Fear at the Fair

A few weeks ago, my family attended the Ventura County Fair. At one point, my oldest sone (who’s five) pointed to a grown-up ride and said “can we go on that?” It looked innoculous enough. It’s just a set of swing-chairs suspended from long chains. You’re lifted up and spun around. Big deal. I was a little concerned the height might bother my son, but he seemed intent, and I could snap a few pictures.

The chairs lift off, and it’s fun! My son looks a little worried, but I reassure him all is well. But then…the speed picks up. Those chairs fly up and out, over empty space. And the worst part is that they swing back and forth, in and out. It suddenly occurs to me that those chains can’t possibly withstand the centrifugal force of a grown man.

I realize, for the first time in many years, I am scared to the point of panicking.

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When I was a kid and a teenager, I loved roller coasters. I loved (love?) big, fast, crazy rides. Once when I was in middle school, my mom took me to Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida during the off season. Since there were no lines, I rode The Python 22 times in a row. (which appears to be called the Kumba now, although perhaps it’s an entirely different ride. It’s been many years!) I did feel a little queasy afterward, but like I said, 22 times.

So I was not expecting a silly small-town fairground attraction to even register on my radar. But it wasn’t the height or the motion or anything physical that scared me. It was intellectual—if not entirely rational. I became immediately convinced that ride wasn’t going to hold me. I gripped two chains as hard as I could, and hoped it would be enough when the chains broke. Those little chains were not strong enough. And why would a fairground carny be expected to inspect the ride thoroughly? I became convinced that the ride had never been designed to hold me.

All the while, I’m trying to convince my son that everything was ok, and that being scared was all part of the fun.

My wife said later that she’d never seen me look so scared before. Meanwhile my son seemed to have weathered it pretty well. He was nervous, but not unduly so. We joked about it afterward, how we were both scared. But for him, it was a five-year-old invincible type of being scared. All’s well if dad or mom is there type of scared.

So what does this have to do with photography? Well…on the way up, before the chairs started swinging wildly, I took a few pictures. But here’s the one straw of dignity I have left from this incident: as soon as the chairs began to slow and descend, I immediately started shooting again. The urge to photograph was strong enough that, as soon as I knew I was probably safe, I began taking pictures again. Am I a hard-bitten wartime photojournalist like Robert Capa? Hardly! But I felt a sense that I’d captured the shot, even under difficult circumstances. It’s not a timeless award-winning shot, but it was the shot I was after.

There is more to photography than simply technical or artistic considerations. Cesare Pavese said “We do not remember days; we remember moments.” The essence of photography is the recording of moments, Not cold slices of time, but warm and weighty moments. Real, or imagined, but moments. I was surprised at myself both negatively and positively, and I brought mack a momento of that very personal moment.

Now I’ve got to find a roller coaster, and prove I’m not the chicken I fear I might be!

Technical info: My favorite just-kicking-around camera is my Yashica Electro 35 GSN. It’s a rangefinder with a whopping f/1.7 lens. Auto exposure, fixed lens (but I have the kit, which includes a wide and telephoto attachment) and a very quiet shutter. It’s also very light. Since I try to use film around family (or when having fun, also an ‘f’ word), this is a common camera for me to take to such events. Mine currently has light leaks, so I have to tape it up with duct tape every time I load film. I’m too lazy to actually fix the leak (or too busy…yeah, that sounds better). I used cheap generic color film, speed unknown.

2 thoughts on “Fear at the Fair

  1. Many years ago, when I was about 10, I had an experience at a ski slope when a part fell off the chair lift. Being 60-100ft above ground was bad enough, but when there’s one hell of a bang, the seat falls a few inches AND the top bar flies open, that was time for new underwear! I remember both of us holding on to the centre support pole for our life.

    I’ve been to that slope again since and still don’t trust that lift.

  2. Yeah I don’t blame you! I wouldn’t trust it either…not sure you’d ever get me back on a ski lift if that happened. Thanks, Robert, for sharing your story!

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