Photography, Foraging, and the Moments That Transcend Time

Some uses of a photo are special

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Photos courtesy the author

As a professional photographer, I’m used to seeing my work used on a daily basis. But some photos, and some uses, are special.

When I take a shot of the headquarters of Google or LinkedIn, I know the New York Times and others will come knocking. For a photo of wild fennel growing through a chain link fence in a vacant lot in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, the audience is less clear.

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Still, I take these photos, because I love to take these photos. And every once in a while, they’re used in an absolutely perfect way--by a photo editor or author who really gets what I was trying to say.

That happened today, when my fennel photo was used in a beautiful article by Vanessa Hua about foraging, resilience, and roots--both literal and metaphorical.

Hua shares how her background and heritage served her well as she foraged wild foods with her children at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and overall how foraging has helped people build resilience in hard times for millennia.

That meshes perfectly with the visual metaphor my photo was intended to capture--the idea of something beautiful (wild fennel with its clusters of yellow flowers) growing and thriving in such a challenging environment.

The photo is a reminder of the parallels between foraging and photography

The use of my photo captures the visual metaphor I was hoping to achieve perfectly. But it’s also a reminder of the parallels between foraging and photography. In both places, you’re moving through an environment, being intensely mindful of tiny details. Foragers search for the perfect plant to provide them with sustenance — photographers seek the perfect image to capture an idea or the feel of a place.

Both practices — foraging and photography — come with some risks. With foraging, there’s always the chance that you’ll sicken yourself by choosing the wrong plant. With photography, you’re moving around often chaotic environments, doing whatever you can to capture the shot you want creatively.

Fellow photographers have shared stories of leaning out 15th floor windows to capture the best angle on a news event. Engaging with the physical environment directly — whether through its edible elements, or through attempts to capture it visually — means opening yourself up to risks both practical and creative.

Hua’s piece is also all about movement and change — the change that comes with immigration, with major world events like the pandemic, and more. That’s a perfect metaphor for the Mission Bay neighborhood where I captured the original photo. For some context, here’s an aerial view of the lot where I found the fennel growing in 2016.

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Here’s what the same location looked like in 2018.

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Mission Bay — which I’ve been documenting for almost five years now — is an area in constant flux. One day, there’s a vacant lot conducive to the untamed growth of wild plants. Seemingly overnight, the same location is taken over by a rising skyscraper. People, events, and places are always changing.

As Hua shares, foraging can be a balm against the passage of time — or at least a connection back to a previous moment. In her words:

When hell is other people, foraging reminds me of the connections we share. The leaves, the stems, the flowers are on the map leading me back to the bestower of the names. Hare’s foot inkcap, mule’s ear, monkey flower, wake robin, we chant across time.

Foraging provides a link to the past, and a taste of immortality.

So, too, does photography. The fennel plant I photographed is long gone. A cancer hospital now stands where it once grew. But my photo — and that connection to a specific place and a specific moment in time — lives on.

Written by

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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