Get Closer…

Yesterday was a tough day for Luka, our dog. He’s had a two small growths on his legs for a few weeks that we’ve been watching closely. Our vet, Dr. McComb, had examined the growths when we first noticed them and decided it would be best to monitor closely and take action only if necessary.

Yesterday morning Luka was to limping slightly and we decided enough was enough. We took him to the vet right away. Dr. McComb decided that we needed to be a bit more aggressive and so Luka was sedated and the growths removed.

Luka getting a shot.jpg
Dr. McComb working on Luka.

Dr. McComb invited us to come back to see Luka after he had removed the growths. Luka was still sedated and Dr. McComb walked us through what he had done and what we should expect.

Luka at Vet.jpg
Dr. McComb and assistant Lisa treating Luka.

Seeing Luka passed out on the table was a frightening sight, and yet, I found myself with my camera in hand taking pictures. I explained this to Dr. McComb and team by simply saying, “I’m a photographer”.

Later I began to reflect on experience of seeing my pet, who I love, in such a frightening situation. My reaction was to take out my camera and start taking photos. Why?

I’m not sure there is a simple answer to that question, but I believe it’s because photography is an extension of who I am. Photography is a way for me to document, remember, share, and quantify my experiences. It’s the way I tell my version of the story.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” – Robert Capa

Robert Capa’s famous quote is usually interpreted as the distance from camera to subject. I also think you can interpret his statement as emotional distance. I believe in putting myself close to my subject physically, and in some instances emotionally as well.

Beggar Girl.jpg

I love to travel and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to India on a couple of occasions, both times for extended periods. India is not a place that is easy to understand. It’s so rich with tradition, beauty, wealth – and poverty. How do you capture such a place in still images?

I found that I could only begin to understand India by physically walking the streets of the towns and cities, and talking to as many people as I could. I also discovered that my photos were much richer when taken after I’d spent time getting to know my subject, even if for a few moments.

The photo of the girl above was taken after I’d had a conversation with her for a few minutes. Her face tells so many stories; the contrast between her decaying teeth (poverty) and her purple scarf (the color of royalty), the contrast of her youth and her tired eyes and skin. She’s begging and yet she has a smile behind her eyes – all things that would have been missed at a distance.

Man in India.jpg

I met this man in Bangalore, India. I was walking the streets and saw the lines in his face and thought, “I have to photograph this man.” I introduced myself and we began to talk. After a few minutes I asked him if I could take a few pictures. He gladly posed as I took several photos. Could I have captured his eyes looking straight into the lens if I’d simply shot from a distance with a long lens? I doubt it. I think the interaction paid off.

Later in the trip I asked a friend of mine to come with me as I walked through some of the impoverished areas of town. At first he balked because he thought it would be too dangerous. I told him I’d spotted a large group of kids from my hotel window, 6 stories up, and I wanted to meet them. He decided to come along.

I’ll admit I was nervous as well, but I wanted to push myself and get out of my “comfort zone”. I needed to explore this new world and to do that I’d need to push myself to do things outside of my normal routine.

kids from distance.jpg
The kids coming out to greet us.

Crazy India Kids.jpg
The greeting.

We spent a few hours with these kids. It is one of my best memories of India. Although these families were living in shacks with dirt floors they had dignity and joy that I rarely see in the kids in my upper middle class neighborhood here in the US. I wanted to capture that on film and so I laughed, talked, and took pictures – all at very close range.

boys will be boys.jpg

Later we walked through some of the other streets and found other equally amazing people.

Happy Kids.jpg

India Lady.jpg

It was a little intimidating to walk through some of these areas. But I think you have to put yourself out there and take some risks to grow as an artist. Putting myself physically close to my subjects and becoming involved with them through conversation resulted in some great results.

Beggar in India.jpg

Begging Lady.jpg


These images and hundreds of others like them have helped me share the experiences I’ve had while traveling. It’s not something I do only while traveling, I try to practice this at home as well, and that brings me back to Luka and our other dog, Sammy.

We adopted Sammy about a month before Luka. Sammy came from a very abusive background and gaining her trust was not something that was easy to come by. I made a decision I’d document our journey with Sammy and Luka in order to share it with others.

I specifically wanted to document our story with Sammy and Luka to share with the workers at Arizona Rescue who had saved Sammy from certain death and honor their gift. I would document Sam’s life with us.

I documented Sam’s life from the first day we took her home, through all of the amazing breakthroughs, and I was finally faced with a difficult decision.

Sammy Sick.jpg

In 2006 Sammy suddenly became very ill. It was a very difficult time and I had to ask myself, would I continue to tell our story through photography? I decided I would, I wanted to document her life – even to the end.

And so through Sammy’s days fighting cancer I continued to shoot. It was something that allowed me to preserve precious moments and it was cathartic. I was able to share with friends and family, who also cared about Sammy, what we were experiencing.

My little girl.jpg

This is the last photo I took of Sammy, about an hour before her death.

In all of these photos I had an intent; to tell a story. Sammy’s story is of a little dog who overcame her hardships to show a grown man a few things about living. It’s a rich story and one day I’ll be happy to share it with you through my library of photos.

Take some time to forget about aperture values, shutter speeds, lens specifications, and techno babble. Your equipment is simply a tool that will allow you to capture something. The subject is what matters, not the tool you use.

What stories are you telling with your photos? How are you approaching your story? Are you challenging yourself to try new things? Are you close enough?

Sadly in August of 2009 Luka became very ill with cancer and passed away. We miss him every day. We are glad to have many photos and videos to remind us of what a wonderful companion he was. It’s a reminder to cherish every moment with loved ones and the real value of getting closer.

  • Brandon Bohling

    Excellent post; love your personal reflection. Certainly pushing one's comfort level has to be one of the most challenging task for many people…including myself.

  • Katina

    Oh…I hope he is doing better and makes a FULL recovery! He is an AWESOME dog, and I too understand the amount of unconditionally love that one has for our pets! Please keep us posted!

  • Tanya Plonka

    This was a really moving post :)

    Sometimes I find photography does the opposite of what you described here… you can use the camera as a buffer between you and reality, to make it seem like you are watching a show or looking at someone else's photos rather than experiencing the moment firsthand. I think it's possible to switch between each of these, though… our minds know when to be there and when not to be.

    I commend you for documenting your dogs' lives… the regret of not having enough photos of a deceased loved one is always too much.

    Anyhow, I hope Luka is still doing great now!

  • Bill

    You really need to learn how to express yourself Walrus. Nice post!

  • davidmartinez

    Just brilliant dude. I lost my “Sammy” last new years day. He was a great friend, and he too taught quite a few things about life and enjoying yourself. He was an amazing golden retriever.

    With my new son (16 months), and my 3 year old dog Sugar (a street rescue) – it's easy to appreciate the newness of life, but we also have a rescued JRT Sassy who seems to be in her twilight years. I spend more and more time with Sassy now, because I want her to know she passes that was truly loved.

    Thanks for the great post Mark

  • Joël Cox

    Wow Mark, very touching. I think this posts puts us all down to earth again, back to the essence of photography really is.

  • rrickoll

    This is a really great reminder of why photography is apart of our lives. I think deep down we start by knowing we can't live without it, but bringing the reason to the surface is very fulfilling. I think I use it as an outlet…a form of therapy to go through all the emotions in life…good and bad.

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  • Ana C. K. M.

    Mark, thank you so much – by reading your post in 5 minutes I've learnt more than 2 years of photography classes at the arts university. I went to another side of art – I'm a cellist – but what i've just read will definitely help on music as well. While I'm slowly trying to get back to photography as a hobby, seeing your beautiful pictures, watching your educational videos and reading your blog has been of great help to me. Thank you, really! Greets from Brasil – Ana.

  • Ana C. K. M.

    Mark, thank you so much – by reading your post in 5 minutes I've learnt more than 2 years of photography classes at the arts university. I went to another side of art – I'm a cellist – but what i've just read will definitely help on music as well. While I'm slowly trying to get back to photography as a hobby, seeing your beautiful pictures, watching your educational videos and reading your blog has been of great help to me. Thank you, really! Greets from Brasil – Ana.

  • Julian Hulio Novoa

    Amazing Post!!!!!!! Thank you. 
    You really hit a nerve as to why i want to take photos and why i take my camera with me everywhere i go. In this one post you have made me realise so much about photography and even a little about myself. 
    Thank you once again. 

    P.S I Have posted this on my facebook. 😀