What’s the point?

Atop the 16th floor of this apartment building in Gangnam, with my feet dangling from the edge, I still feel secure. The solid faces of the office buildings that rise even higher than my lofty perch shield me like the firm reassurance of the wall beside a warm bed. It’s the feeling that nothing can sneak up behind me. It’s a comforting warmth like the rays of the sun that have begun to peek over the rooftops. Grey and green and brown, these quiet giants stand sentinel against the fantastical pursuers of imagination. Despite their comfort, though, my heart does not fully rest. A sour anxiety digs deep into my gut when I face my greatest challenge: myself. I am the only thing that stands between life and death in this precarious position of extreme potential. Below the untied laces of my shoes, I see solid pavement, sixteen stories down. The fall would take under four seconds. By the time my helpless body began to flatten in contact with the hard ground, the distance would be closing at the speed of a car on the freeway. The laws of physics hold me safely on this stationary ledge, but they could just as easily carry me to the end of my conscious experience if I so stupidly shifted my weight beyond the threshold of security. Even more frightening than the possibility of the fall or even its proximity is the absurd fact that I feel the urge to send my body into this fatal free fall. Fighting this urge takes a conscious effort to resist the temptation to place my hands on the cold, dirty metal ledge, lean forward, and push.

This is not a post about jumping off buildings, suicide, or even about physics. This is about feeling. I’ve taken pictures from rooftops of skylines, of the sky, and of the ground directly below. None of them remotely captures the sensation described above. If I have done what I aimed to do, many of you currently feel the anxiety I felt while sitting on the roof this morning. Recently I have lost sight of why I write, why I photograph, and why I try to capture the moments of my life. It has nothing to do with showing off the exotic locations I have been so privy to visit or telling impressive tales of adventure. It’s about sharing this human experience. It’s about telling the part of the story that I have to share. It’s about uncovering parts of the world that intrigue, impel, and inspire both others and myself.

I noticed recently that my photographs were severely lacking in comparison to some of my earlier work. This became extremely noticeable in review of the hundreds of photos I took over the border into North Korea. I deleted almost all of them. I had this pressing sensation that what I was looking at was so incredibly important and meaningful that I must capture it on my own personal SD card despite the fact that I could not actually pick out any feature or shape in my frame that remotely represented what that importance. Recognizing the limitation of my lens’ zoom, I snapped hundreds of photos in RAW format, hoping that a few would be focused enough to digitally zoom later. It was futile. All I got were a mass of data that overloaded my computer’s processor and a series of grainy images of a North Korean town 10 kilometers away. What inspiring story was I telling with those shots?

None.

Inside the Joint Security Area (JSA – where North and South Korean officials meet on the rare occasion that they do), I snapped dozens of photos of the North Korean buildings and South Korean guards inside the meeting room. I kept taking the exact same shot because I had nothing else to shoot. I didn’t have my camera directed there because I saw something particularly meaningful, but because I couldn’t turn it anywhere else. When I attempted to take pictures I actually thought might intrigue those who could not join such a tour, I got reprimanded by the American soldier who was supervising our tour group. Instead of powerful images, I ended up with a hundred photographs that look exactly like the ones you’ll find if you just Google “JSA,” so what part of the story was I able to share that others have not already told?

None.

Indeed, now that I look back on my experience, I may have been better served simply leaving the camera at home. I could have snapped a few shots with my phone for the sake of helping me remember, but that’s not why I spent the better part of my savings on a new camera. I bought that camera to capture moments of my life in such a way that others could share in those experiences.

William Howard Taft is quoted as saying, “Do not write so that you can be understood. Write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” This sentiment applies to all forms of self-expression. Whether through writing, photography, speech, music or otherwise, our goal should always be to clearly and accurately pass what we know, think, and feel to the rest of the world. Simply snapping away at whatever puts itself before our lens or mechanically describing the events of our past is not sharing our story. To truly uncover something about the world, to make sense of it; and to feel it, we must use these incredible minds that nature has designed for us to capture to quintessence of life.

One thought on “What’s the point?

  1. So I have been here for only close to two weeks, I can not totally understand your insight of your experience, but there is a meaning to what you have done here. You have experienced many things young people your age around the world will never have. The images that you haven taken with your camera are meaningful to those that are far away from you on the other side of the world. Do not forget that you touch a lot of life outside of yours.

    Like

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