Finding The Spirit Of Place

Learn how to engage with familiar locations in deeper ways

The Grand Canyon has been a favorite subject for Dewitt Jones, who challenges himself photographically by finding new images in well-acquainted places.

When are you going to Antarctica?" a student asks. "Not sure," I reply. Probably never, I muse silently. Never? Whoa, never is a long time, Dewitt! What's happened to your insatiable curiosity, your awe and wonder? Where's your sense of adventure?

Scores of beautiful places grace our planet, and I've been privileged to visit many of them. I've loved seeing and photographing exotic locales and fascinating people. I wouldn't trade my experience with National Geographic for anything. Yet, while I still travel quite a bit, lately I'm less and less interested in seeing new places. Instead, I find myself drawn to return to certain spots again and again. The real adventure seems to be revisiting those places where I know my own spirit resonates with the spirit of place. In truth, I find this more thrilling (and scary) than exploring yet another new locale.

Those of you who read my column regularly know the places I frequent these days. Photographs of Molokai, Hawaii, and the Grand Canyon grace these pages over and over again. Yet, the more time I spend in my favorite haunts, the more I realize I don't know these places at all. On Molokai, I'm still learning about nuances of palms in the Kapuaiwa grove, still plumbing the daily changes of the Mo'omomi Preserve, still staggered by the relationship of island to surrounding sea.

In the heart of the Canyon, I'm still exploring rock walls, evanescent light and geologic mystery. I want to go more deeply into the spirit of the landscape and to echo that deepening with my photographs. In places I know well, I can hear the earth's heart beating in cadence with my own. In those moments, I'm filled with gratitude for this feeling of connection and come to perhaps connect even more deeply to my self—my true self.

When I photograph from this sense of reverent connection, I seem to have new eyes. My relationship with a familiar old friend has deepened to a new level. Last summer in the Grand Canyon, I visited a place I've been to many times before. My eyes beheld a meeting of rock and light and water that I had never encountered before. It's hard to stand in front of that much beauty, hard to breathe when you press the shutter. I have no doubt there are other places this beautiful in the world. My relation with the Canyon is more like a marriage than a fling. We're deeply connected and, every time we're together, I just find more and more reasons to be in love with her.

In my mountain climbing days, there was a group of climbers known as "peak baggers." Peak baggers were driven people, always off to the next summit, to climb it and check it off their list. Always off to the next challenge, nothing new to learn from the peak you had already climbed. I've certainly been a photographic "peak bagger" in the past. How many new places can I photograph? How many can I photograph in a unique way that's only mine? I'm not knocking it. It was an important phase in developing my eye and my creativity. 

Now, it seems less important for me to ask, "What's next?" More important to go deeper into my experiences, rather than simply to accumulate more. It's a challenge, photographically, as well as personally. I know I can go to a new place and come back with unique, beautiful images. But can I really continue exploring the places I know well and still find them fresh photographically? As I continue my relationship with the places that speak to my soul, will they still inspire and delight me? Will I be able to translate this intimacy onto images?

You already know from all I've said that I think the answers to all of these questions is "yes." I'll continue to let Molokai and the Grand Canyon mentor me, to teach me new lessons on how to see and appreciate. In the end, perhaps my photography will become simply a ritual of celebration, of reverence, of engaging with the landscape.

I wish that for all of us as photographers, however we choose to get there.

Dewitt Jones' ebook "Celebrate What's Right with the World!" is available on Amazon and the iBookstore, a collection of the best images and words from the Celebrate Facebook page, facebook.com/celebratewhatsright. Follow Dewitt at facebook.com/dewittjonesfanpage.

Dewitt Jones is one of America’s top professional photographers. Twenty years with National Geographic photographing stories around the globe has earned him the reputation as a world-class photojournalist. As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was thirty. Dewitt has published nine books including California! and John Muir’s High Sierra. His most recent book, The Nature of Leadership, was created in collaboration with Stephen R. Covey.

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