It’s Not National Geographic Material, But…

I was fifteen when my dad gave me my first camera. I was speechless with delight — I remember the sensation of actually gasping for breath in surprise and joy. Gifts were rare in our family: we eschewed Christmas, birthdays, and worldly possessions, so a spontaneous gift like this was even more meaningful than it might have been for an ordinary kid.

My father has always had a gift for both photography and drawing, sometimes combining them by making sketches and even embroidery patterns based on the photos he takes. He has his camera with him nearly everywhere he goes. My dad and his camera were fixtures in my childhood and especially in my teens, when his interest in “real” photography took off. On long road trips with my mom, they periodically stop so my dad can photograph scenery or flowers while my mom stretches her legs. When he visited us in Alaska, he would go on early-morning drives to capture shots of things he’d seen as we drove around the Anchorage area: the tidal flats, a field of blue-flags (also known as wild irises), a train running between the inlet and the mountains. He’ll sit quietly while family visits, unobtrusively shooting photo after photo of interactions and games. He’s never published his photos, unlike my uncle (his brother), who also loves nature and photography, and shares his photos on a website he calls Wild Sky Photo. He just loves taking the pictures. I think that camera was a way for us to connect, to share a passion.

It was the night before a high school trip that my dad gave me the camera. Our entire high school — all ten of us — were traveling from our group of three small religious communes in Northwest Ontario to a collection of communes in British Columbia. We’d been preparing for months with individual, original, inspirational speeches, and practicing two or three new songs. We would provide the church services as we visited the northern groups. That was something of a tradition in our network of communes — being prepared to share inspirational messages, but especially sharing music. Singing was integral to our way of life, and somebody was always writing or discovering a new song. It was just considered a courtesy to share it with other groups whenever you traveled.

But the real highlight, to us, was the road trip. Ten kids in two vans. Music of our own choosing — and someone was sure to bring along some carefully selected secular music, and if we were absolutely angelic, perhaps we could convince our chaperones to allow us to play it as we rode along. Then there was the hotel stop along the way — giant sleepovers aren’t any less fun when you’re being raised as a highly conservative, long-skirted, Bible-studying commune dweller. The frosting on the road-trip cake was the visits with people we only saw rarely. My cousins and I were excited to see another set of cousins on one of the British Columbia communes, but there were other friends and acquaintances as well, plus who knew how many new friends.

And I photographed it all. I used up all the film my dad had given me by the end of the second day, and had to buy more at gas stations and convenience stores along the way. I snapped photos of the scenery. Of pillow fights. Of friends hugging. Teens sleeping, puppy-piled in the vans. Volley-ball games, girls still in their long, awkward skirts. Campfire sing-alongs. I overcame my habitual shyness to walk right up to people I barely knew so as to frame them better for shots. My viewfinder became my key, allowing me to break through crippling terror of crowds and strangers.

I still have most of those photos. They aren’t good ones. I knew nothing at all about photography, and my camera was a basic point-and-shoot model. No zoom, no focus. Most of the pictures are blurred. Sometimes you can’t really tell who’s in the photos or what’s happening. But there were some gems. Going through them a few years ago, I was surprised to find a picture of my sister-in-law’s husband in Renaissance costume, playing the piano and singing in an informal rehearsal for a show. This was about four years before I met my husband, and I hadn’t even known the young man’s name — I just had been struck by the picture I saw and wanted to keep the memory.

These days I use a beautiful silver Canon, a digital camera that has a zoom lens and a second, long lens that can be interchanged. I still don’t know much about photography. But I’ve learned a few things along the way, and now I find joy in photographing my children and garden. Lately I’ve been learning to use the long lens. It’s proven to be a steep learning curve for me. It reminds me of the slow, stumbling trial-and-error experience with that first little camera. Most of my photos of the birds at our feeder are a little blurred, often badly lit or poorly framed. I still save some of them as a learning reference, just like we save our preschoolers’ early writing attempts.

Now, when I look through photos on my computer or phone as I’m preparing to edit and choose some to share with family on Facebook, I find myself thinking of my dad and his role as a recorder of my childhood. It’s a good role, I think, and one that I’m happy and proud to be carrying on in my own little family. I’m not a photographer; this isn’t a photography blog. But still, I find an unexpected peace in freezing those moments of my children playing, a perfect bloom, a bird on a branch, even a plate of good food. I delete more photos than I keep. I miss more shots than I take. I don’t know how to do some of the techniques I see from trained and experienced photographers. But those photos I do take and keep are treasures to me.

And here, just because today I’m thinking about photographs and family and treasures, are a few photos of my favorite treasures: my kids.

Exhibit A: Sofia’s 11-month photo shoot. We’ve done this every month since she was born. My eventual goal is to collect one from each month of her first year into a collage frame for her room. We did this for Niko, too. He’s four. No collage frame yet. Maybe some day…

Exhibit B: My adventurous boy, later the same day as Sofia’s photo shoot. He wanted to sit on top of the well, just like he had a month before when Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography came to photograph our family. I agreed — but only if he let me take his picture. Later, he decided to gather some wood to take inside. The power went out the next day in an ice storm, so I ended up being thankful for his impulse.

Exhibit C: These are the first shots I’ve ever taken with a long lens. Please remember that I don’t work for National Geographic. And I’m just learning. But still, I’m pretty darn proud of these fuzzy photos.