Olli Thomson

One in a Million

Our concierge suggested leaving at 4.45 in the morning. When we appeared in the lobby at the recommended time our driver was waiting. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Angkor Wat and made our way to the reflecting pool to watch the sunrise.

There was already a line of people along the edge and a second line nearing completion so we found one of the last gaps and squeezed ourselves in. Then we waited for the sun. As the sky took on the first hints of light I, and nearly everyone else there, started taking pictures. Over the course of nearly an hour I took at least one hundred, of which I eventually kept forty five.

At one point I glanced behind me and was astonished to see that our two rows of people had grown to a crowd eight, nine, ten people deep the length of the pool. I’ve no idea how many hundreds of people were there that morning, even less idea how many pictures those hundreds of people took between them. The day before, hundreds of other people had taken countless images, and the day before that. The day after more people would be there taking more pictures. I began to think that any picture of mine would very quickly become no more than one in a million.

So why did I stand there for an hour taking the same pictures that everyone else was taking? Everything about the situation was unfavourable for good photography. The place was too crowded for me to change position. I couldn’t change my angle of view since there were people directly in front and all around me. Often, between elbows, hats, mobile phones and seflie-sticks I had no clear shot.

It would have been so much easier to buy a picture taken by a professional photographer under perfect circumstances — no crowds, better camera, ideal time of year, no renovation work on the temple. So why did I not do that? Why did I take just another card full of shots of Angkor Wat at sunrise?

The professional image, bought from a shop or stall, is a mediator. It stands between me and the experience of being there. It is complete in itself, self-contained. My image may be less than perfect but it is more than an image. It does not mediate, but it bears witness, reminds me — and others — that, at that time, I stood in that place and witnessed that sunrise. The image is complete in itself — with all the limitations that implies — for other viewers, but for me it is only a part of the experience. It both prompts and complements my memories of that time and place, memories that are more than just visual. The professionally produced image could never do this, even had I bought one on in that moment. In that case the memory prompted would have been the memory of buying the photograph, not the memory of the sun rising over Angkor Wat when I took my own photographs.

As I thought about this it reminded me of a conversation I had some years ago about electronic viewfinders. This was at a time when these were a lot less common than now. At the time I argued that the problem with EVFs was not so much their poor performance — something that over time has been addressed — but the way in which they break the direct connection between the observer and the scene observed. Through an optical viewfinder, while there may be glass and mirrors between my eye and the scene, I still see the scene directly. With an EVF, I don’t. Instead, I see a representation, a reproduction of the scene. An EVF, then, is also a mediator, standing between me and the scene I am observing no matter how well it represents that scene.

Over time, I have come to appreciate the benefits of EVFs, perhaps because they have now reached the point where it is possible in some circumstances to forget that it is an EVF. Yet, one of the many reasons I have grown to appreciate the rangefinder style of camera is that the offset viewfinder allows me to see the scene mediated through the EVF, but also to see the wider scene at any point by simply opening my left eye to observe the full unmediated picture. Which is how I shot all of my pictures at Angkor Wat. (If you haven’t already seen enough pictures of Angkor you can see some of mine on my website.)

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