Living Columns & Blogs

Her stint as a professional photographer taught her to rely on blind luck

My first job out of college was as the photographer for a small daily newspaper in Eastern North Carolina. After one course in photojournalism at Carolina, somehow I found myself setting up a dark room (the paper didn’t have one before hiring me) and spending long hours taking pictures around town, then rolling film and developing it in the dark. The “C” I made in the course didn’t seem to matter to the editor who hired me.

I covered everything – check presentations, high school football, ribbon cuttings – even riding along with the Momyer EMTs, shooting a day-in-the-life that included a tragic crib death.

When I think about those days and how inexperienced I was at what is among the most critical jobs in journalism, I cringe at my naiveté. There were many times that year that I’d have to look back at my textbook, just do know what to do. I had no mentor to ask, and the camera was old and had no manual.

Ever since my grandparents gave me a Kodak Instamatic I’ve been drawn to taking pictures, albeit bad ones. To be given the responsibility of daily news was both an honor and a curse as I recall. Toward the end of my tenure, I took a whole roll of images into the dark room, carefully taking the steps I thought I knew well, but instead confusing the chemicals in the dark. When I pulled the film from the canister, not one image remained.

I would leave that job to finally become a writer, but the memory of the mistake marked me with indelible ink. I kept taking pictures, though, leaving the work of developing to the professionals. In the almost 40 years since, I’ve become the family chronicler, both as writer and amateur picture taker. The grandchildren were used to my asking them to line up on the steps for the annual shot, and even as they moved into college and beyond, they didn’t seem to mind the grin and grip around their grandparents.

Now that everybody has a camera in their pocket, the kids don’t need me to capture their lives in still life anymore. (In fact, they don’t even need film.) Now the great-grands are taking shots way more professional than the ones I used to develop.

But I like keeping my eye on things anyway. Capturing moments in images has become an extension to my storytelling, and my subjects vary from the ordinary to the historic: a cloudy sky, a house-hunting bluebird, a dog running on the beach, a new baby in the arms of her great-grandparents for the first time (that remains a favorite).

Many of my best pictures are flukes, the blind luck of the inexperienced. Over the winter on a quick trip to the beach, I was taking shots of the dog making figure 8s in the sand when I noticed lots of ruckus in the water. I turned my zoom lens toward the commotion and started shooting, not knowing what I was capturing through the lens. Back at the house, I loaded the images onto my computer and was shocked at what I’d captured: dolphins surfing the waves like children, and one of them was smiling.

We’ve been on vacation, and one night last week the moon hung large over the ocean, its face full and bright. When I see a moon like this, it feels as if God has an eye on us. If you think about it, whether you can see the moon or not, it’s always there, watching. And whether it’s a wink or an eye wide open, we need somebody with eyes larger than ours to see what’s happening in the world.

The moon – it’s the one image I’ve tried to capture for years to no avail. I read about how to pose the tripod just so and set the shutter speed and aperture, but because I am a blind-shooting amateur, all that’s left on my memory card is a white orb, void of any detail.

That night I grabbed the camera anyway, balancing it on the deck railing, and began shooting into the dark. Suddenly, the flash brightened the sky for a second (I could have sworn I had it set to “no flash”), and I checked, knowing I’d captured the roofs in front of us rather than the moon.

But what do I know? What the camera caught was a pretty decent image of that giant orb, God’s eye, wide open, and looking right at me.

Susan Byrum Rountree writes and takes pictures from pretty much anywhere. When she gets both right, it’s a fluke. She can be reached at