Wherever we go, whatever we do, however we feel, a label can be attached to an ever expanding list used to describe us. Be that ones as obvious as your gender, age, religion, and ethnicity. Or, more about your habits, like smoker vs non smoker, or drinker vs tea total. For people with illnesses and disabilities, they may come in the form of diagnoses, like epilepsy or schizophrenia. They can help some, by giving a name to it it can help to rationalise or start to understand what is going on, though for others it could leave you permanently trapped in a societal box. But what place have they got in the way I think about my time in the outdoors?
I’ve been involved in the outdoors, in some shape or other, since around 2002, when i started working on Outdoor Education centres, and from there grew a love affair with the great outdoors that has spanned the last 17 years, and involved many pursuits, each undertaken with the passion and enthusiasm of a small child, from Kayaking, Climbing, Mountain Biking, Hill Walking, Trail Running, Wild Camping, Star Gazing and more recently, Landscape Photography. Throughout all of them, barring photography, I would be smiling ear to ear for the duration of whatever mini adventure i’d be on at that time, either soloing my favourite Severe graded climb on Three Cliffs Bay, or meandering down a lazy River Wye in a canadian canoe. It was about losing yourself in the journey from A to B, from top to bottom, and being in the moment. Where, to quote someone much more eloquent, a sort of pure happiness could be found.
And then came photography, borne out of a desire to want to take home something less likely to fade than memories, of a need to extend the life of any benefit being amongst the mountains had, from my ever increasing ramblings around the Brecon Beacons. It started off much like the others, in that it was synergistic with the time I was spending outside. But before long, I don’t know how or when exactly, it became something else entirely. My photography became quite single minded, focussed on a specific aspect of my interaction with the outdoors. It became about the weather, about good light (or the lack of it), and I’d lost sight of my original reasons for heading out in to the wilds of Wales. I started to become quite lazy, not in the barely move off my sofa kind of way, but more in that my routes would always be the quickest and most direct, and I’d only be out for the fabled “Golden Hour” of morning light. I’d spend the rest of the day flicking through sometimes hundreds of pictures hoping for a glimpse of something special, something unique about that morning. I revisited the honeypot vistas of the Beacons time and time again, hoping that one of mine would stand out from the others. And at times, I got one, I was in the right place at the right time and saw something magical. I once stood on Pen Y Fan above the clouds, the Dragons Breath pouring like thick cream, over Cribyn at dawn. But even then it was about that singular event, not the footsteps and moments that got me there.
In my mind, reflecting back on it, I’d become a Photographer, with the pursuit of a finished photograph far outweighing the now nearly dormant Walker, who had craved nothing more than wide open space and the freedom to breathe. The magic of the mountains had been lost to social media and the need to share, to create, to get a like.
It took the summers of ‘15 and ‘16 for me to realise this. As, during these months, I would spend most of my spare time miserable, lazing around the house, contemplating selling my camera, telling myself I was rubbish at it. With golden hours at ever increasing anti social times and darkness harder to find, the motivation to get outside and reap the rewards of the green spaces had gone. But even then it was a gradual awakening, a slow realisation at how photography changed the way I attempted to connect with the outdoors. The true power, for me, had been misplaced…..
This is where I begun to question what I was, a Photographer, or a Walker, then decide on whether it was important. I asked this question on Instagram today, and got quite a few responses back (thank you). The consensus amongst those that offered something, was that they were Walkers first, Photographers second. Generally, it wasn’t regarded as an important distinction, but that there is an acceptance that perhaps the journey is different. And maybe, where a photographer comes away from an outing without an image, it can be hard because of the pressures to share, but for walkers this maybe less of an issue, as the wider experience holds more intrinsic value, to some.
I felt like this was quite a wake up call for me, and it’s certainly helped me get out more and make the most of the beautiful sections of the Brecon Beacons I have on my doorstep. I started taking longer walks, to more remote parts of the hills around me, seeking out the truly wild parts of the Brecon Beacons. Enjoying experiences like picking up my then local river, the Afon Twrch, where it emerges from the mountainside under Picws Du and then following it all the way home, passing places like Tyle Garw, a rock strewn lump high above the water course, that is the furthest you can be from a road in Wales. I learned once again to enjoy the frustrating thrill of steep scree paths and loose scrambles, where your legs can never carry you quick enough. More recently its even changing the way I camp, leaving behind the relative comfort of a palatial 2 man tent, for a bivvy, where the barrier between my body and the landscape is as porous as possible, leaving my mind to drift freely around it. Unless it’s raining, then I want a tent.
I still get excited by the making of a good photograph, but the path toward it is what makes it special, something not easily captured or shared. But should certainly be remembered and held on to…….