One photographer's musings on the human experience

Free Your Intentions

X-T1, XF 90mm, ISO 200, F2, 1/8000

I was walking on the beach with a friend in the spring of 2016 when we spotted the wheelchair pictured above. It took me a second to realize that the chair appeared to have been abandoned. Then one more second to experience the irony of a perfectly good, new-looking wheelchair on a path by the beach, with no one in it or around it. It was as if the owner had been so inspired by the beauty of the ocean around them, they had magically gotten up and just decided to walk around. I had to take a photo.

When my friend and I looked over the edge of this path, down onto the beach, we saw a couple playing with a little girl in the sand. “So that’s who the chair belongs to", I thought. I hadn’t realized at first that this chair was especially designed for a little person with special needs. (Look closely and you can see just how small the seat actually is).

It’s one of my photographs that I return to over and over again because the emotions I felt in the moment I shot it come back to me so vividly every time I see it. My heart leapt for joy at the thought of what she might be experiencing right then. Was it her first time in the sand? What was she discovering about herself and the world? Was this a ritual freedom she was able to experience?’  I knew I would title the image, ‘Freedom’.

The impact of an image can be many things. In this case, for me, it isn’t just the heartfelt prompt I get to send that little one some good vibes and hope the best for her. This is about a feeling I think we all get when we see someone who is up against an unusual challenge transcend circumstances, cross a finish line or achieve some kind of breakthrough, however small that breakthrough may be in the grand scheme of human achievement. For the moment I am viewing this image, I am free of my own worries. The world is a better place because the little girl in the wheelchair is cared for by people who will make sure she gets to play at the beach. 

I believe that the surge of joy we feel at witnessing the victory of another that isn't necessarily zero-sum, or holding the possibility of that victory, can elevate us.  It can quicken our pace and allow us to see ourselves more fully. It can help us see possibility in our own lives, how much there is to be grateful for, not to mention lead us to more readily make a positive impact with our gifts and talents in the world.  

I don’t presume to know what kind of future awaits the young person playing on the beach that day. Nor do I presume to know anything about her condition, the challenge it presents or her abilities. However, witnessing her freedom prompted me to wonder about the presence or lack of these moments in my life on a day-to-day basis.  I have thought about how my own goals and aspirations can often feel more like a hamster wheel than a horizon, if I focus on them to the exclusion of others’ struggles, however small or colossal they may be. 

There’s a lot going on in our world that is incredibly heart-breaking and difficult to digest. Sometimes, the most difficult stuff can be right in front of us - a friend or loved one struggling with a breakup, addiction, a divorce or the loss of someone they care deeply about. The loss may very well be our own. As I’ve gotten older, I experience more empathy for others.  There are times when I just have to turn off the news, or somehow keep my empathy 'in check’, because being with it all can result in feeling helpless. 

Regardless of whether or not I feel empowered to make a difference in the moment of witnessing the struggle of others, the freedom I experience in this image has caused me to make a resolution. That is, to make space in my day to hold the intention that those in my midst and those who are not, may find a win today, in the face of whatever struggles they are facing. I’m also holding the intention that the next appropriate action for me to take in that context, will become apparent in doing so.

For the moment, I’m trusting that the practice of listening for and anticipating the beauty that is possible on the other side of struggle - our own and that of others -  can set us free to act in ways that we might not have otherwise. To love more deeply, to be more patient with others and ultimately, to act decisively for that which we believe to be a greater good.

 - Brent

Brent Ross