Outside My Comfort Zone

Recently, I attended my first and (maybe) last photo-walk with the local Flickr group. I had looked forward to this walk for a month. I wanted to meet people from whom I could learn things, in a relaxed, pleasant atmosphere. Photography is fun, but it’s not easy.
The venue was a small town railway station about thirty miles south of my home. I arrived on time, and introduced myself to the group of four women and five men all carrying cameras. We shook hands and exchanged names. Most of the group had met each other at previous photo-walks, so I expected they’d start talking, but they didn’t. The leader told us the route we’d walk, and the things we’d find interesting to photograph– a garage for the trains, a town square with some of the oldest buildings in the state, and an old-fashioned ice cream shop.
We started walking. The clicks of shutters made more noise than any of the few words that passed between the walkers. When they did speak, they made small talk, saying nothing about photography. No one asked anyone questions about anything. No one gave me the time of day.
Cameras of all kinds hung around necks. Some walkers carried full-frame cameras with L lenses. One man must have been strapped with six thousand dollars worth of gear. My own is a Canon 60D, a respectable machine that gives me a challenge. Those people knew what they were doing, but they didn’t talk about it. I was disappointed. I meandered off on my own, as is my habit when I’m supposed to be in a group. Eventually we all came together again, in front of a bar. No one had missed me, and sure enough, they had to enter the bar for a beer.
I hate bars, and I don’t drink.  I went in with them in hopes that a beer would loosen their tongues and they’d start talking about photography. Their tongues loosened, but instead of talking about photography, they talked about drinking! The bar owner got friendly and told us the history of the bar, and how it was used as a hotel one hundred years ago. He took us upstairs, where several rooms had been preserved as they might looked back in the hotel days. We all took pictures in the heat, and sweated.
Afterwards, we continued our walk around the town square. They conversed more, about inconsequential matters having nothing to do with either photography or their personal lives. I wanted to know more about them, especially about those who might have been professional photographers, but I didn’t speak. At this point, I was curious to know whether any of them would say a single word to me.  One did, to tell me that a local custard stand owner is now on record as supporting the legalization of marijuana.
I couldn’t wait to reach the old-fashioned ice cream parlor and soothe my frustration with a Turtle. Surely then, when everyone was sitting, they’d talk about photography. They didn’t. They talked about those old rotary telephones we used in the sixties. The Turtle was also a disappointment. The caramel syrup was not caramel, but cheap, chemical butterscotch, and not much of it, thank goodness.
I ate it in silence. We threw our money on the table and walked outside into the heat. I said my phony, “goodbye-nice-to-have-met-you,” lines several times and headed for the parking lot. One other person headed there with me, as silent as the rest of them. Of course, I could have spoken to her, but by then, I felt as though I’d just spent two hours in the Twilight Zone. I restrained myself from running to the car.
During the next several days, most of the participants posted their images to the Flickr group . Every single one of their images was better than mine. Every one of those photographers knew how to use their equipment better than I did. Still wanting to learn from them, I looked for the EXIF data of their images. Several of them had chosen not to share their EXIF data. I had spent two hours with highly skilled photographers who didn’t talk about photography nor shared their technical data nor spoke to the new person– me– and yet, they all had seemed in good moods, happy enough to be doing what they were doing.
If an Arab had been amongst us, he or she would have gotten the life stories out of every one of us. None would have parted as strangers. I think, though, that this group’s  aloof attitude is typical of Americans. No one wants to invade the privacy of anyone else by asking personal questions or expressing interest that could be misinterpreted. Americans are touchy about their privacy and their independence.
Maybe they are behaving normally for Americans, however. I don’t know because I haven’t socialized with a group of Americans for thirty years. Maybe I am overreacting; it wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe it was me who exuded an air of aloof indifference; that, too, would not have happened for the first time.
I’ll continue to read, experiment, and improve my technique, but I’ll do my next photowalk by myself. If I overcome the sense of weirdness that enveloped me while walking with this group, I may walk with them again next month, to test the idea that they are simply geeky Americans, insular and provincial, but willing to open up when they realize I’m safe. We’ll see.