Get Out of Hell Free by Spencer Lum
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The day starts well enough. You’re energized. You’re ready. You get up. You go. You make your way to the hotel, where even outside the room, you hear the hustle and bustle that is the bridal preparation. You take a breath, you knock on the door, and there it is. The darkest, most cluttered room history ever knew. You force a smile. You give the bride a hug. And you assess. The windows are small, the lights are a bizarre, exceedingly warm variety beamed directly down from sunken holes overhead, and every wall is busy in the most distracting and unfortunate way possible.

The penetrating darkness leaves you with little more than the rhythmic zhshh-zhshhh-zshhhhhh of your lens hunting for focus. Pretty soon, you’re chimping after each shot. Everything is off by a fraction of a second. You’re not getting what you need, and insecurity lords over your every move, as your burrow into that special place that is the shot list inside your head. You know the one. A place deep and instinctual. A playbook created over the years designed for self-preservation in circumstances just like this. But things are moving too fast this day. Nothing materializes as you expect, and the missed moments keep mounting.

The harder your push, the more your vision narrows. You’re missing things you’d normally see. You’re playing it tight when you should be getting loose. Little things throw you. And it is a day of little things. Like Aunt Patty stepping in front of you during the processional with her iPhone or the first kiss coming out of nowhere. Even the first dance is a fast number full of twirls that only lasts 15 seconds before everyone else joins in. By the end of the day, you’re just happy to go home knowing that you fulfilled your obligation by the letter of the law, if not the spirit of your service. What happened?

Here’s a little secret: Everything you missed didn’t matter. If you have the chops to have a solid go-to game when everything is falling apart, odds are you got what you needed. The real problem wasn’t that you were missing too much. It was that you let it distract you from getting more.

Most people tend to think of hell in scale. A place of enormous, towering misery beyond imagination. Not me. I see it in miniature. Little things. Like having telemarketers call 10 times a day, while you’re waiting for an important call. Like having a pebble in your shoe while you run a marathon. Or having a kernel of popcorn stuck in your teeth for all eternity.

My personal favorite? Traveling behind someone driving one mile per hour too slowly. At first, it doesn’t seem that bad. But in no time, you’re fidgety. You keep cocking your head to peer around the bend, as your car sways in and out of the neighboring lane. You can’t stop glancing at the speedometer. In these moments, everything dissolves. There is no world. There is no wind. There are no trees. There is no sun. All that exists is this one, single, impediment between you and the freedom of the open road. The totality of existence can be defined as nothing more than a single car sitting right in front of you. That’s a pretty bad case of tunnel vision.

More than anything, I see hell as being stuck in my own head. It is the differential between what’s going on inside of me and what’s actually happening in the universe. The more I’m in my head and the less I’m in the here and now, the more myopic I become, as I sink into my own well of frustration and insecurity.

When we see – really see – we are so intimately connected with our subject, we bend space and time. Everything slows down. We miss nothing. Our bodies move before we tell it to, acting on cues we’re not even consciously aware of. We don’t even have to look at the shots on the little LCD screens. We just know we nailed it. It is as if we connect so fully with the moment, we can project our very selves out of our bodies and hardwire them into the universe.

When we create images at these times, though they may draw from our past, they live in the present. They are nuanced and subtle. Unique, because we allowed ourselves not just to see, but to react freely to circumstance, to be vulnerable, and to say it’s not about completing an imaginary shot list, satisfying a client, or preserving our ego. It’s about accepting that the best way to accomplish these things is to let go of them. These are the pictures that are worth a thousand words. Or, perhaps in this culture, where images have nearly replaced words, they are the images that are worth a thousand images.

There are 28,800 seconds in an 8-hour day. Most of the opportunities in these moments will not avail themselves to you. But if you return 50 fantastic pictures over this period, that’s pretty good. 50 out of tens of thousands of chances. That’s all you need. The rest need to be solid. But the pictures that are magic – that suck people in and never let go – that’s what you want. These are the images in which you leave your heart and soul on the table. Never let go of them for baked in sure-things that you think you have to get.

How many photographers does it take to screw in a light bulb? 1,000. 1 to do it. 999 to say they could have done the same. In this age of instant sharing, make that 10,000. 1 to do it. 9,999 to replicate it. But for every image I see that amazes me because of the skill, craft, and technique, there are at least as many that confound me and blow me away for the simple fact that someone thought to take them. That someone could see something in a situation that seemed lifeless and, sometimes, even downright pointless. That’s what living in the present does for you. It lets you scoop up all those lost opportunities that everyone else left on the floor.

In the end, it’s never about a shot list. It’s about what happens between those shots. This isn’t the Olympics, and there are no compulsories. There is no Eastern European judge looking over your shoulder to see if you nailed it with the first kiss, the processional, or any one thing.

What really happened was your instincts lead you astray. Everything you knew told you to play it safe, so you could recover and get back on track. More often than not, it works. After all, it’s those instincts that keep you in business. But when you’re in a tailspin, and you’re not recovering, you need to let go. Cut through the noise by letting yourself breathe. Trust your ability. Get out of your head. Give yourself the freedom to miss things, so you can find more. Find the essential. The opportunity to delight and amaze is present in every second we live.

You create your value. It is all about what catches your fancy. Not as a hired gun who snaps this and that. But as a person, who can react to this and that. That is your true secret weapon. Your ability to feel and observe. Look beyond the obstacles, forget about the car in front of you. When you’re stuck, and you’re not going where you want to go, the world is really offering you a choice. You can crawl deeper into your own head, or you can free yourself to embrace what’s there. You can feel the wind. See the trees. Enjoy the sun. You can be part of it all.

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