A trick of the light

I was six years old when I took this picture. I remember the satisfying crackle as the film advance lever wound TMax film onto the spool, the weight of the metal-bodied Nikormat FT2, and the concentration it took to align the split focus in the viewfinder.

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In the frame, my father sits on a bleacher outside a brick-and-tile primary school I never attended. His legs are crossed, hands posed on his knee for the portrait. My life-jacket lies at his feet. (We had been practising capsizing small Optimist-class centreboard yachts in the school swimming pool as an easy introduction to the potentially terrifying hazard of sailing.)

Technically, it’s possibly the worst frame I’ve ever taken. It’s soft, the light is hard, it’s poorly composed, and the motion blur and crooked horizon are ample evidence that the camera is a significant fraction of the photog­rapher’s body weight.

But whatever practical shortcomings the image might have, it has recorded Dad’s expression in perfect vérité. The grin I read as the joy of a great day out with his son, and not a little bit of humour at the portrait sitting. The way his eyebrows are gently pursed is perhaps a reaction to the brilliant midday sun, but it might also indicate a degree of empathy, reflecting my own unease with the camera.

A photograph is a record of the world as it was for 1/125th of a second. But it can also be both a window and a mirror. When I look at this image, I see my father looking out and my younger self looking in. But, strangely now that I have children of my own, I also feel myself in his position—the lightness of being that comes with seeing the world through a child’s eyes, and the happy burden of parenthood with all the concern and empathy that entails.

In this way, a camera is a dreamcatcher, a device that can record a payload of emotion and meaning far beyond the simple play of light on surfaces. And despite a couple of decades as a professional photographer, the image that means the most to me was my first.

This month, we open the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year competition once again, a celebration of this magical art of photography. It’s open to professionals and five-year-olds struggling to focus, because no one has exclusive access to meaning. It’s the opportunity to photo­graph with intent, to turn your lens upon your environment, your life, to document and to celebrate the society, culture, wildlife, landscape and stories that make us unique. Entering is easy, just go to www.nzgeographic. co.nz/photocomp and follow the instructions to upload your cargo of glittering pixels. If you need an incentive, there’s $7000 in prize-money on offer. See page 15 for more details.

Also, for the first time this year, the annual competition will be accompanied by a large exhibition at Auckland Museum—opening June 22—featuring the best photographs entered over the past four years. Then on August 25, all the finalists of the 2012 competition will go on display in the Special Exhibition gallery. Fame, if not fortune, could be yours with the clack of a shutter, and the click of a mouse.

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