Why Photography?

When I was about ten years old, I got my first camera. It was a cheap, tiny Nikon Coolpix that was maybe 7 megapixels and an SD card that could hold a pitiful 512mb. But it was still my camera, and I brought that little guy everywhere. Any trip, even if it was just to the next town over, I had it on me, ready to snap a shot of something I found interesting.

I know that sounds like something incredibly cliché for a photographer to tell you, but I have a little confession to make: photography was not my first choice. In fact, being this far into the art world wasn’t exactly my first choice, either. If I were to go back to my grade twelve self and ask where I would be in seven years, I would have given an uncertain, yet completely different answer from where I am now. At that time, I was looking to boldly go into the world of architecture. I envisioned myself creating towering office buildings and changing the face of city after city. But then advanced calculus was as heartless as math normally is, and it quite quickly brought that dream down to reality.

And yet, I’m not bitter about it.

Because I had planned to be an architect since I was about twelve years old, I had been shaping my school schedule around the path I thought would be the best one to take me there. And one of those courses was one most people tend to disregard and write off as a “bird course”: art. And I will admit that part of the reason I took it all the way through high school was that I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was that “bird course” that frankly saved my post-secondary butt.

Because of art, I was accepted into Queen’s University’s Fine Art program.

Colleen O'Shea Hand Portrait

And so I was thrown into the immersive and ever challenging world of art. For four years I learned, I grew, I studied, but most importantly, I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into the work I created for that program. The knowledge I gained, the memories I have, and the experience itself are things I would never want to replace or forget. I met amazing professors and other amazing artists, and I am eternally grateful for it. There I times when I wonder if it would have been better if I had been accepted into an architecture program, but I don’t find myself wishing that I had.

And yet, by the end of my time at Queen’s I found I was still missing something. There were still experiences I hadn’t tried, and things I hadn’t learned. And I discovered that the thing I was missing was something I had actually been doing from the start.

I initially took the photography program at Algonquin College to gain a better understanding of digital graphics programs, and barely a month in I had already learned so much more. And it was there that I fell in love with photography all over again.

I realize looking back that the reason I had wanted to be an architect so badly was because I love to create, but I also love being inspired by other people’s creations. As I collected book after book of architecture photography, I would always look at these buildings and just admire how much thought was put into them. I was always so impressed by the form, the colours, the designs - how the light played off the glass and metal and the differences in what day and night did to a building. But now I see that it wasn’t so much what the architect created, but what the photographer created when they captured the essence of the building. The thing that had pushed me to chart a course for architecture had really been the understated work of a photographer, and yet, as a result, I found the path that took me to the thing I truly wanted to do in the end.

So while the path certainly had some pitfalls and sharp corners, I did indeed find my way to what I wanted to be. As one of my favourite photographers, Berenice Abbott, once said: “I didn’t decide to be a photographer; I just happened to fall into it.”