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Finding Beauty in Purpose

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. ~John Keats.

Years ago, when my daughter was a baby, I plopped her down on the bed, got out my camera and shot artsy black and white photos of her legs. I was severely sleep deprived and, at four months, she was helpless to protest. But I was enthralled with the abstract play of light and shadow across her thighs, all chub and roll like a Cinnabon. There was beauty in her flawless skin, a sweet newness to the world. And I was chasing it down with each shot.

We all do it- chase beauty with our cameras. Beautiful people, beautiful places, beautiful things. We’re instinctively drawn to it. Wait for the right light, find the perfect blossom, soften the stream, take the glare off the rocks, crop out the distracting white blob in the upper right corner. We compose, frame and time our images to maximize their beauty. Why? I suspect the simplest explanation (which is often the correct one) is because it pleases us. Like sugar and drugs, beauty lights up the pleasure centers in our brain. And we are nothing, if not creatures of pleasure.

So what is beauty, exactly? Hard to pin down, but we know it when we see it. Simplicity is beautiful, so is symmetry. Youth can be beautiful, but so too are the deep wrinkles of the aged. We find colors beautiful, patterns, shapes, textures. Skin, bones, sinew, tendons- all beautiful. We seek out new landscapes and cultures for their unfamiliar beauty. Beauty can be calm or savage, everywhere and nowhere to be found. Like hope and a good heartbeat, we need it to live. Beauty feeds our souls.

How then to explain the photographer who spends 20 minutes trying to get the image of a discarded tire in a dirty stream “just right”? Or to capture the light playing across the ribs of an emaciated rescue horse. These are not pretty images, at least not in the way we’re used to thinking about it. But are they beautiful? I think yes. Beauty lives here too, but it’s built on a foundation of purpose and compassion. Images captured with purpose tell a story and stories connect us as human beings. Photographing beauty without purpose is a bit like eating the chocolate shell off a Mallomar and throwing away the soft center. We might be missing the sweetest part.

Sitka Stream-5

I think it’s safe to say (and Keats will back me up here), beautiful images speak to larger truths. We’re drawn to old growth forests and clear running streams not because we like shiny wet things and the color green (which is fine if you do), but because the natural world matters deeply to us. The same way innocence and wisdom and a sense of fairness matter. Adding an element of purpose to your photography can change the way you see and think about the world. Your images will still be beautiful, but collectively they will tell a story. And stories have a kind of power that pretty pictures often lack, the power to bring us together, to move us and to affect change.

We teach visual storytelling at Crossroads- how to capture images that tell a story. And not just any story. We look for stories of people, places and things that make a difference to our lives and the world we live in. Stories about preserving the natural environment, protecting and rehabilitiating wildlife, careful stewardship of land and resources, caring for animals that have no voice.

Each unique, many worth telling… all beautiful.

Come and join us.

~Ruth

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