We had our community celebration here a couple of weeks ago, and the new newspaper that’s covering our area published a bunch of pictures from the event.
And, at the risk of sounding like a sour-grapes snob (I used to run the newspaper here), their pictures were terrible.
When I was publishing our paper, I coveted expensive camera rigs. I resented having to make do with the upper-amateur cameras from Nikon–stuff regular people buy at Costco for $60o. There was no way we could afford the gargantuan telephoto lenses that make great nature or football shots. I saw parents running around at school events with cameras that were three times as expensive as ours, and we took pictures to earn a living.
But the reason the new paper’s pictures are crummy isn’t simply due to their equipment–it’s due to what my engineer dad would call “operator error.”
Good candid photographers develop a kind of “surrounding awareness” that other people don’t have. When you become really good at it, it’s almost like you’ve developed a sixth sense.
It’s not predicting the future, it’s more like being ready for the future.
Sounds a lot like working with horses, doesn’t it? Horses demand our constant anticipation and awareness–everything from knowing that your horse is getting nervous about that trash can you’re trying to ride past to noticing a sudden subtle change in demeanor that can mean colic or laminitis.
I took some pictures of a girl getting her gelding ready for a local show last year. I’d looked forward to photographing the event–I didn’t get to do stuff like this when I was a kid, and I figured I’d have a great time.
I found a girl getting her young sorrel gelding ready. The gelding was done up like a racehorse–tail-bagged, neck-sweated, blanketed–and the girl had her hands full “undressing” him. Whenever she saw me pointing the camera at her, she kissed and fawned over her gelding, which was fine with me–I kiss and fawn over my own horses, and I was getting some cute shots. All the while, the girl’s mother kept up a running nagathon about how the girl needed to change into her show clothes and fix her hair, etc.
But then the girl said she wanted to longe the gelding to “warm him up.” I suspected it was mainly for my benefit, but that was OK with me too–I understood how a young woman would want to show off her handsome young horse.
When this horse stepped into the round pen and jerked into a trot, though, I was shocked. He could barely use one of his back legs.
“What happened to his leg?” I asked the mother, before I could stop myself (ignoring the cardinal rule of You Never Point Out Someone Else’s Horse’s Faults).
“Oh, he cut his tendon on the fence,” the mom said airily. “We let him have a few weeks off, but he’s just not up to 100% yet.”
I looked at the gelding again. This happened to be the same family who had raised my first mare, and I chided myself for my immediate harsh judgement. These were folks who’d bred and raised dozens of horses for decades, after all, and I’d only been working with horses for a few years.
Maybe he just needed to warm up, like the girl had said. But I found myself almost in tears after a few minutes of watching the gelding hop around in a bizarre three-legged lope. He kept asking to slow down, but the girl kept demanding he keep the gait. He didn’t toss his head, wring his tail, or show any other signs of irritation. He just kept trucking around like a broken wind-up toy. That was what bothered me the most, I think…the fact that this was obviously such a good gelding who was trying his best to please.
So whenever I look at that photo of the two of them together now, I see something completely different than a touching moment. I see a family that treated an injured horse no differently than they’d treat a four-wheeler or dirt bike that they’d get around to fixing… some day.
I don’t see love. I see a girl who was posing for a newspaper photographer.
Now I realize that not being able to afford all that expensive camera gear actually did me a huge favor. I had to develop the ability to be in the right place at the right time, which meant I had to develop my external awareness early on. I learned it was far better to have my run-of-the-mill point-and-shoot with me at all times than it was to be an “official” photographer with the heavy gear bag full of lenses.
A couple of years ago when I was shooting our community celebration, I got a great shot. There is always a contest where prizes are handed out–kids bring marked balls to a table and find out if they’ve won. The only place for me to sit if I wanted to catch a kid’s reaction was in the broiling sun (it was noon, and it was close to a hundred degrees that day). I waited a half-hour as kids went by the booth. I was dripping sweat, and I was getting more and more pissed off because I had no way of knowing if I was totally wasting my time. I was just about to give up when a kid finally came up with the winning ball, and I got the shot.
The folks who were printing our paper at the time urged me to enter that photo in a statewide competition. I was flattered, but when you’re a professional, it’s your job to make the excellent look effortless–and then do it all over again the next day. What mattered to me wasn’t the fact the photo might win an award–it was the memory of what I’d worked through in order to get it.
Horses don’t care about accolades either. They care about the time we spend with them and how we treat them, and thanks to that, they give us the chance to live in the present. They help us reach a kind of awareness that helps us release our trivial worries and focus on what it means to be a part of something larger than ourselves.
And we earn those moments of partnership with them through hard work and sweat, not through rhinestones and blue ribbons.