Grasping at the Intangible

In Spanish, the verbs conocer and saber both mean “to know”. Conocer comes from the same root as the English words “cognition” and “recognize”, and generally means “to be familiar with.” Saber on the other hand, means a few different things. Primarily, it means “to know” in the sense of “to know a fact”, or “to possess knowledge about”. It can also mean “to have flavor”, as in sabe rico, it tastes good.

I wanted to know this place. I rolled down the window, and watched the sun begin to light up the rolling pastures from behind low afternoon storm clouds. I put my camera down and tried to simply know–to taste–Nicaragua.

We had been rolling through the back roads–completely unintentionally mind you–on our way to meet up with clients on the southwestern coast of the country. My excited photo taking of the new surroundings had made us miss our initial exits out of the city and we ended up guessing our way south on dirt roads for a good portion of the afternoon. All that morning, I couldn’t put the camera down. A new country, amazing colors and people and animals–it was a photographer’s dream. I couldn’t shoot fast enough, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something at the same time. I was so caught up in the details of the place that were all around me, I was missing the essence–the true taste–of Nicaragua.

As someone who works in the creative industry, details are important to me. It’s my job to notice things. Typography, colors, texture, contrast, scale, spatial relationships–the daily visual language of the designer becomes a big part of the way one sees and interprets the world. It becomes second nature to watch and notice, and then to document and collect. Details ultimately define the projects we work on, and make the difference between good enough work and really great work. They also define our memories and observations as we travel, and make the difference between just another trip, and a memorable, transformative experience. That said, sometimes it’s good to step back and simply take in the big picture. You simply don’t want to miss el bosque for los árboles.

Ending up on the dirt roads and weaving our way behind and through the ox-drawn wagons was exactly what I needed. The realization that slowing down and being present in each moment would be infinitely more productive and memorable than keeping my eyeball attached to the camera–made the fact that we were off route very much OK. In fact, it completely changed the way I experienced the rest of my trip.

My time in Nicaragua was short; it was just a few days spent on the road and with the client, before I headed south by myself into Costa Rica. The agenda was just as hectic in this new but now somewhat familiar country, and the fear of missing the bigger picture of the region had stuck with me. I wanted to make sure I was fully engaged in the rest of the trip, and not just living through the camera and capturing empty frames, full of details. We tell our clients to tell their stories frankly, and that's exactly what I needed to do–to be present, in the moment, without a constant lens between my eye and the truthfulness of each experience. With that in mind, I picked up a small notebook at a road-side snack bar before the border crossing and committed myself to begin to document the intangible. The smells, the thoughts, the impressions–combined with the thoughtfully photographed details would become the ingredients of my personal recipe for knowing and appreciating these two unique countries of Central America.

The next three days were filled to the brim with getting to know a beautiful corner of Costa Rica and its people. The facts and guidebooks I’d prepared with certainly helped get me into the right frame of mind, but it wasn’t until I could thoughtfully step into the experience–camera in hand, but with a willingness to just put it down sometimes–that I was able to really taste the flavor of the region. It wasn’t the non-stop shooting that was getting me any closer to my goal of understanding the place, but rather the opportune moments when I put the camera down and looked at the bigger picture; not just the trees, but the amazing forest itself.

The future is bright for this corner of the world. The communities are involved, and fully aware of the changes that are coming. They’re preparing, and hoping to take advantage of the growth and opportunities that will arrive along with future visitors. They’re also aware of what’s at stake, and they’re doing their best to hold on to what makes this region unique and worth coming to know–to saber–personally. As the project moves ahead, I look forward to seeing them succeed.

Seth Neilson


Seth is one of those rare, gifted individuals who has risen to the top of his field without much formal training. After a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems, he took a job processing ...

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