24 January

How Photography Brought Me To Light. Suddenly, My Eyes Were Open. Faith, Joy, Love And Happiness

by Jon Katz

I don’t recall ever having a camera when I was young; there are no photos of images I took anywhere. I have no memory of having a camera.

When I got my first camera, that wasn’t an Iphone; it was a Canon 5D. I was 61 years old.

I was living on my first farm – the first farm I ever set foot on – and I suddenly saw many beautiful things.

I wanted to capture them myself and put them into my first blog, my new writing base; I was weary of hiring people to take photos of my farm and me that I didn’t really like, that never captured the emotion that I felt.

My animals have always understood that; they always helped me take my photos.

At the time, I was also in the middle of a mushrooming breakdown and mostly took pictures of dying leaves for months. That was what I saw.

But the camera was both healing and exciting, and slowly but firmly, it took hold of me. Something inside me wanted to come out., something that had been suppressed and hiding deep inside me all my life.

This something started as a little rumble, then became a roar. I could feel my insides churning and my heart dancing when I held the camera. All my anxiety just melted away. I had always wanted to be a writer, never a photographer. I was a word person, not a visual one, or so I thought.

A bright light came on when my finger hit the shutter for the first time. The world appeared different to me; it was almost like being in a trance. I just blinked.

I saw things I had never seen before. I felt something I had never felt before.

I wasn’t just taking a picture. This was a new way of life.

Suddenly, my eyes were open. I have never seen the world in the same way since.

A blog reader sent me an e-mail last week suggesting I buy a book called “the lay of the land” by landscape photographer Joe Greer. Greer said his book was a self-taught photographer’s journey to find faith, love, and happiness. I ordered it right away.

Unlike me, he is a professional with professional equipment.

He gets paid to travel all over the world.

His photos have great feelings and emotions in them. Most are breathtaking landscapes.

Like Greer, I did find faith, love, and fun through the lens.

Photography is not about cell phones or the darkroom for me; it isn’t about technology or artistic convention. I break all the rules of photography daily – the purists remind me – and I don’t even know what those conventions are. If I did, I wouldn’t care. Photography is magical to me; it transformed me into a different world.

I’ve never been a good student; I always want to teach myself. I never take classes or seek the advice of other people. I’m a loner in almost every sense of the word.

I have a few rules about taking a photo, but the ones I do have are important: I must feel some emotion when I look through the lens, and the picture must touch me in some way and brush against my soul. I have to feel my heart jump a bit. When I think that, I take the photo – no matter how cold, how dressed I am, or what boots I have on my feet.

The other rule is that I must love my pictures and the images and people I photograph. At the very least, I need to like and admire my subjects, human or animal. I love portraits and am beginning to love and see landscapes in a new way.

Photography has made me a moonstruck, even obsessed,  student for the first time in my life.

I never want to know how my Apple computer works. I want to know every single thing about my Leica 2. I study all the time.

It was a mind-bursting joy when I first took a portrait of Maria. Every picture I take of her is a statement of love and connection. If you take photos of the things you love and the things that make you feel good, I find they are often the best pictures. I can’t take a good portrait of someone I don’t like or feel comfortable with.

We have to click. And we have to communicate. Photography is the way I communicate with people – Maria, my daughter, and the people who read my blog. We often disagree, but my pictures have no opinions or agendas. I never argue about them. I feel them.

Like Joe Greer and many others, I have a complicated past. “The older I get,” writes Greer in his beautiful book, “the more I embrace all of its hard and messy truths. I find myself becoming more nostalgic as the days add up, constantly reflecting on all the unexpected and unlikely moments that perfectly aligned for me to be where I am. Even the worst of my heartbreak and tragedy directly affected and continues to affect my work.”

Those words go right to my soul. My life was forged on trauma; I know I will die with it in my throat. But when I am taking pictures, I am also living with it. The camera isn’t interested.

I think this is true of every serious photographer, writer, or artist. Whatever comes into my life comes out in my work, one way or the other. I see it in my photos all of the time. Photography has given me a new language to think and share my feelings.

“I like to say that I make my photos,” writes Greer, “and what I mean by that is that photography is dynamic. When you get out there and shoot, you’re not just taking a picture…You’re telling a story.”

This is the very essence of my photography. Every picture is a story and a record of my life.

My truth is close to Greer’s but also different.

The pictures have opened a path to my desire for a spiritual life, or at least a spiritual element, to my life. The photos I take of the Mansion residents in old age and the refugee children at the other end of life have given me purpose and meaning, one of the essential benefits of spirituality. My photos bring meaning and purpose to me. I love the look in their eyes, the spirit shining through.

My flower photos have led me to see the burning light and beauty of nature and the natural world. My pictures of dogs, donkeys, and animals have brought out the loving elements, personalities, and intuitions of animals and cemented my connection to them. They sense this and respond to me in a new and intimate way. I never have trouble getting an animal to look at me when I point the lens at them.

Every photo is a story.

My photographs began a new chapter in my life; they have quite literally. I am different. I feel more; I see more. Spiritually is about going inside of oneself and seeing the truth about me, cutting through the fears, voices, expectations, and distractions of our world. Maria noticed that I am never anxious when taking a picture never distracted or worried.

I didn’t know.

My camera has no politics, divisions, whiners, red or blue, bigots, or haters.

My Canon 5 D began this process; my Leica cameras took it to a different level and challenged me to understand the insides of my cameras and the outside. This became a metaphor for my own life, for as I began to take more profound and more considered photographs, I also was able to go deeper inside me.

I am reflected in all of the pictures I take; they are all statements about me in one way or another.

The camera sees what I see, and it took me a long time to grasp the meaning and power of that. I love my Iphone camera and the photos I take. But the Leica experience is different.

It goes deeper; it takes me more profoundly aware; it has more shades and nuances and feelings.

To be the photographer I want to be, I have to do more, so for the first time in my adult life, I took lessons and learned much of what I needed to know. And the camera doesn’t seem to know I’m a dyslexic; I forget that the minute I look through the lens.

I see the world very clearly that way.

Photography has brought me many gifts, as it has brought Joe Greer. It has also brought me faith, love, joy and happiness.

It has deepened my spiritual life. How precious is that?





  1. It’s very precious, and great that you recognize it. I am 71, and also with a complicated and traumatic past. But, my second marriage changed everything. I’ve changed careers three times, but through it all my photography was my constant. I began around the age of 13 with tiny film cameras, and those mail-in packages for processing. I graduated to a Canon film camera in my 20s, and then stuck with Canon when I ‘went digital’. I now shoot with two Canon 6D cameras, both of which should have died a long time ago…according to shutter counts. I’m now exploring mirrorless, which will probably be the last ‘good’ camera I own, and I’m loving my iPhone 13 ProMax’s camera. I can’t imagine how I would have survived the first 35 years of my life had I not had a camera by my side for many of those years.

  2. So glad you found Joe Greer’s book so engaging. He didn’t start out as a professional photographer – he just started taking pictures as a new form of expression and learned along the way about light, composition, etc. I’m so grateful for the many “languages” we have – other ways to express ourselves when words aren’t enough, or don’t come. Thank you for all you do.

  3. For me, a camera us the ultimate portal into zen mindfulness. Seeing, waiting to see, capturing this image in this moment takes everything else out of my mind.
    The clouds and sunrises that you capture, the animals, even the older series of stone fences and the birdbath gave me that same feeling from afar.
    Thank you for sharing your art and your process.

  4. Jon
    Would you suggest a simple inexpensive camera for a older person on a fixed income starting out ?
    Your love for photography has inspired me to want to try to capture the beauty of nature I’ve been intrigued by for years.
    Now that I’m a senior I want to pursue this to focus me off of my self. Trying to begin to find and pursue good things to do.

    1. Jean, glad to help; the cheapest high-quality camera I know of is a Canon Rebel, which starts for $four or $five hundred dollars but is a great camera that will take good pictures for you. Fuji makes some cheaper cameras, but I know nothing about them. B&H photo has some good used cameras which are inexpensive; you can look on their website. I also get good pictures with my Iphone if you have one. I’ve only used Canons and Leicas and iPhones, so I can’t speak for the others, but there are good cheaper cameras I can’t think of a better-starting camera than the Canon Rebel; I hear so many good things about it. If none of these work, e-mail me – at [email protected] – there are several used camera websites that you might want to try, and I’ll be glad to help you. I think what you are thinking of doing is wonderful…You will never regret it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Email SignupFree Email Signup