Every now and then I get this urge – no, not just an urge, almost a command, to write a story – a post, if you will, about something specific… What’s strange sometimes is that this one you’re reading now kind of popped up last night – and while I’m not sure why it’s important to post it now – it feels like I should. So come with me as I take another trip into my time machine – the one that looks like an old yellow Kodak photo paper box, and learn a lesson or two in a photo I took once, a long time ago.
First the photo:
I was in college, and was trying to photograph one of the parts of the Homecoming celebration for Seattle Pacific University, which included the men’s heavyweight eight man alumni crew racing each other down the Lake Washington Ship Canal right near the campus. I’d developed a friendship with the coach for the crew team, and because of that, I was the only photographer allowed to get on the boat he was coaching from. This gave me the chance to get into a position to get a much better shot than any other photographer out there as they were finishing the race. We talked (well, shouted to each other over the motor on the coach’s boat), and I was able to get him to position his boat to show how close the race was by crossing the finish line at the same time the lead boat was crossing it, the goal being to show the difference between first place, the winner, and second, the, well, the loser. However, it wasn’t the closest race in the world – the other boat is cropped just out of the frame at the bottom right, but something magical happened as I was setting up for that shot, something I wasn’t expecting at all.
As I was looking right to gauge where the second place boat was to try to figure out what to do next, I saw this duck, barreling down the canal as fast as it could. I checked the settings on the the camera – (a Nikon FM2 with a 100 mm Nikkor lens on it that I’d borrowed from a friend) I saw I was on frame 36 (yes, film, and yes, the last frame) that I was shooting at f/8 and 1/250th of a second – the film was Tri-X black and white film, pushed two stops to be shot at ASA 1600 because everything I was shooting that day was going to be either moving fast or in low light, or both. I realized I had precisely one chance to make this right, and focused on the far boat, wanting to get the expressions of the guys in the crew shell in focus more than the duck, I’d just let the depth of field cover that. As I was looking, I realized that with as much planning as had gone into getting the shot I wanted (the two boats finishing the race) – that wasn’t the shot I needed. In fact, the shot I needed was far better than the one I wanted, and I had to make a decision, instantly: Either take the shot of the boats and tell the story of the race, or take the shot of the duck, and tell the story of another race, that no one had planned for, that had been a surprise, a chance that would be there and gone in the blink of an eye. I chose the duck, and decided that as soon as I saw it appear in the right side of the viewfinder, I’d push the button, with the knowledge from experience that it would take about 1/10th of a second for all the mechanical things in the camera to actually do their thing to expose the film. In the meantime, the duck would be moving across the frame at about 30 mph. If I waited until the duck was where I wanted it to be before I took the picture, it would be gone by the time the camera had actually exposed the film, so I had to think on my feet, on a moving boat, and make decisions fast.
All the other sports I’d shot, there would often be a second chance, another basket, another goal, another… whatever.
This time, I had one duck, one boat, one shot.
I’d brought the camera to my eye, focused on the sharp point of the boat, and as I saw the duck enter the frame from the right, hit the shutter release, felt and heard the camera take the shot, then heard the motor drive whine and jam, telling me it was at the end of the roll. I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten the shot or not, but I’d done everything I could to get it. I automatically rewound the film, popping it out and putting it in a separate pocket from all the other exposed film, and loaded another roll, but the duck was gone.
I could hardly wait to get back to the darkroom to see what had happened and sure enough, when I got the film developed, I found the image, and it was indeed, the 36th and last shot of the roll.
And so what’s the big deal about the image?
Well – it’s a duck.
And a boat.
And the guys?
They look like they’re racing the duck which makes it fun, but they’re really looking for the finish line, which painted on both sides of the canal, is just out of the frame on the left on their side, and just to my left behind me.
But I only had the one chance, and I’m glad I took it.
And it got me thinking, this photo, and I learned that as much as we want to believe in second chances, there are times in life where you get one chance to do something, and that’s it. Life will go on, but it will be different, and you will never know “what if” something else had happened.
Think about it: Often, life is a lot like the GPS system you might have in your car or your phone, where if you make a wrong turn, you get this message that says ‘recalculating’ as it tries to get you to go back on course, and because it’s doing that, you’re being given a second chance to do something that somehow you muffed up. The muff up could have been simple human error, it could have been not being prepared for what you were facing, it could have been something completely out of your control, but the fact is, what you planned to happen, didn’t, and now you have to sit there while something literally tries to get you back on the track you’re supposed to be on.
Then there are the other times. Some of you know I spent a number of years as a photojournalist, and saw many, many things through my viewfinder as I was shooting. The thing about shooting with an SLR is that you never actually see the picture you take. You can see what happens immediately before the image, and what happened after, but it’s only your training, your eye, or your instinct that tell you when to take the shot. You have to trust that everything worked in that blink of an eye when everything, the event in front of your camera, the experience behind it, came together.
I kept thinking, and like many of you, found myself wondering what it all means. And I guess it’s this:
There will be times in your life when you have one chance, and one chance only, to make a difference in some way. It may be a life changing experience for you, or for someone else. It may be something that comes completely out of the blue, and goes against everything you ever planned for that moment, but (and I’m speaking to myself just as much as I’m speaking to you) I encourage you to take the chance. It’s possible, just slightly, that something magical will happen. It might be in your job, it might be in your family, it might be taking a chance on repairing a strained relationship, or giving someone a second (or third) chance because you know what it’s like to not have that option. It might be simply holding someone you know at the funeral of someone you barely know. It might be taking a chance at applying for a job you don’t think you’re completely qualified for, but that will fit you like a glove, or that you can grow into. It may be finishing that last, painful cancer treatment that takes so much courage to go to when you know what it will take out of you.
I don’t know. All of the things mentioned above have happened to friends of mine or me in the last few weeks.
Take the chance.
You might make a difference in someone’s life.
And it might be your own.
Or – you might get a cool picture of a duck that reminds you of every one of these things many years later.
So take care out there, folks.
Love each other while you can.
Be prepared for what you can be prepared for – and at the same time, be ready for when plans change, because they can, and will, with barely a moment’s notice.
Oh. One last thing. Here’s the photo I’ve been talking about.