This whole thing is a miracle if you look at it right. The simplest things are the most sublime. Our breath. An involuntary act. It is the source of life and it runs on autopilot. It’s a very magical existence we share. I’m constantly reminded of this by the things I encounter when shooting photographs, but this perspective is also due to writing and reflecting. The disciplines of photography and writing give me this ability to see the world with a fresh point of view.
Yesterday morning, we headed out before sunrise and chose the wharf as the setting we would use. We are still recovering from the flu, so Wilder is not realistic for the sunrise shoot, for now. Luckily, there are lots of very close places that have tons of potential for photography. The wharf is less than a mile away and it has tons of interesting subjects to study. Not only is it a liminal space (somewhere in between land and water), but it is an iconic Santa Cruz location. So many people have visited the wharf with its view of the Boardwalk and its famous residents: the Sea Lions.
The proximity of the wharf is important. We are trying to use as little energy as possible in the production of our work. Keeping close means being more creative and we still haven’t reached the point of boredom where that creative energy really thrives. There is a confusing thing that happens with photography because the experience of making a photograph can be so exciting. Those photos, when something extraordinary is going down, are important too. They are just not as creative. In other words, if the world in front of you is on fire with color because of an amazing sunrise, then you don’t have to do much to get a great shot. It is when the light is not great and the day seems to have no particular interest that the spirit of invention and experimentation wakes up. By limiting the range of where we are working, we both reduce the amount of energy we use, and we increase the likelihood of engaging those creative muscles that are usually born from necessity. If you need to be the source of the interest in your content, then you will be. That is one of the challenges of living in such a beautiful place. The world barely gives you a moment to be less than enthralled.
Sustainability is the word of 2020, I’ll tell you that right now. You are going to get sick of hearing about it, but that shouldn’t matter. It’s too important for us to think about it like some kind of programming. Unfortunately, that’s how humans seem to get stuff done: by programming ourselves and others. So, it’s going to have some of that amateur media critic vibe to the movement. You know, the Eco-Yelpers. The thing is, sustainability matters for everyone, so we need to rise to the occasion. My goal is to educate myself about the subject and to practice raising awareness by sharing what I learn.
I am currently developing a course based on this idea and I have named it “Imagining Sustainability.” I believe that the biggest obstacle to our transition to more sustainable energy sources and business practices is our collective ability to see the problem and to envision a solution. We need the road map. This is an era of exploration. The brands who figure out sustainability in the next few years will be the brands that last into the future as institutions of culture.
One thing that I want to say about climate change and sustainable development: it is nobody’s fault. I do not think that holding individuals accountable for the situation is going to help. I believe that businesses and other organizations should take responsibility for providing more sustainable solutions. I certainly do not think that people living below the poverty line should have to spend more money to be more ecologically engaged. We need greener and more affordable solutions. To achieve sustainable development, the new products and services need to be better. The market seems to move much less quickly driven by ethical concerns than it does for the desire for better goods.
This course I am designing is for content creators who want to be a part of the sustainable development movement. I am going to be reading and sharing ideas from a bunch of great books and authors. Half of the course is going to be focused on self-development, the other half on the history and challenges of sustainable development. The term comes from a conference held in 1987 called “Our Common Future” and that is one of the important starting points of the conversation.
I want to repeat a very important point: I do not think that individuals should feel responsible for climate change or sustainable development. I mean, people can feel however they feel of course, but there is something much bigger that needs to happen. How we act individually of course has great importance because anything that you multiply billions of times has an enormous impact. If the range of choices that people can make is full of better options, then we stand a chance. Of course, we still need people to behave. Or do we?
The example that comes to mind is the parking lots up north and unfortunately some beaches, where people dump their trash out. This is an especially repulsive pattern as the coastline is pristine and beautiful and seeing fast food packaging and alcoholic seltzer cases littered around is a bummer for sure. But, it is an opportunity for jobs. Every problem is a potential for a new solution. If we can’t successfully convince people to stop throwing their trash on the side of the road, then let’s make it a priority and invest in keeping public spaces clean. But also, if businesses were not making packaging that doesn’t biodegrade then it wouldn’t be in danger of contaminating the ocean. Speaking of that, what is happening with hemp? That is another big question I have, since it was federally legalized last year and we have heard of the promising products that it can help us to create. Look, plastic is an extremely new invention and it has had such a big impact on our planet, but it isn’t the end solution, obviously. We are in the last phases of the plastic era, and a new hemp-based future is starting to break the dark of night.
Back to the sunrise at the wharf. Keeping it close, making the most out of what we have within a narrow range of distance, and entering into this in between world where you are suspended over the ocean on a wooden stretch of road and buildings held up on wooden sticks. When you look at a wharf from a distance it looks preposterous. When you drive out on it, every instinct of automotive preservation screams go back. Cars are not supposed to be surrounded by that much salt water. But it is a normal thing: a wharf. We have them everywhere. The banality of the magical.
The sunrise helps to remind us of that magic as the moments before the break of dawn are something like a wharf of light, this bridge that takes us out into the space in front of us. Then, the first golden rays of light streaming from the golden disc as it crests the horizon line hit all the wet slowly waking things out there gently rocking above the Pacific blue. Some of these waking things start making some very funny noises as they wrestle for position. The Sea Lions warm themselves on the understructure of the wharf in the morning and those first amazing beams of warmth are a prized possession or position, really. They bark and scream and bellow and bite. It is a dramatic scene that takes place in the underbelly of the pier. And it is symbolic of the very animalistic ways we engage with each other. For all the amazing abilities of abstraction and self-reflection, despite whatever linguistic innovations or scientific understandings we have achieved, on a very real and daily level of existence we are so much like those Sea Lions battling over that comfortable warmth from the first moments of daylight.
I don’t often talk about gear, because I’m more interested in process and narrative, but for the kinds of shots I was getting at the wharf you need one very important and expensive tool: a telephoto lens. I was using a 400mm 5.6 prime L Series Canon lens mounted with a Sigma converter to a Sony A7Rii body. I love this combination. The color, contrast and sharpness all are great, and it gives you the ability to pull tightly cropped expressions from wildlife. You have to have a long lens to shoot wildlife responsibly. Yes, they have made the wharf their home, but they are still wild and should be respected as such.
There is a landing on the east facing side of the wharf which gets the most sun the earliest and this is where the babies sleep with their mamas. How is it that nobody is fighting over this space, we do not know and can only conclude that it is because of the ferocity of mothers and their desire to keep their brood safe and close. Apparently, those battle have already been won, and the males prance around on the other beams fighting for prime spots.
Most living things are constantly adapting to the changes in the environment. The Sea Lions didn’t ask for the wharf, but they use it to their advantage and the same goes for most humans, I believe. It is only when businesses, governments and other organizations achieve the skills, the knowledge and the will to develop sustainably that we will have a future more full of promise than fear.