Life Through My Lens by Michael McKenzie

A lover of photography looks through his old albums, hoping to find inspiration that will help jumpstart his faltering life, by Michael McKenzie.

It is another blistering summer evening. With work at long last over for the day, I retract into my familiar isolation. The steam of freshly boiled egg noodles fills the air of my apartment for the third night in a row as I toss my unneeded coat on the rack and reacquaint the couch with my body's imprint. I groan from a long day and an aching body. I am tired, but it's not just from the heat. Life these days is exhausting enough without the sun. I work hard to little avail while my life is enshrouded in boredom. I may be healthy, safe, housed and clothed, but I stand dissatisfied with my life these days. There is no excitement, nothing challenging me. With nothing on the rise to look forward to, I find myself nostalgic for better times. People always say you should live in the present moment, but what if the present moment sucks? What if there were perfectly good ones just a few moments ago? I say hold on to those.

Time to do what I always do when things aren't going well, or even when they are for that matter; break out the pictures. I feel lost in the moving world, so I turn to the still ones I've accumulated over the years. This is the only world I actually can control, so I do it meticulously.

My hard drive of digital files I've racked up and my albums upon albums of physically developed film are my sanctuaries. In a way, this is my therapy. I see things clearer when looking at life through my lens. I'll take any chance I can get to thumb through these.

Talk to me about politics or any important issues happening in the world, and I shut down with the blank stare of a frozen squirrel. But talk to me about shutter speeds and megapixels, and you will wish you knew how to make me shut up. I live for the captured still image. My shelves lack a high number of movies or books, but they are stacked with photo albums.

The sticky feeling on the front of the rectangular prints with their slight curve toward the middle. All the laboring people had to do to develop each roll. The resolution count in a glorious digital rendering. I'm one of the few people under 30 these days that appreciates these kinds of qualities. It seems like others my age and younger no longer relish the true art of photography. They would rather spend time on that hollow wasteland of narcissism and sepia tone known as "Instagram." The worst excuse for a social network is a regular one stop shop for teenage girl "selfies," bland pictures of bland food, and ridiculous after effects. The glossy borders and color distortions are typically used to make celebrities appear shinier and street signs to seem deep and meaningful. Trying to find fine art on Instagram is like going to McDonald's and searching the menu for the filet mignon.

I grab a photo album off the shelf along with a digital one from my memory card and prepare to take a trip down memory lane, or several.

Browsing through the last couple of years, I come across the pictures from my sister's wedding. I don't have many of my own pictures from that day, what with professionals there and all. But one capture I have in particular stands out from what was a special day, not just for her but for me as well.

It was the backyard of my soon to be brother in law's aunt, nicer than any church I'd ever seen. You could fit a football field in that yard. There we were, side by side together on the patio, overlooking the water. Our Grandmother takes the picture. I have on my nicest striped button up, untucked from my passable black slacks. I'm wearing the same tennis shoes I always wear because I refused to buy dress shoes I would only going to wear for one day. Leave it to me to still have a beer in hand in this, one of the less formal pictures of the day. I glare apprehensively into the camera, my forced half-smirk makes it obvious that I like to take pictures more than be in them. My sister has all of the familiar glitz of a bride's white dress and layers of makeup, but it's her unwavering smile that lets me know this is a special occasion. Today she is truly happy, finally.

It was one of the first times we had really talked in months. Growing up was difficult for siblings that fought like we did. I'm sure I wasn't the easiest younger brother to deal with. I'm also sure that she wasn't an easy older sister. Our single mother worked long hours in real estate making the money for our roof, so my sister was tasked with taking care of me much of the time as well as herself. It couldn't have been an easy task, especially for someone as short-tempered as she was. Being screamed at for small things, and often times for reasons unknown by me, was something I was all too used to. I didn't realize until I was older that she was an unhappy person. I just assumed that she didn't like me.

But her wedding day there was a side of her I rarely saw. "You really matter to me," she said. "Whatever happens, I want us to get along." I told her I wanted the same, shocked by this constructive turn of events. Those words carried weight because they were not the standard, "I love you." That phrase has pretty very little meaning to me because it's just something I see people mindlessly say to one another when hanging up or leaving whether they get along great or fight all the time.

We got to talk for hours, telling jokes and catching each other up on our lives. We had never had the best relationship, nor were we going to, but for once our dysfunctional family was emphasizing the "family" part.

To this day we have our regular ups and downs, and haven't managed to sustain that same level of goodwill as the wedding day, I never know where it will go next. All I know is that nobody can take that day away, nor the months of better understanding that followed. We bonded in a way that is hard to come by for us.

The relationship is not currently on a positive note. I sit and wonder what would get things to a better place. Maybe she just needs someone to put themselves out there the way she did then. Maybe we're resisting the buried urge to visit because we don't want to risk appearing weak. Perhaps the best way to approach a troubled family relationship isn't the same as the way to approach a game of Risk. Maybe it really is as easy as picking up the phone and talking.

I continue my marathon photo-gazing, stopping only for the occasional bathroom break and leg stretch. I come across last summer, and my unforgettable study abroad trip to Italy.

During my stay, I experienced a new and extraordinary culture, learned about its history and contributions to the world, and enjoyed my fair share of goofing off with friends. I couldn't ask for more. I also met a person who made me lament the non-existence of teleportation.

It's our last day hanging out together. It may have been a sunny day but there was still the dark cloud looming over it of having to say goodbye. My journey in Italy had come to an end, and with it my time with Lucia, the school's most divine economics major. To say she was magnetic would be over-estimating magnets. She had a smile to make stomachs knot, with a brain that refused to coast on that. Every bit someone you would want to look at and listen to (when you could translate). I'm still not convinced she is entirely of this earth.

She stands to the left of me, her black hair slightly lifting from the gentle breeze. Her eyes are brown as oak trees. Her body language is tall and confident. Selfishly, I hope that at least some part of her is sad to see me go. The streets of Milan, with several tiny cars and a couple of bicyclists, background the shot. We had just gotten lunch after the closing ceremony at the school. I see this picture and I'm able to smell the freshly baked dough coming from the restaurant just out of frame. I have a smile ear to ear because I had finally gotten out of Washington for the first time as an adult. I was experiencing a new part of the world and wore my thrill on my face up until that last day. My loose-hanging jeans let everyone know I was not native to this fashion-crazed dominion. I did have on a stylish midnight blue T-shirt I bought at a mall the day before, but that was off-set by my Nike sneakers that might as well have shouted "HEY, I AM AMERICAN!" Lucia doesn't seem to care about my lack of fashion, despite having a great one of her own. Her flawless blue jacket, matching shoes, and black Gucci pants suggest that she rolls out of bed looking ready for a runway.

Upon arrival at the Milan school, we were explicitly told not to start any romantic relationships with any of the students. Never have I had such a disdain for the rules. But realistically, there was not much I could do. I was leaving after three weeks there and we would go back to being a half world away. That doesn't mean I didn't think about it. I was still learning Italian and didn't speak it too well, and she spoke only very basic English. But between our friends and our translator apps, we managed surprisingly effective communication. She was all about American rock music, as was I. We also shared a passion for painted art. I didn't know for certain, but I sensed that she liked me back. I'm not sure if this made the situation easier or harder. Surely any language and continent barriers could be broken down by a deep attraction and a couple of mutual interests, right? Yeah, maybe not.

These days occasionally we'll have a brief, awkward conversation over social media. Nothing will come of it unless maybe one of us strikes it super-rich or decides to move countries, neither of which have any prospect of happening anytime soon. She was a goddess, but not one that I had a shot with, even if she liked me as well. I don't get out and meet girls much, so this brief flame stirs my mind. My ego would love to believe she is out there still thinking of me from time to time and wondering what could have been. But who knows?

My friend James took the picture, one of his great misfires. He was usually a much better photographer than this. It didn't do justice to how stunningly, unreasonably beautiful she actually was. But at least I have it to remember her by. James later suggested to me that I just Photoshop it, but I had no intention of doing that. Photoshop is another upsetting prospect to my old school sensibilities. Like alcohol, Photoshop can sometimes be used responsibly to have a good time in small increments, and no one will be hurt. But it is still ultimately a highly dangerous substance that people can and often do get carried away with. It can be in pursuit of a noble cause, but in the end, destructive to beautiful things. My belief is that if you have to mess with an image afterward, you probably didn't take it right in the first place. A few imperfections are better than the alternative of a plastic look. So my thing is to just not use it at all. Photoshop, I mean. Not alcohol.

Flipping more pages, my attention turns to the antics of my close friends.

The blinding sun of Mt. Rainier, close enough in its altitude to bear hug us, shines down as we squint, smile, and try to anticipate when the shutter will close. A kind stranger takes his time as he takes our picture, fumbling with how to use my camera. To my surprise, he gets a solid result. It's a clear, well-framed capture, timed just right. Good thing I left autofocus on.

I am in the center of our trio. My eyelids sag from the grueling three hour long early morning drive. Next to me is Matt, who looks well rested enough to be fresh out of a coma. I'll never know the source of his perkiness. James is on the other side, awkwardly grinning while his eyes stay deadlocked so he doesn't blink. The mountain summit towers over our heads looking every bit as tall, white, and awe-encompassing as always while we prepare to cramp our legs, and sunburn our skin, respectively.

This hike was memorable because it was one of the last weekends we were able to have these kinds of regular adventures together. They were the kind of things we didn't plan, we just did. Acting on spontaneity and exploratory spirit. We were friends from college, convinced we were separated at birth. With our shared Spanish studies, we nicknamed ourselves "The Bromigos." It was such a cheesy moniker, we couldn't help but adopt it lovingly. We did just about everything together.

Whatever broke down in my life, I could always count on my Bromigos to pull me through it. Until circumstance conspired against us and the band was broken up.

Matt moved to Seattle to continue college and pursue a budding career as a musician.

Later James decided to attend school in Bellingham. I stayed in Olympia to work. It was not panning out the way my jet setting, entrepreneurial fantasy would have wanted. We still visit every few months, but it just isn't the same anymore. We all have our own situations going on. With our distance and busy schedules, it's just tough to find time keep up with each other nowadays. I think about our current status, and I miss the tight-knit days of this picture. I have a group of people I hang out with now, but it's nowhere near the old crew. Seemingly all areas of my life have gotten worse recently, and this was no exception.

As I look back through my many snapshots, I'm reminded of the blessings I've experienced in my time on this planet. The experiences I've had and the people I've come across have been worth preserving in my head as well as in pictures. I try to appreciate what I have while I have it, because I never know when it will die off or change forever. That's what's so special about photography to me. The ability to capture a moment in time and forever hold onto the visual impression of the experience is as mesmerizing as any super power to me.

I'm also reminded of how dull and uneventful my life is nowadays. I look back fondly, but I can't help but wonder how everything sunk to the point it is now. Where did all the good times go?

I continue to stare down the JPEGs and Kodaks like they are ones and zeroes that contain the Matrix code, and if I just concentrate on reflecting long enough, the answers will dawn on me and I can fix everything that's wrong with my life. The clock tocks all the way to 4:00 am. I don't need sleep, sleep is for people who have direction.

I work a dead end warehouse job. I don't have the money that enables the choices I want. Relationships with my family are rocky. The ones with friends haven't been much better. Romance seems like a foregone conclusion. Where did I go wrong?

Knowing my obsession, people have asked why I haven't tried to become a professional photographer. My answer has been that the only real money is in commercial photography. If you're not one of the elite artists or photojournalists, you are relegated to work that any monkey with an iPhone can do. Snapping cookie cutter slides for stock images and brochures interests me as about as much as root canal. My artistic integrity is all I have. Maybe that's the key. Maybe there is a place out there for my kind of photography. At this point, I would rather take my chances and fail miserably than waste away in the warehouse I work. Or maybe school is the way to go. Find something that doesn't bore me too awfully and nets me a salary better than my current chump-change-an-hour. Either way, maybe there is a better path. Maybe it's not too late to turn things around.

I put the collection away, in the hopes that some new and interesting photographs will be added soon, and they can collect a little dust before I dig them up again.

Life is a chaotic assortment of short, fleeting moments that are sometimes disappointing, baffling; and if you're lucky, a few that are memorable. There are the ones we choose to hold on to and ones we choose to let go of, as well as the ones that hold on to and let go of us without our consent. You never know when it will kick you in the face, or reach out with a friendly hand. I don't know where it's heading next. But I know I'll be there, with my viewfinder, ready to capture and hold on.


  1. is this autobiographical? it reads that way and also quite sad. but well written and a nice idea. i think you could do more in this vein, thumbnail sketches of other people, real or imaginary.

    Michael McCarthy

    Michael McCarthy

  2. Michael,
    I appreciate your feedback. It is semi-autobiographical. There are some real moments and feelings from my life along with some exaggeration and speculation. Thanks for reading

    Michael McKenzie

  3. Michael,
    Enjoyed your story very much. You really nailed the disappointment we all feel sometimes when our circumstances change. It's really not too late to turn things around. They will change again, likely for the better. Nice job.

    Oscar Davis

  4. I've heard this particular brand of ennui termed "young man's disease" and I had it in spades in my 20s. Still creeps in at times even now. This story brought to mind a moment in Noah Baumbach's movie "Kicking and Screaming" (not the Will Ferrell movie) when Max says, "I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday." Definitely relatable. - Charlie