The Spirituality of Photography by Cami Kasmerchak
by Mark Chmiel
Cami gave me permission to share this essay.
I remember first becoming interested in photography a little over 10 years ago. At first, photography was simply a way to capture moments of family and friends, but over the years it has morphed into much more than that. Photography has changed the way in which I engage with the world. It has forced me to wrestle with ethical questions. It has propelled me to pursue adventure and experience. I now understand photography as a form of creative expression, a catalyst for social change, and a deeply spiritual practice. Through photography, I can be connected to the past, grounded in the present moment, and aware of the future all at the same time.
My Grandpa Harry gave me my first digital camera back before smart phones and selfies. I never saw him that often growing up, maybe a handful of times throughout a year. He lived alone with his dog Co-Co three hours away in northern Wisconsin and was generally a closed-off person (read: alcoholic with PTSD). On holidays and my birthday he would send me a card with Kodak prints of Co-Co out swimming in the river and a black sharpie arrow pointing to where her dot of a head was bobbing above the water. “Co-Co,” he would write, making sure I didn’t mistake her for a log. Sometimes he would send pictures of roadkill he found on the back country roads of Wausau while roaming around on his scooter. He hardly ever responded to letters I would write or expanded on more than the seasonal sentiment in cards, but he always included pictures. It didn’t matter that these pictures were kind of weird and sometimes gross. He captured what he found interesting and meaningful, and that’s all that really mattered. My freshman year of college, my Grandpa Harry died from lung cancer and even though he had been living much closer for about two years prior to his death, I still didn’t feel like I really knew him. Photography has been the way I continue to reflect on him and our relationship even after all these years. Whenever I talk about photography, I have to talk about Grandpa Harry because he was intertwined in the beginnings of my passion for it. He gifted me both with my first equipment and an example of the freedom to notice what you notice without judgement.
I am fundamentally a spiritual person. However, currently I am not a religious one (much to the dismay of my now very religious family). Those two sentences could be a whole other series of blogs in and of themselves, but that is for another time. One of the ways I practice my spirituality is by cultivating an awareness of the sacredness in everyday life. Many argue phones, cameras, and social media distract from the present moment and distort because of selectivity, but I have found that those results have more to do with the person using any of those things than the instruments themselves. For me, photography can be a meditative experience of slowing down, really seeing what is around me, and focusing my attention on whatever I find interesting/beautiful/disappointing/ surprising/ curious/difficult/fascinating in the moment. Photography has helped me process big life changes like ending JVC or moving across the country as well as more ordinary occurrences like walking through Forest Park and enjoying a hike in the mountains. I would argue photography is one of the most democratic and accessible mediums these days, especially with the integration of cameras into smart phones. So try out this version of stopping to smell the roses: look at the places and people you pass each day and see what you have been missing. Notice what you notice. Snap a picture. Ask yourself, “why this?” and if the answer is “because it’s beautiful,” how wonderful that you’ve found a tiny beautiful thing in this rushing world we inhabit. Let it be your anchor.
In the fall of 2014 I took my one and only art class at Saint Louis University. It was a film photography class and is still by far one of my favorite college experiences. That semester I spent more time in the dark room of Xavier Hall than in the library, which is saying a lot for me. It was during this class I learned about the Suns From Sunsets From Flikr Project. The project started in 2006 with an artist’s interest in finding the most photographed subject. She searched Flikr, a widely used photo management and sharing site, and found that people really really love photographing sunsets. Overwhelmingly so. As in millions of pictures worth of sunsets. She has printed many 4×6 copies of these sunsets and then combined them into large installations. Viewing the project (even if it is just on the internet) and contemplating its implications has been a challenge for me. Over time I have considered both the weight of meaninglessness in these pictures that are all practically the same and awe over the fascination of whatever drives us to keep taking them. Because we all do. I have my fair share of sunset snaps and I can’t say I won’t do it again. But the question is why? Some might say it is because we are socially programmed to do it at this point, something automatic because we think we should. I have come to think it’s because we cannot help but be compelled by beauty. We cannot help wanting to hold onto this experience that happens each and every day but one we don’t always notice and don’t fully understand. We cannot help participating in appreciating the sacredness of the everyday. The questions this project invites are just one example of the multitude I have encountered through photography. These questions and photography’s ability to raise them are what keeps me engaged in photography beyond utilizing it simply as a hobby.
Ethical considerations have influenced my relationship with photography in many ways. I still wrestle with whether I should or should not pull out my camera at times. Am I exploiting? Am I interrupting? Am I hurting or traumatizing? Because even if I want my photography to be empowering and uplifting, good intentions do not excuse harmful consequences. Anytime I meet another photographer I ask how they navigate this tricky business of ethics. Their unsatisfactory answers have motivated me to continue exploring the question for myself. Throughout my young adulthood, my life has become intertwined with many people who are suffering, oppressed, and unjustly disadvantaged. And they are all so much more than those few words. My contemplation and meditation throughout this time has been how to use photography as a tool for advocacy. My desire is to use photography as a way to bring attention to the realities all of us with privilege have the option to ignore. This tension between exploitation and empowerment is one I do not take lightly, but also one I commit to continue to grapple with.
At the beginning of the year I decided to dub 2019 as The Year of the Photograph. It has been a way to integrate photography more seriously into my life and a simple motivation to pursue projects I had been putting off. This has taken different forms, such as photographing portraits of friends and searching for photo galleries in my new city, and I am sure it will continue to evolve over the rest of the year. The Year of the Photographbegan as a naming of my passion and has evolved into an exploration of the spirituality of photography. Join me on this journey by following me on Instagram (new photography account to come later this week). I will post the link on the blog.