert for you, dear normal drinker, I assure you!)
Once upon a time I regarded photographers as highly trained specialists who could efficiently enter a scene, quickly identify its visual potential, and nail the shot, click click, just like that. I envied them this, as I didn’t believe I possessed the kind of intuitive vision that I was sure laid the foundation for that kind of talent. Now, two years into photography, I realize that’s not exactly it, what great photographers do. I mean, it is, and great photographers are amazingly efficient at coming up with great shots. But really, and more importantly, and more glorious where the overall experience of photography is concerned, what great photographers do is show up fully in a given scene, and be there, beaming their awareness out in all directions, absorbing everything the place and time has to offer, including patiently allowing the scene to unfold before them. And, yeah, snapping photos along the way of that which strikes their curiosity.
That’s the secret sauce of photography, that’s its zen, that’s its Willy Wonka factory-esque childlike abandon. I mean, isn’t great photography crazy, since it does no more than capture in a still what any human being standing there in the moment would have more or less seen? But what a still! How the fullness and the poignancy and the dynamic interplay and brilliance of the smallest elements leap vividly forward in our imaginations with the right shot. What a joy that is when it happens. To make up a word that deserves being, those moments are apogetic! No? Fine: nirvanic!
And that, I’ve discovered, is what life can be, each and every moment, as a sober person, flat out. Becoming a photographer, with the skills and the mentality that is involved, proved the perfect accompaniment in this larger journey back to being my better self. It provided invaluable lessons and insights into those wonderfully simple yet profound and elusive life skills of showing fully up, and being altogether there in the moment.
And, of course, photography provides you with beautiful and tangible markers of having done so, the kind you can post that friends and family may generously commend you for. Though, please know, any time you might say, “Nice shot, Matt,” I can’t help but react with the strongest sense of humility, thinking, well, thank God I was there. Oh, thank GOD I was there!