I recently came across a wonderful presentation by National Geographic photographer Sam Abell. I expected to be inspired by great images and stories from a career of photographic adventures. What I did not expect was to be so deeply moved by the simple sensitivity and quiet dignity of a man sharing not only his work, but his life.
Those who attended my presentations know that photography, to me, is not a pursuit in itself but a means of telling my own stories — stories of experiences, discoveries, and relationships; stories that transcend momentary glimpses into the superficial beauty of well-worn subject matter. Photography, for reasons that are completely arbitrary, became my means for telling these stories. In a sense, it is no more or less important than a pad of paper, writing instruments, a word processor, or canvas on an easel.
I do, of course, have a fondness for photography. If not for it, I would never have had many of the most significant experiences in my life, and I am grateful for it for the role it played in making me the person that I am. It took me on a fantastic journey, to beauty and adventure beyond my wildest dreams. It brought me to places that became my home, and to people who amaze and inspire me.
One line in Abell’s presentation touched on a notion that had been on my mind for much of my photographic journey. After describing a conversation with a museum curator who was not quite supportive of his plan to join National Geographic, Abell notes: “It’s my lifelong goal to prove to him and to anyone else that I didn’t waste my photographic life by coming to National Geographic.”
It seems random to me to think of my life as “photographic,” though as I grow older I become more aware of the role I play. Some people seem to know what they want to become since childhood, while others find their way to their legacy in unpredictable twists of fate. To me, a life is a life, with more dimensions and complexity and nuance than can be summed up in a simple adjective. And yet, history reduces us to such confined categories.
As grand and complex as a singular life may be, we really are each a drop in an ocean whose magnitude is beyond our comprehension. Still, some drops make a bigger ripple than others, and for reasons that may defy simple logic we find purpose, pride and dignity in having our legacies outlive us. It matters to us that our lives matter to others. It is with such feelings that I chose the life of a photographer and writer. It is these notions that brought me to my remote home among some of the last vestiges of wilderness, and that makes me wander in solitude in wild places, not as an opportunist, but as a vocation. It is with this intent that I create and tell my stories.
But there is that other reason — wildness. Wildness is what drives me to seek the experiences I convey in my images. It is the urge that would not let me be at peace in any other line of work, and especially one that confines me to a desk or a building or an airplane. Wildness is the source of the fear Abell is referring to — the fear of a life wasted.
Of those destined to make such ripples in the lives of others, some leave legacies of change, some of prosperity, some of enlightenment, some of darkness and war and fear. And some leave legacies of simple beauty, of pride and gratitude and dignity. Sam Abell did just that. Beyond having his legacy persist, he also has the rare privilege of living out his days with the knowledge that the world is a better place for having him in it, and that his life mattered. We should all be so fortunate, and so motivated.