I was approximately 100 feet up a vertical mountain face when I first became aware of my “invisible shield.” It was the summer of 2008, and I was on a photo assignment for BC Parks. Thirty minutes into my slow but steady ascension, I paused briefly to survey my predicament. I had my left foot wedged firmly into a small crevice. My right hand clutched a tree root protruding through a solid rock ledge immediately above my head. My eyes searched fervently for a place to anchor my two unsecured limbs, but there was nothing. The rock outcropping above me was impeding my upward progress, and the small fissure through which I had chosen to ascend afforded no obvious means to circumnavigate it. I was intent on giving the BC Ministry of Environment a singularly unique view of this particular provincial park, and was convinced such a shot was waiting at the pinnacle. All I had to do was haul my body and an extra thirty pounds of photo gear up to the summit. Undaunted by the dead end, I reckoned I would simply have to descend the scarp, re-survey the mountain, and find another face to scale. I was on a mission and, motivated by the photograph I saw in my mind, I was determined to finish it. I scoffed for a moment at the thought of the ‘old me,’ and how he would never have climbed a treacherous mountain face. The old me was soft — a musician who sat in a chair all day and designed music software. The ‘new me’ was an outdoor photographer — strong and rugged. I felt almost as if an invisible force was shielding me from any danger that would prevent my capturing that image.

Ten seconds later, I was in the exact same spot, approximately 100 feet up a vertical mountain face, when I first became aware that my “invisible shield” was a myth. Doggedly determined to find another route up the mountain, I began my descent. But descending a mountain means looking down. And looking down from a tenuous perch upon the face of a cliff gives one a radically altered perspective — one that injects a potent dose of reality directly into the brain. In my case, reality meant that I was 100 feet up a mountain face, held in place by a root no bigger than a hot dog and a toe crevice no larger than its bun. Reality meant that I wasn’t actually a mountain climber. The cameras, lenses, and tripods strapped to my back made me no less ‘soft’ than I was a few months earlier when I was still making crazy synthesizer sounds in a darkened recording studio. Reality also meant that I still needed to find my way down. With my invisible shield shattered and primal motivations supplanting artistic ones, it took me twice as long to go down as it took to go up.

Once safely at the base, I was surprised to find myself considering another climb. I still hadn’t captured an iconic image of this particular park, and I was certain it lie at the top of this precipice. I was a mere two minutes removed from an hour-long bout with mortal fear, yet the photographic image I’d formed within my head had already rebuilt my invisible shield of invincibility.

At that moment, a team of real climbers shuffled past. I knew they were real because, instead of cameras, they carried ropes, belts, picks, helmets, and all manner of carabiners. They had just witnessed a portion of my descent. One of the climbers stopped, looked at me, looked at the rock, then looked back at me.

“You weren’t really climbing that rock all by yourself, were you?” she asked with an expression that registered both admiration and admonishment.

“It’s OK,” I answered. “I’m a photographer.”

It was, perhaps, the most utterly ridiculous thing I ever said. But as I reflected on it later, I realized that cameras have an odd psychological effect on me. They have a way of heightening one form of reality, while diminishing others. With my camera in hand, I’m singularly focused on creating the perfect image — one with the potential to entertain, enlighten, inform, or influence those who view it. When I’m on assignment, everything in front of me is filtered through my eyes as if it were already a photograph. Realtime is no longer time at all, but a series of contact sheets from which I’m choosing the images I want to preserve. Is the geometry intriguing? How’s the lighting? Is there energy? Expression? Emotion? It’s not that I actually believe in an invisible shield. It’s that I’m so intent on finding, framing, and capturing the intended images, that non-photographic impulses fail to trigger proper cognition and, subsequently, adequate defenses.

Because I possess this idiosyncrasy, I’ve promised myself I will never willingly volunteer to photograph violent conflicts (though I suspect this is exactly the sort of characteristic that would make me rather good at it). Of course, this means the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award will never be mine, and that my miniscule chances of joining Magnum Photos become even that much more miniscule. But, for me, decisions involving self-preservation are best made without camera in hand.

Despite its potentially detrimental effects, the invisible shield is not entirely a negative phenomenon. There are, after all, two types of fears — rational and irrational. If the invisible shield masks a rational fear like, say, climbing mountains without proper training or experience, then that’s an obvious negative. But when the invisible shield obscures irrational fears, the effects are quite beneficial. Once I recognized my tendency to suffer from the invisible shield syndrome, I soon realized I could harness it to my benefit.

Consider, for example, the discipline of street photography. For me, my shyness was always an impediment to my success. Although I had both the interest and desire, the mere thought of photographing strangers at close range filled me with enough anxiety to keep me off the streets. But once I recognized that I became fearless behind a camera, I had only to wrap its strap around my wrist and rest my finger on its shutter, and all my apprehensions disappeared behind my invisible shield. Although the shield is nothing but an illusion created by an unbalancing of the senses, the benefits are real. That’s because the fear it prevents is, itself, an illusion created by my own diffidence. One artificial aberration masks a second artificial aberration, and I become a healthy and emotionally-balanced street photographer. And here, all this time, I’d been lead to believe that two wrongs don’t make a right.

©2009 grEGORy simpson
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