We’d been married a little more than 48 hours when we decided to take a drive on a gorgeous day earlier this month. We’ve traveled many miles in our time together, mostly backroads, and I feel most comfortable on the road when she’s next to me.
We drove for a while and parked on the shoulder near the head of a narrow trail that would lead us to Summersville Lake. She’d been to this exact spot the previous year with a good friend but was unsure which of the two paths led to the rocky outcropping that was our ultimate destination.
First, we veered left and made our way down a slick path, stepping over exposed roots and rocks before realizing we needed to head in the other direction. We doubled back and picked up the main trail and quickly found the outcropping we were looking for. It was breathtaking.
We took a seat on the warm rock and we breathed in the air off the water some 60 feet below. It was as if we had the whole place to ourselves. I thought briefly about stripping down and enjoying the sun on my body, but figured things might get awkward if other hikers showed up. We talked and we sat quietly, listening to the birds and wind. I made a few pictures with my iPhone, then reached into my camera bag and produced an instant film camera I’ve been meaning to use more often.
Her pink nails, the green rhododendron leaves, and my shadow caught my eye. I raised the camera, pressed the shutter, and listened to the film whine as it made its way out of the top of the camera. I said something about her pink nails and waited for the image to appear. I thought it might’ve been the last exposure, but when I saw the light on her face, without asking, I raised and pressed the shutter again.
This is the part when I remind you that in my practice of making photographs, I never make pictures of people without asking first. For me, I just don’t feel like it’s the right thing to do. I mean, I talk about it to large groups of people. I share how I always make it a point to deliver my standard line, which is, “Hi, my name is Roger. I’m a photographer. Would you mind if I made your picture?” Seems pretty straightforward and routine.
In that moment, without thinking, I took. I did not consider how she felt about having her picture made, though I am intimately familiar with her struggle (and mine) of being photographed. There’s part of me that thinks I like being a photographer precisely because it usually keeps me behind the camera. I didn’t know an exposure would come out, but nonetheless I failed to ask and in an instant, quicker than the instant picture could develop, I crossed into unfamiliar territory without even knowing it. What’s more, I didn’t even realize I’d upset her until she grew quiet. Still not thinking any film was left, I snapped another, which turned out to be the last exposure.
She was hurt and I became defensive, unaware of that I had done anything wrong. And that’s precisely the issue; I’d allowed myself to become unaware. She reminded me that she is often uncomfortable with me making candid photos of her. I know the feeling. Few pictures of me exist that I genuinely like. “You didn’t even extend the same courtesy to me as you do with everyone else in the world,” she said. And she was right. It was like getting hit in the chest with a cinderblock. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing as we walked back to the car, her trailing behind me. Silence in the car, hurt feelings, and a different kind of drive home than the one we’d started the day with.
She knows me better than anyone. I think that’s why it hurt her so much. I made the mistake of thinking I had complete freedom, hell maybe even the right, to photograph her whenever or however I saw a moment unfold, to move about our intimate space without even considering she might not see herself the way I do.
I gave her the picture. I think it’s tucked away somewhere out of sight, somewhere safe where she controls who sees it and who does not. When I think about the picture before and the picture after, it will forever remind me of the picture in between.