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From My Journal: Trading the Camera for Pen and Notebook

I live in a tropical country – the Philippines – and every year during the last quarter, our 7,100 islands play hosts to thousands of birds migrating from other countries like Japan, Korea and China. The birds begin to arrive in October to escape the cold winter months. Our lakes, rivers, seas and land become temporary haven for these migratory birds.

Many years ago I belonged to a small bird-watching group and we used to travel to the provinces armed with binoculars and field guides to watch the birds. Travels during the last quarter of the year were especially fulfilling because we were able to see some migratory birds as well.

But these days it’s no longer necessary to travel to the provinces to see the migratory birds. They come to the suburbs as well and every October we see a few of them on empty fields or near lagoons. A flock of plumed egrets arrived in a field near our house last October. Just a small flock of about twenty birds, and they were in the field most of the day. It was a delight to see them, their small slender legs traipsing on the grass as they searched for insects. They were in the field for almost a week, and everyday I stopped a while to watch them. They had a funny way of walking slowly, lifting one leg behind as they pecked on insects on the ground, then slowly drawing that leg forward, and leaving the other one behind for a few seconds.

I don’t have any pictures of those egrets that most probably belonged to a bigger flock that flew all the way from Southwest China; just as I don’t have any pictures of many special events in my life. It wouldn’t be so odd if not for the fact that I worked for several years as a photojournalist. Back then, the camera was like an extension of myself and I recorded everything that I possibly could through the lens, not minding the weight of the two SLRs that I constantly carried with me.

I loved being a photojournalist and the camera was my way of recording the fragments of life that I was fortunate enough to be a part of. Those were the days before the digital camera, so I had boxes and boxes of slides, pages and pages of negatives and albums and albums of photos that I had taken. But slowly through the years, during moments when I didn’t have my cameras with me, I realized how much I was missing by using the lens as a way to record the events that passed me by. And then one day, one powerful scene made me give up all together the habit of recording events through the lens.

I remember that scene so vividly. I was in church hearing mass when I saw a young girl running in the front area of the church. I watched her ran all the way to the arms of her dad who was about twenty meters away. There was nothing much to it, but for me it was a joyful moment that I was able to participate in. I saw and felt the joy in the faces of the girl and her father. In the past, I would have regretted not having had a camera to record that scene, but by that time, I had had several experiences of being a participant in similar small “events” and I had grown to like the role better than that of being a recorder of events through the lens. The notebook and pen had become a more frequent (and lighter) companion through which I recorded my experiences.

Notebooks and notebooks and notebooks have replaced the slides, negatives, CDs and albums of photos. And I have no regrets. It’s so much easier to view photos to bring back memories of past events, but I feel that it is so much more powerful to read through snippets of events recorded in paper. Not so much because of the details laid out in words, but because I remember the feelings connected to those events. As a photographer I was running all over the place, trying to get the best shot from the best angle. I had to be an agile climber, a fast runner, quick thinker and keen artist . As a journalist, I have to pay attention to details, watch people’s reactions and gauge their feelings and at the same time watch how I am reacting to the scene, situation or event. My own feelings are recorded by my senses through my senses and in my senses. And therein lies the big difference.

But this is not to say that photography is inferior to writing. It only means that I am now more of a writer than a photographer. Last October, I enjoyed watching the egrets walk as though they were dancing a strange dance. That special feeling of oneness with the birds that I felt as I watched them traipsing on the field comes with the memory of watching them – I feel that joy again each time I recall the scene, each time I re-read the entry in my journal.

Writing from the soul entails watching from the soul, feeling from the soul and living from the soul. It is a knack that all writers can develop through time and patience – and maybe, through photography! I have no doubt that all the years of being a photojournalist prepared me for the great pleasure of being able to write from the soul. Photography is just one way. There are countless ways through which we can train ourselves to observe and live from the soul so that we can write from the soul. Hobbies, crafts, sports – anything and everything that engages our senses can help us develop the facility to feel our feelings, record them in the fabric of our souls and then find the words that will recreate the experience so that we may be able to share them with others.

November 19, 2011


Update: On one October day two years later, I finally decided to take some pictures of the egrets.

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