Vanilla petals melting on the ground before me

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories


I’m glad I’m not a writer, in the professional sense. Sure, I take photos, and sure, some people might think I’m putting myself out there with my “vision of the world”, but for me, my vision(s) of the world are literally snapshots in time, not labored over, heavily edited presentations of my most deep and personal views on things. In fact, presently I’m a very Vanilla photographer, shooting for a flagship magazine of a healthcare corporation. That means, people are healthy, happy and cured. Or it means that there are wonders of the healers cleanly and compassionately helping the otherwise happy victims of disease. In other words, in most situations I look for smiles. I look for smiles almost to the point of sickening myself. I see someone crying and I look away and make sure my camera is pointed down to my toes like an embarrassed child. I see real emotion opening up Lotus like in front of my lens, and I instantly feel like a TMZ lowlife tearing open those flower petals and spilling the guts of their media victims into a dark and sticky pool onto the ground. I turn away and miss opportunities to show the real story, stepping aside as a photographer in order to retain my humanity or perceived notions of a compassionate person.

Anyway, it’s not all about me. I have to remind myself of that. I have been constantly on this Descartes kick lately. Must be from watching the Matrix movies. Today as I was driving home, someone was indecisive in front of me and couldn’t decide which lane to go into. Now, if I am not instantly annoyed because of lack of sleep or girlfriend, I usually like indecisiveness. It’s cute or something. It’s human. There are a lot of people making a lot of decisions all around us. And today I was thinking that it was a sort of proof that I’m not stuck as a floating brain in a jar somewhere with electrodes attached to it having the world pulled over my eyes. The fact that the world presented to me isn’t perfect is proof of its existence, right? Why would the world be imperfect like that? It’s just background for my life, right?

The real story is that the world is full of memorized repetition, things done by sheer reflex. Even complicated tasks like doing laundry or taxes, shopping online or at Jimmy Johns are using such small parts of your brain that they only rate a photo in the most ironic of portfolios. Images of the boring and mundane appear endlessly online as Eureka moments to people with new SLRs. Unlimited shots of bottle caps, diner seats, empty vending machine pound cake wrappers litter the most well-intentioned of photo websites. Some people post these shots as a, “Look at this horrible shot, I suck.” Others post these shots as genuine lived moments that they must share. So maybe for them, it’s their proof that the world exists, that it isn’t all boring routine. Sometimes I think of God like that. Existence is a difficult thing to prove. How would I prove my own existence? So maybe it’s just the feeling of the presence that’s proof enough. Maybe to feel the beauty of something ordinary is proof of its allure, a singularity of the universe through your lens. I know for me, my “photographic vision” was heavily influenced by the closing title sequence from Rainman where we get to see all of Raymond’s viewcamera shots taken during his kidnapping/road trip. That canted angle of the three or four diner chairs with the checkered floor and the light cutting across it in black and white did more to push me into photography and away from medicine than four and a half years of college education. I’m obsessed with the alternate view. And after years of floating around it, I’m actually established and making money off of my photography. The problem is, I’m presenting a Vanilla world to the public while being surrounded by sideways glances, mistakes and spicy murmured comments intercepted by the back of someone’s hand.

Of course, I’m not the only one. The editor today went around with me and did short interviews as I took photos of a big electronic medical record launch today at one of our new hospitals. One of the interviewees said something about a problem, and the editor said something like, “Well, we won’t mention that in the article”. It’s funny to censor the facts so that only the good stuff comes out in what you write. One time, I was asked to take photos of a bunch of the signs at the four hospitals to help track sign change compliance or something, a horrible assignment for an artist, but life could be worse and you have to take the good with the bad. But one of the signs I found was old, from years ago, with our old corporate name and logo across it. After I distributed the images, one of the administrators asked me to delete the photo. I was asked in a very hush-hush manner. My reaction was confusion laced with some kind of journalistic integrity crisis. I couldn’t figure out who would be embarrassed or in trouble from my suddenly controversial photo. It seemed so banal that deleting it wouldn’t make any real difference in the world, like deleting one dandelion from a field of flowers. But I knew deleting it was somehow bad or immoral because they were asking me to, and a part of my good self would be deleted along with the image I had created. So I deleted the photo from the public dropbox, but not from the archive. Future generations will be able to see the truth which to me is barely worth mentioning. I’ve held onto something so small and insignificant that it will probably never make any difference to anyone in the world ever. But it makes a small difference to me, and that’s all that matters, especially if I am a brain floating in a vat somewhere with aliens testing me with insignificance seeing how I’ll react and checking it off in columns on some alien equivalent of a clipboard.

What do you think?