Free to see - Daniel Silliman

It seemed like such an obsession, snapping, snapping, snapping away with the camera. It seemed compulsive, this documentary impulse.

"You always enjoy the photos when they're printed," my mother said, "so stop complaining and smile."

She always posed us, propped us up, told us to smile -- or threatened us until we smiled -- and snapped 17 million photos.

I don't honestly know how many she took, but 17 million is a guess, not an exaggeration.

She took her first photo in high school. As part of some science project, she built a one-shot camera out of a box, went outside, exposed the lens to light, and captured the image of a garbage can. I've seen the picture, the first picture, and it really is just a garbage can, sitting on pavement. It might be upside down. This seemed like a silly thing to permanently record, but mom said the teacher was more interested in the mechanics than the image.

The photos from her high school years and post high school years are sporadic, taken when the mood to snap struck her. But then she married my dad, and the great documentation progress began.

She took photos of everything: Gardens and Christmases, births and birthdays, seasons, celebrations and changes.

My mom has a photo album for every two years, starting when she got married and marching steadily forward through recorded family history. She was always taking pictures, always stopping things to say, "smile," and always recording our lives.

It bothered me, growing up. I suppose it was the interruptions and the ordered instructions, I didn't like, but there was also the self-imposed distance, in photos. Taking photos takes you out of the moment, making you an observer of yourself. Taking photos separates you, sets you apart as an observer, not a participant.

Of course, I was already like that. I was a little kid who lived inside his giant head. I was always the observer, the witness, narrating the events around me with the self-separation of an internal, authorial voice. So it wasn't my mom's distance from events as they unfolded, which bothered me, but my own.

My first photograph, the one where I discovered photography, was at a newspaper. I was working as an intern in Washington state and got sent to report on an Elwah tribal ceremony at the reservation. At the last minute, the photographer couldn't make it and handed me a heavy, old 35 mm camera. I told him I didn't know how to take photos and he said, "You just use the lens."

He didn't warn me about the feeling of taking photographs, so I was surprised when I raised the camera, snapped the button, and heard the shutter clunk and catch an image.

An old priest rang a pair of bells, and I snapped it. A storyteller told a folk tale, and I zoomed in on his face and hands. A young man touched his hand to a newly-carved canoe, and I captured it, permanently.

I felt safe, behind the camera. No one told me that was going to happen. I felt like I was free to see. The camera, that black box capturing light, gave me the distance I needed, safely separated me from the scene, and allowed me to frame images. I could examine the world, I could capture and compose compulsively, acting as a witness and snapping, snapping, snapping.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.