For the first time in my life, I was glad to be without my camera. I was standing tonight, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, on the eighth floor of the OXO Tower in London, gazing contentedly at the fireworks display. To be elevated at that height gave the fireworks a different level of immediacy I hadn’t experienced before, and the sky showered down with white, purple, green, blue, gold and red shimmering trails of light – all seemingly just for my vantage point. A few people in front of me were avidly recording the show with their palm-sized digital cameras. A flashbulb went off once in a while. A couple of times, I glanced into their LED display, capturing one of the fireworks bursts, and was glad I was not them. I was intent on living in the moment, camera-less.

Since the age of seventeen, I’ve been entranced with photography, amassing at one point, a collection of over ten cameras of all different mediums and eras, not to mention peripheral equipment. The fusion of technique and creativity is usually what draws people to photography. For me, the exploration of technique (lighting, darkroom, camera equipment) offered hours – nay, years – of fascination and experimentation. The skins of my hands are permanently dry due to exposing them one too many times in the chemical baths as I developed prints. I spent early weekend mornings trolling about used camera markets. My senior undergraduate art exhibit was a wall-to-wall display of text and photographs, with a hanging eight foot tall black and white print centrepiece outlining my naked body.

As delightful and innocent my photographic experimentations were, the senior art exhibit was a juncture point. My photographs had shifted from innocuous suburban scenes and animals to proclaiming politics. Primarily, the art exhibit dealt with my coming out and my parent’s subsequent rejection of my bisexuality. Embarrassed by my identity, photography now provided the ammunition for my mother to blame me for exposing myself and family secrets to the public. The art that I felt so passionate about, that had been such a vehicle for my expression backfired and I found myself disowned. It takes a certain type of artist to push on and be creative despite being rejected by family and the security net that comes with that. My mother’s rejection pierced me entirely, and I found myself unable to think creatively.

Nonetheless, my obsession with photography continued without her approval. It might be said that her rejection pushed me to cling harder to photography. I took out larger amounts of graduate school loans than necessary to supplement my purchasing of equipment, endless rolls of film and professional printing services. Meanwhile, I struggled to reinvent myself as a photographer. What purpose does the camera serve now that I could not point it at those visages whom I loved and lost? The camera became solely a tool with which to record my life. I carried about a Lomo with me everywhere I went, for it fit easily into the glove compartment of my car, or in a jacket pocket. I palmed it while venturing into strip shows. I took it to the beach and snapped sunsets. Mostly, I used it sneakily, capturing moments without people’s knowledge, always looking for that “defining moment”, as coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson. From the years 1995-1998, my life is well documented, the proof sheets and slides protected in plastic holders, each chronologically labelled and bound in large, heavy D-ring binders. The images are richly colourful as I experimented with Polaroid and slide film. For many years after, I would thumb through these files, somehow comforted by a reality I’d captured. Yet, no matter how many rolls of film I exposed and as eventful as my life looked, I always saw in my mind’s eye the images that my camera could not capture. My interaction with my mother was rocky and full of contestation still, though we still tried to remain a semblance of a family. I snuck my camera into my parent’s home, never satisfactorily photographing them. Their bodies would always escape proper framing. No longer a trusted member of the family, I always felt like a sweaty-palmed spy. After each home visit, I drove my car slowly out of the driveway, hot tears building up in my eyes and blurring the street ahead. What would capturing that self-portrait have served me? I was neither as coordinated nor brave as my idol Nan Goldin to shoot my expression during those heartbreaking moments. A image held little currency against family trust and forgiveness.

Earlier this year, I decided to step out and go into commercial photography, accepting the job of children’s party photographer. For five months, I plied my craft, and it is only recently that I’ve let it go. At first, I felt remiss and a failure. If I’ve done photography for 17 years, how come I wasn’t able to succeed as a commercial photographer? There was no soul to my photography, only technique and getting it right for the client. As disappointing as my foray was, I feel better having tried it. It ended up killing my love for photography, having to bend the art to satisfy the client, but it also showed me that I had been hiding behind the camera all these years.

In his book, Fight Club, Chuck Palahnuik writes, “The things you own end up owning you.” It’s taken me seventeen years to see past my pride – pride in the form of self-teaching, technical expertise, artistic development, consumerist ownership – to see the camera as it is: an instrument that set me as an observer of life, and not an active participant. That’s not to say I didn’t find beauty in photography, and I’d like to think I’ve done some interesting things with my time, but with a camera, while it gives you passage into realms some might not be able to enter, it signifies and conspicuously sets you apart. For whose sake was I continuing this documentation of my life?

I recall all the lessons I’ve learned in controlling this mechanical eye: understanding lens structure, difference in camera mediums, experimentation with exposure and film. I think about the conscious act of composition: holding the camera up to the eye, framing the image, correcting focus, an adjustment here and there, then clicking the shutter at the precise moment. I thought about that act as I surreptitiously watched the fireworks display recorded by that anonymous person in front of me, and counted how much time she was wasting focusing on the image and not the actual fireworks exploding in front of her face. Would you like to experience the real thing or spend your life trying to capture the perfect image of that real thing? And what would showing that image to a friend really do for her? Would any amount of technology, composition and creative knowledge bring her truly back to that moment and set her senses ablaze?

I wished for her to remove the layer between her and the fireworks. Despite feeling slightly naked without a camera of my own, I wanted to shout, “Focus on the glory, not the instrument!” Instead, while on the OXO Tower’s viewing gallery, I merely turned my attention to gaze fully at the sky on fire. The sparks illuminated the Thames River and rained down. The smell of smoke filled my nostrils and the din of explosions my ears. The fireworks simply took my breath away with its crescendo of glittering sparks in the sky – a simple concept really but one which worked in sending me back to feeling amazed and delighted as a six-year old. The skyline was so much bigger than any LED display could ever be, could ever capture. And I, full of delight and wonder, was glad to be without my camera.

Erica, 34, London UK

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