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“The best way out is always through.”

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tino Wallenda: Life Lessons from the High Wire

As I said in my last post, I spent a few days photographing the great high-wire performer Tino Wallenda and his famous family of circus performers last week at a state fair in Connecticut. I had the chance to talk with Tino a few times and he is as kind and charming as he is talented and brave. Since I photographed him I've been absolutely enthralled by the entire Wallenda-family saga and I'm hoping to read several books about them (including Tino's autobiography that he kindly autographed for me) to learn more about their amazing history. The Wallenda story is filled to overflowing with tales of incredible talent, courage and tragedy--and of overcoming tragedy. It was a great thrill to see the family this close, to photograph them and to meet them.

As I photographed Tino walking high above the crowds, balanced on a thin wire strung between two cranes, I couldn't help but draw some philosophical and artistic lessons from his performance. (It would seem impossible to me that anyone could watch someone of this skill and courage and not get a few life lessons from the experience.) For one, I was amazed by how relaxed Tino was before, seemingly during, and obviously after each performance. Though there is a net set up for the trapeze artists, it would be of little use to him on the high wire since there is a substantial amount of rigging strung between him and the net. Yet he seems utterly relaxed as he performs. To have such courage and to perform (and he even toyed casually with the audience from his high perch) with such ease is a life lesson in itself: relax and enjoy what you're doing at every moment and especially during the moments when you are living closer to the edge. When you relax you not only perform better, but you enjoy it more (a lesson most golfers, for example, know very well).

And that made me think of lesson number two: embrace your passion. Whether your passion is to confront your own fate on a wire above a circus audience or just sitting on a beach photographing the sunset, it's important to realize that being involved in that passion--and fully living in that moment--is probably a high point of your life (artistically and spiritually) and it's worth acknowledging the greatness of that opportunity. After a tragic accident in which two members of the troupe were killed and others seriously injured, Tino's grandfather, the great Karl Wallenda, insisted on performing the very next night. He is quoted as saying, "Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting." Indeed.

Therein lies perhaps the ultimate Wallenda lesson: spend as much of your life living your passion as you can because if you have a true calling, if you hear a true voice, everything else is just waiting. If your kids are your passion, spend all the time you can with them. If taking pictures is one of your passions, carve out the time for that passion. If it's eating donuts, well...(perhaps just take up baking, instead).

There is also quite obviously, though perhaps less spoken, a lesson in faith in watching a performer whose tiniest misstep could mean a tragic fall: you never see a hint of fear in any of the Wallenda or Cortes faces. In fact, just the opposite: you see a look of total contented joy, call it inner peace, that somehow they know something that the rest of us don't: that when you walk in faith (whether you see that as a religious experience or just faith in your own skills and talents), you are connected to something larger than yourself--or, at least, to the more true core of your being.

The idea that life is not about clinging to safety (or standing "safely" on the ground) but rather to pushing yourself to the edge of your own destiny is one that has always fascinated me (and often only from the comfort of a recliner as I read about it!) and one that I had in my viewfinder while photographing this incredible family. To bring this back (ever so slightly) to photography, I once interviewed the great travel photographer Harvey Lloyd (who often hangs out of helicopters to photograph cruise ships--just looking at his photos gives me vertigo) who told me that his credo was: "If your life bores you, risk it." Do you see a theme here?

I don't think that Tino Wallenda finds anything in life boring, or thinks about the risks involved other than to minimize them, but I gathered in watching his grin of pure joy as he walked the high wire that, by comparison, much of the rest is not just waiting, but eager anticipation of the glorious moments he shares with us from the wire.

And you thought this was just a photography blog :)


threedogstudio said...

I've been enjoying your blog for some time. This post is such a standout for me, that I had to comment and say thanks for the food for thought. If you were ONLY writing about photography, it wouldn't be as interesting, and besides, isn't photography always about something else?

Jeff Wignall said...

Thanks very much for your comment, I really appreciate it. I'm not sure I could only write about photography if I tried, because you're right, photography *is* always about something else!

alamond said...

Twelve points out of ten for all your posts!!!