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Volunteering Through A New Lens

July 03, 2017

Clyde Click reflects on his experience at Skyland Trail as a volunteer photography instructor. In partnership with the horticultural therapy team, Clyde teaches a weekly "Picnic and Photography" lesson. He has been sharing his talents with Skyland Trail clients since 2015.

I am not one who volunteers. I have been a lawyer for almost 40 years, but I have never done much pro bono work. I am not one who volunteers to hang blinds at a Habitat house, or who otherwise “gives back” in any significant way. The truth is, in the beginning I volunteered at Skyland Trail because someone asked me to. 

My oldest daughter is a social worker who works with abused children, and I frequently tell her that, when she gets to the Pearly Gates, can she please remember to put in a good word for me.  She tells me I need to give her a little ammunition.

I have a son who spent six months in residence at Skyland Trail, in a year that started out as his freshman year of college. Obviously, he has deep experience with mental illness and the time and effort required to deal with it, to live a life: to go to the grocery store, to interview for a job, to find dignity in menial labor.

Inspired by our child and his experiences both before and after his time here, my wife is a newly graduated mental health counselor. She now speaks fluently the language of mental illness and understands the purposes and effects of medications and therapy, and she faces, every day, at home and at work, the challenges of dealing with a variety of mental disorders

I’m just a dad with a camera. You may have seen me wandering around the campus on Thursdays, a guy with a white mustache carrying a big Canon with a long white lens, taking pictures of seemingly random things, sometimes with students, sometimes not. I don’t understand how dialectical behavior therapy works, or why a monthly regimen of blood work is necessary for treatment with clozapine, or how selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors actually work, or why, or why not. I don’t understand how a person can master advanced chemistry, and physics with calculus, yet find the act of simply getting out of bed in the morning to be a challenge.

But I can talk aperture, shutter speed and ISO with professionals. I know why burst rate is important to capture the ball on the bat. I understand the benefits of 61-point autofocus and cross-type focal sensors, and why AI Servo is indispensable to photograph a breakaway slam-dunk. I know how to get tack sharp focus on a diver doing a forward 3-1/2 somersault in the pike position (and why this photo should be taken in portrait, not landscape), and how to get a good exposure of a rock singer in low light, and how much noise reduction to apply in post-processing. I know why a 50mm f/1.2 lens creates a spectacular bokeh, and I know how and when to drag the shutter. I know why maintaining a constant aperture is necessary for a proper HDR capture, and why Camera Raw format is superior to .jpeg, and how to process both in Photoshop. I understand the circle of confusion, and why you can get lost in it. These are elements of the craft of photography, and I can talk about them for hours. And I can teach all of these things to anyone.

I also understand why photography is an art, and why an artist can take better pictures with a cellphone than most people could get with the latest DSLR. And I understand why learning the craft is necessary to free the artist to create art. You can’t create what’s in your head if you don’t learn to use the tools of your art. Michelangelo was not born with knowledge of how to work a block of marble – he worked as an apprentice to learn the craft, as did many other 16th century craftsmen.  But then he carved the David and the Pietà, while others piled blocks of stone to build church walls. 

I understand, and can communicate to my students, that the art of photography is an exercise in seeing things, light and shadow, colors and shades of grey. Seeing these things requires a focus, an effort to block out everything other than what is in front of you. Anyone who has ever attempted to draw a picture, or write a poem, or play a musical instrument, understands how everything else – all the worries, all the little chores that need attending to, and what you might have for lunch – go away entirely while you practice. Photography, and all art, requires the ultimate mindfulness, of being in the moment. Art requires a focus on one thing, to the exclusion of everything else.  In music, it’s the same whether you are practicing scales or performing Rachmaninoff – everything else disappears. In photography, it doesn’t matter if the camera in your hand is a cellphone or a Hasselblad, the demands of the art transcend the instrument of capture; but while you are using the instrument, whatever it might be, all other things fade away.

I don’t know if any of my photography students have learned these things from me, but I think maybe one or two have. If they learned just a little, it could be like that parable about teaching a man to fish – it can sustain him for a lifetime. And if they sensed a little of my passion for photography, perhaps they developed a little passion of their own. While I can’t be sure that any of these things has happened, or that any of the other students has actually learned anything, I am certain that spending an hour with me has given them an hour of respite from the other things they faced that day.

 As I have said, I know almost nothing of the efficiency of therapies for mental illness. But I know first hand the value of disappearing into art, if only for an hour on Thursdays. I also know from personal experience that creating art is a powerful, long-lasting drug – one good photo can sometimes sustain me for weeks. It’s the same with writing a poem or drawing a picture or playing the guitar – the benefits continue sometimes long after practice is finished.

When my son was here, a talented volunteer craftsman taught him to build elegant wooden boxes, and thereby contributed in a small way to his recovery, or at least gave him a time to focus on something else.  Maybe some day some another parent will recall that some unknown amateur photographer did the same for their child. Maybe my daughter can use that when the time comes.

– Clyde Click, photography volunteer