My first ever serious, adult, big boy camera arrived in the mail last week. I have a very hard time convincing myself that spending money on a personal present every now and again is ok, not just a decadent, depraved act of materialist greed and consumption-crazed false consciousness. The volunteer stipend definitely helps this circular bit of internal angst: no $$$ = no materialist greed/false consciousness, etc. And though the high cost of living makes Alaska very expensive, consumerism doesn’t have a strong foothold here. At least not in Nome. There aren’t, for example, many shopping malls or opportunities for the casual flaneur to drift among the glittering arcades.
I’m afraid of spending money to begin with, but being as out of practice with it as I am ~6 months into my rural residency made it even worse. I’d thought about buying a camera before leaving for Alaska. Then, once here, I’d thought about it more, started asking questions. And then, once I’d learned how off-track my questions were I did some listening. By then, though, I was exhausted and took a break from it all. It’s a process, ya know?
But the camera concerns were rekindled and concluded in the span of about a weekend. And then another week of waiting and eagerly bounding down to the post office every day. Tara’s recent blogpost on Alaska being a photographer’s dream was a big factor. I liked how Tara’s picture montage basically created a photo-essay in a space we usually reserved for text (the blog). It struck me as a remarkable post because it undid my expectations about the expressive possibilities of the stuff we put up here. It helped that the pictures were stunning—technically adept and focused on grandiose natural subjects. “I didn’t know you could do that!!!” was my reaction—both to the images Tara snagged, as well as how she nudged her bi-monthly blogpost obligation into new terrain.
Another nudge came from getting to drive a dog-sled. I’d gone out pulled by a four-wheeler, but compared to a sled on snow, it felt like the difference between a hard-boiled egg and the whole roasted hen. I went with a musher, Tom, who had me break a trail on a snowmachine for the dogs to follow. Then, he let me drive for a bit, which involved a lot of yelling, a quick fall, and a lot of deep spiritual ruminations on the place of man in the natural world. All in all it lasted maybe 12 minutes. But Tom is a camera nerd who’d offered me sage counsel on which lenses and models to look into, and demystified advanced technical jargon like the definitions of “aperture,” “shutter speed,” and “flash.” He snapped a picture of me driving his team (I do not know how), and I was thrilled to have it.
Now, the question of whether that thrill is normal, or a historically constituted byproduct of a technology-driven cult of narcissism (via selfies, constant social media postings, etc.) continues to vex me. But vexed or not, the feeling was dug in like a splinter, and the return of the camera question buzzed back in one of the reptilian deep-lobes of my brain.
The last important event-based factor was a photo shoot Tara and I went on. We’d mused about taking a series of pictures reminiscent of sultry pin-up girl poses. But we’d be the subjects. And we’d be in Bush Alaska, bundled up. To test out whether this would be fun/funny/inspiring/terrible we drove out to an abandoned plane, a warren of corroded metal barrels, and a gravel pit to goof off with Tara’s Canon Rebel. And it was great. A fun experience with about 3 useable photos out of the ~170 we probably took.
The non-event-based deciding factor was asking a trusted relative whether dropping a little bit of $$$ on a camera was justifiable, and him saying, “Yes, I think it is. You are allowed one gift to yourself a year.” Checking the record books I saw that I’d already bought myself a blue silk-knit tie at the beginning of the summer. But since that was for a friend’s wedding I decided it didn’t count, and made a note to file it as a business expense on my returns.
My camera came Friday. On Saturday Tara and I drove down the road to take alluring—but well-bundled—photos of each other splayed out on chunks of sea ice. Once again, it was a fantastic experience that happened to yield a few usable photos from the whole excursion. We climbed over icebergs, treaded with trepidation onto the sea ice (not very far), and kicked up into yogic headstands in the snow. Because how many times do you get to do headstands in bunny boots on sea ice? And wouldn’t it be great to have a memento to augment the memory?