The Bible tells of three trees in the garden of Eden. The first was the tree of the food that was good to eat. The second, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the third, the tree of immortal life.
I name my cameras after trees, and there is some thought behind it. Trees play a significant role in many myths, legends, and tales from cultures across the world. They have been a source of sublime intrigue for generations, and this evening I look out of my window and see late evening light fall across the leaves high above my garden. Trees appear from acorns and seeds, and give us oxygen for our lungs. Although at first they may not seem to hold much in common with cameras, for me the parallels are undeniable.
Ancient myths describe trees as ladders between worlds. They are living links, vital in the structure of the universe. While their roots reach underground and into Hades’ domain, their branches touch the clouds which are home to the gods. Their fruit provides mortal creatures with sustenance, their wood provides heat, light, and shelter. While my cameras can give me nothing so practical, they too are ladders between “worlds”; between what we see and what is really there. Émile Zola once claimed, “you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it” and, in a similar vein, Susan Sontag asserted that ‘[photography] shows us reality as we had not seen it before’. In her essay Photographic Evangels, Sontag explains, ‘reality is hidden. And, being hidden, is something to be unveiled. […] Photographs depict realities that already exist, though only the camera can disclose them.’ Here then, like trees, the camera acts as the link between realities. And just as trees play an important role in the structure of the universe, their lenses help me construct my world.
Acer: Minolta x-300
Trees are symbols of undying life: renewal, rebirth, and immortality. Mythology from many cultures describes trees as embodying souls of spirits or humans, or speak of the dead being reborn as trees. We give life to lost loved ones when we revisit the photographs we have taken of them, and so in this way it is possible to imagine that the camera, like the mythical tree, reincarnates those who are gone. I believe, too, that my “soul” embodies my cameras. Through them I am able to realise my inner visions and, in special photographs, access parts of me which are otherwise unreachable. My cameras hum with my voice; their reflex mirrors reflect a world which is mine alone. I am nestled inside them, in the same way that my “soul” is nestled inside me.
In folklore forests are often places where heroes may lose their way, face challenges, and happen upon hidden secrets. Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel all meet their fates in forests. But rather than relying on fate, I use my camera to actively lose myself in “forests”. In entering the unknown I hope to find my own hidden secrets – not dwarves, witches, or wolves, but places and experiences which I would not have found without exploring, and which I would not have explored without my camera.
Maple: Fujifilm Instax 210
It was out of these ideas that I named my first camera Aspen. Known as the tree of heroes, aspen leaves were woven by Native Americans into crowns. They believed that the leaves possessed the power to transport them back and forth between this life and the divine world, and which would protect them from what they found there. There are tiny droplets of Native American blood in me, from far back in my heritage. I like the idea that my camera may help to transport me between worlds, and that I may always return safely if protected by its lens.
Legend also tells of people disappearing from under aspen trees after meditating there, and being taken into fairy-worlds. Aspen saw me through the start of my photographic journey, and my entire Fifty-Two Week Project. I would meditate in front of her, musing week by week on the transitions taking place in my life, and she would capture these meditations in light and electronic signals. Sometimes I too would disappear into fairy-worlds for a little while, returning at some point during my walk home across the fields.
This escape was more than a pastime for me during that year, though. Aspis, the aspen’s Greek name, means shield, and my camera carved out for me a world in which I could protect myself from the trauma, stress, and disappointment of my real life. (And here’s a nice aside which I discovered months later: the Bach Flower Remedies recommended extracts of aspen to treat fears and apprehensions. I had more than enough of those during my Fifty-Two Weeks, and my “extract of aspen” helped treat them immensely.)
In Scottish myth it is said that an aspen tree placed under the tongue would make the bearer more eloquent. My camera helped me to voice my experiences during my year in front of her lens, and continues to aid my “tongue”. While the power of words is inestimable, the power of the image can be more immediate, more visceral, and – at least perceived to be – more truthful. If I want to tell the stories of others whose voices have yet to be heard, I must be as eloquent as possible; to be any kind of photojournalist, I must create a union between words and images.
Aspen: Nikon D40
So this is where Linden enters. Linden is my shiny second-hand Nikon D700, and I want to say thanks to everyone who messaged, commented, and flickrmailed me with ideas for her name. It took a week or two, but in the end I chose Linden for a couple of reasons.
This camera is going to be with me for a while. For a long time, probably. At the moment I have my ideas, my dreams, and my aspirations for life after university and the kind of career I’d like to have. It involves cameras and travel and finding stories and shouting about them. I don’t know if it’ll turn out that way. But if it is going to be this camera which I use to start my journey down that path, I want to be carrying a reminder of my philosophy, in its purest sense.
The linden tree is symbolic of peace, truth, and justice. According to German folklore, it is impossible to lie while standing under a linden tree, and therefore people met under the tree both to celebrate and to hold judicial proceedings. I want to use my camera to celebrate my life and this world, but also to scrutinise both my actions and the society in which we live. As in the tale of the Garden of Eden, the fruit borne by trees is associated with wisdom, knowledge, and hidden secrets. Using my camera I hope to unearth those secrets which need to be told, to bring knowledge to others which will lead to action for those in need.
Today I read in the newspaper that children have been used as human shields in Syria. The country has banned foreign journalists so details are sketchy; the picture is unclear. From any moral standpoint, the conflict has to end, yet sanctions have been blocked by politicians from Russia and China. There are many lies being told to protect many interests, but none protecting Syrian civilians. As under the linden tree, I’d like to think that it is impossible to lie while standing in front of my camera’s lens, and that the photographs which she produces will hold some kind of truth or justice for those who need it most. If shocking human rights violations were visually documented in Syria, would it force global superpowers to take a harder line on its government? Would it help when accusations of war crimes came to trial? Of course.
The Bible tells of three trees in the garden of Eden. My camera produces photographs which, firstly, feed our memories, our experiences, and our aspirations. It produces photographs which, secondly, remind us of good and evil. And it produces photographs which, finally, give immortal life to those it has captured. My camera bag is an arboretum, and from its seeds I will plant my aspirations for a better world.
Linden: Nikon D700