“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”
Cardinal de Retz
This week, I had the chance to see an exposition of one of France’s most celebrated photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson. His photos are so well known and disseminated that I had actually seen many of them without realizing they were his. The exposition showed the many phases of his artistic development, how his personality and interests shifted over time.
I could only envy how he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He was an eyewitness to some of the 20th century’s most definitive events— meeting Gandhi hours before his assassination, or being in Shanghai when the Communists took over, for instance. He was a man who travelled extensively and knew how to capture great leaders as well as simple, mundane moments that compose everyday life: a magazine spread over a bedsheet, a young boy excited for a toy car, or a man jumping over a puddle.
What made Cartier-Bresson a great photographer was his skill at capturing the decisive moment (l’instant decisive). He said, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Had he snapped the shutter a moment sooner or a moment later, his scenes would have been lost forever.
There is something similar at work in certain moments in our lives when we feel called to step out of our comfort zone, perhaps to follow a lover or travel to someplace we’ve always wanted to see. Many times, if we hesitate, then the opportunity, like the potential photo, will have passed us by never to return again.
Inspired by the exhibition, I went out the other day with my camera to see if I would have what it takes to find and respond to an instant decisive.
The first thing I noticed was fairly obvious: just as I can’t forcefully will myself to meet someone extraordinary or find a life-changing business opportunity, I couldn’t force the light to change or call upon an ‘interesting’ subject to appear. Being able to capture an image required a combination of active preparation and passive reception, similar to falling asleep and finding the right wave to surf.
Camera in hand, I began to look at the world differently, with sharpened awareness and heightened sensitivity. I noticed what I might have previously overlooked; everything became a potential photo. The longer I went on in this state of awareness, the easier it was to keep going.
Several times, however, I hesitated a moment too long and a potentially beautiful photo slipped from my grasp.
There have also been numerous moments in life when I failed to act when I know I should have and missed out on… I have as little inkling of what these alternate realities would have been like as a photographer has of a shot he’s lost. When such moments passed- some of which I recognized at the time, many of which I only recognized in retrospect- I agonized over what might have been, beating myself up for missing my chance.
I’ve often wondered what stopped me. Was it the thought that there will be something better waiting later? The attachment to a certain outcome I thought should happen? The fear of the unknown?
In photography as in life, I wind up with better results when the calculative, rational mind gets out of the way and I trust intuition. Being stuck in the thoughts, am I doing everything right? am I making the best decision? leads me to miss the beauty right under my nose.
But it’s so difficult to break the obsession with trying to control all the details!
Fortunately, no matter how many times I dither and delay and miss my chance, other opportunities and scenes will invariably arise.
Previous ‘failures’ have actually been helpful, in the sense that being swallowed by regret strengthened my resolve to be open to chance encounters, to leaving my ‘finger on the trigger’, to be alert and prepared for the next time opportunity arises.
The pathological side of this (which I know all too well) is that I have to accept that not every encounter will lead to something ‘breakthrough’. As difficult as it is to learn how to be ready and willing to act, it’s equally difficult to learn discrimination. Too much exigence on ‘being open’ actually closes you off to being present and satisfied with things as they are.
While everything could be a potential photo, only a limited number of scenes will lend themselves to a truly great print. And while it’s true that speaking to the person sitting next to us on the metro might lead to something wonderful if we speak with her, sometimes it’s better just to ride on in silence.