Choosing What to Photograph

When I’m in Vietnam, for example, I take pictures mostly like a tourist, so that I can remember places & people & events; occasionally I photograph more self-consciously, looking for the same sorts of things I look for when taking pictures at home: pattern, quality of light, strangeness, color. For the last couple of years, until it became hard for me to walk around outside, I’ve been obsessively photographing clouds. I don’t generally like vistas or landscapes, though there are exceptions such as the lush absolutely flat rice country of the Mekong Delta. I like abstraction. I like sequences.

I take lots of pictures & erase most of them off the memory card & never think of them again. As a Buddhist, I suppose I should be drawn to the relatively new movement of contemplative photography, which emphasizes spending a lot of time looking before squeezing the shutter. Several photographers I admire have used this method–or at least taught it. Minor White was a pioneer of the contemplative aesthetic & he was the teacher of John Daido Loori, who founded the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, in which I am a student. Maybe I just don’t trust my technique enough.

As a poet I am committed to technique as a means of elucidating subject matter, but when I pick up the camera, I keep my technique basic. I usually use the aperture priority setting on my camera, which allows me to set the f-stop & control depth of field, letting the camera figure out the correct shutter speed.1 I find it hard to compose in the viewfinder, so I usually crop pictures in my photo-editing software, where I also tend to either punch up the color intensities, or mute them–often all the way to black & white.

With the self-portrait sequence, I decided that taking photographs of my face while I’m ill2 is just too, well, “in your face,” so I settled on taking pictures of things I can hold in my hand. Question: “What has someone’s left hand holding a common object got to do with the self? Where is the self?” Response: The self is a composition of different, ever-changing objects, relations, conditions–or so I was taught in Buddhism 101. The hand & the object hold each other. They need each other.

Whatever the specific object┬áchosen for the self-portraits, it has to be small enough to hold in my hand. The specific objects were not chosen according to a particular plan other than a kind of intuitive attraction, sometimes rooted in childhood memories. That is one source of numinosity–but color plays a part as well, because it seems so fundamental, & cultural allusion. Culture & allusion–a technique from literature–come from widely differing modes of cognition & feeling, but both have operated in the process of selection. And I think this is true of most of my photography–not just the recent self-portraits.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. With these self-portraits, though, there is virtually no technique since I am using my iPhone 5c, hand-held.
  2. I hope I’m not being melodramatic: I have a diagnosis of cancer, but I won’t know for a few days what kind & what treatment I’ll need & my prognosis. Perhaps I’ll get off easy.

Drugs (A List of Seven)

Before even having a complete diagnosis, I have accumulated a small pharmacopeia, mostly analgesic.

  1. Ibuprofen: When I first developed pain in my back, I took a fair amount of ibuprofen, which worked pretty well. Sometimes I would switch to acetaminophen for a few days to give my stomach lining a rest.
  2. Cyclobenzaprine: A muscle relaxant. Worked fairly well for a couple of weeks in combination with a shot of
  3. Prednisone: The most common steroid. Can be taken by injection or orally. I was given an injection.
  4. Percocet: When my back pain threatened to become disabling my doctor prescribed percocet, a combination of 5 mg of oxycodone & 325 mg of acetaminophen. He ordered an MRI and by the time the fracture in my vertebrae was found–caused by “something” pushing on it–the prescription had run out. Because oxycodone is highly addictive, I was switched to
  5. Gabapentin: Nobody know how this works, but it is used primarily as an anticonvulsant, but also for pain that originates in nerve tissue. It didn’t work for me & it made me nauseated. I’m no longer taking it, having gone back to percocet, which can also make me want to throw up, which is why I’m also now taking
  6. Ondansetron: An anti-nausea drug I haven’t looked up on the Mayo Clinic website, my usual practice. At least two of the drugs above can cause constipation, so I’m also taking
  7. Docusate Sodium: A stool softener.

That’s my autobiography as of the beginning of May, or the physical strand of it anyway.