definition: An attempt to achieve or acquire something especially artfully; reaching after
by Essdras M Suarez, Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographer
On the wisdom of experience and the wisdom of teachers
October 1, 2017
Many years ago while in my late twenties, I took the first of several pilgrimages to what a lot of us photographers consider to be hallowed ground, the National Geographic headquarters in DC.
I remember arriving at the NG headquarters and being in awe of the iconic 17th & M DC address. As I looked through the window of my cab, I remember being filled with excitement, hesitation and trepidation. I was scared but oh, so alive!
I had gone there to meet with famed National Geographic photo director Kent Kobersteen, whom in my mind and that of countless others, was considered to be the St. Peter of Photography Heaven. The gatekeeper. The one who decided who was in and who was out and whether you had what it took to see your images framed by the yellow border. The one who gave you a shot or sent you on your way.
Up until that day and up to the moment when I met him in person, I had considered myself blessed with the gift of gab. However, when I finally stood in front of him. I remember being barely able to croak a simple “hello.”
He must have realized how nervous I was because he graciously came out from behind his desk, shook my hand, put his other hand on my shoulder and guided to me sit down. He was probably thinking, “This kid is about to pass out.”
After I calmed down a bit and after few polite exchanges, we got down to the meat and potatoes of the meeting, and he asked for my portfolio.
The Teacher Reviews the Work of the Student
As he looked through my images, he remained mostly quiet. Every once in awhile he would nod at this or that image. But silence was the pervasive quality of the meeting. However, I do remember him becoming animated over this one image of commuters in a train carrying flowers.
He stopped on this image and said to me something along the lines of: “Now this is more like it. This image is sophisticated, it has layering, it has a tridimensional quality and it’s a good attempt of capturing the normalcy of daily life with the use of an interesting visual perspective.”
To me these words sounded like a barely cohesive sequence of nouns and adjectives strung together. In other words their meaning went right over my head.
And in the classic hubris displayed by twenty- something-year olds, I bypassed the part of his statement where he said “good attempt,” and I instead focused on the part where he’d said, “Now this is more like it.”
I remember thinking at that: “YES!! I’m in!”
After he finished perusing through my images and handed my portfolio back and said to me, “You are not ready yet, but stay in touch.” I thanked him and as I turned around to leave while feeling crestfallen befuddled and perplexed, he called me back and said, “Think about this, the average National Geographic shooter is in their mid-40s.”
At my young age this sounded downright blasphemous! And it was something I simply could not comprehend… The teacher had spoken and the student completely missed the point.
It would be many years before I’d realized he’d taught me a great lesson that day. He’d afforded me respect by looking at my photos, encouragement by commenting on this one image, and hope by telling me to stay in touch.
However, it is now when I have the luxury of looking back through the prism of experience that I finally get it.
What he meant was that it takes that long to acquire the kind of quiet professional wisdom and mastery of your craft, which can only be learned through first-person experiences; the type of wisdom that seeps through your consciousness, methodically, unannounced and without boastful expressions of its importance. The type that grants you the confidence and authority only possessed by those who know their craft and have had a lifetime to learn it.
And, if you are among the lucky ones like me, this knowledge is accompanied by the clarity of sense and of purpose. Mine is that of continue photographing daily life- albeit in a more sophisticated manner- and passing on a bit of my knowledge, some of my hard- earned wisdom and perhaps a glimmer of hope unto others just like Kobersteen once did for me.
And remember… KEEP SHOOTING, KEEP MOVING, KEEP ADJUSTING!
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