Every year millions of visitors are trickling through our state and national parks hoping to experience some of the profound sights that are shared through photographs. I can be found among them and yet, I know that I’m having a completely different experience than most of those visitors. I often wonder what brings people to travel to the places they do and what they hope to get from it.
I know why I’m here. I want to be the creator of one of those profound photographs. I’ve always been a collector of things; basketball cards, coins, strange rocks that I’d find on the ground. I think photography for me is an extension of that side of my personality. I’ve traded collections of tangible things for digital depictions of places that move me in some way, and like any good collector, I want to have the rarest and the best in my collection. That means getting up at 2am to drive a couple hours away to meet the sun or the rising milky way, or standing in the same spot for hours in the extreme temperatures capturing a time-lapse or waiting for the perfect light. Overall, it’s about riding out discomfort and challenging conditions in order to capture those moments. That’s all part of the experience for me. I’ll admit, it’s not always easy to get myself moving to face those challenges, but I never regret doing so. I don’t want to be comfortable all the time.
Many readers of this blog probably already know that I’m from the state of West Virginia. For those that don’t know, West Virginia is one of the most economically challenged states in the country, in large part due to a long history of predatory resource extraction by outside (and inside) interests. Growing up in small town WV, the air is perpetually filled with a lingering sentiment of “there’s nothing to do around here”, coupled with a shared goal of moving out of the state as soon as it becomes a viable option. I’ve gone back and forth with these thoughts myself. So in that regard, I’m no exception, but discovering photography has completely changed my perspective on my home state and traveling.
It puts a different spin on living here and I actually get more excited about traveling within the state than I do outside of it now. I might argue that we have some of the most diverse and interesting landscapes in the country, certainly on the East Coast. So when someone here tells me they want to see the Grand Canyon, my response might be “have you seen our own New River Gorge?” Often, the answer is “no,” or “I drove across it once with my family as a kid.” Frankly, everyone should see the Grand Canyon, but everyone should see their own state first. It’s cheaper and it’s not absolutely choked with other tourists competing for the same views. You can drive there and back in one day, then do it again the next time you have a day off.
As a photographer, I have even more reasons to go back and revisit these familiar places at home. Stepping out on to a mountainous overlook, I’m not just seeing it in that moment but I’m constantly evaluating the full potential it has to offer at different points in time. Where does the moon and sun come up? What will this look like at sunset? Will the Milky Way align with that rock over there in June? How does this spot look with autumn colors or a fresh coat of snow? What else is nearby? I’m already planning and setting the stage for a future trip. Having different goals in mind for the same place always makes for a fresh adventure.
I don’t expect everyone to experience a place in the same way I do. I can be obsessive when it comes to chasing my experiences. Sometimes it gives me tunnel vision, but there’s something that I need to exorcise to satisfy the collector in me. However, traveling far, far away isn’t always the answer and thinking like a photographer might just help enhance your perspective and truly appreciate the things that are closer within reach.