Peg Talks

If life is all about experiences then it’s all the richer for attending the Peg Talks. These are a celebration of Swansea residents’ inspiring stories and occur every two months at the Square Peg Café.

Square Peg opened in the Sketty area of Swansea a few months ago and offers fab coffee, real tea and a glorious range of cakes in a cool and friendly environment. Even better they donate their profits to a couple of local charities.

Last night I rolled up to this hipster social enterprise ready to listen to three locals’ rousing personal talks and I was not disappointed. First up was Sue Kent, who was born with no arms and seven fingers, and was full of infectious energy and positivity. Sue told an entertaining tale that covered foot fetishes, determination, big dreams, the Paralympics and Massage by Feet. The latter is the name of Sue’s successful venture into the eponymous service and she offers her unique service in Swansea and London.

Following Sue, after a short break was, Sean Stillman, the founder and spiritual leader of Zac’s Place. If you have never heard of Zac’s then you are not a Swansea Resident, for Zac’s provides an essential service for the most vulnerable people in the city. Sean was, as always, humble regarding his contribution to the support Zac’s offers to Swansea’s rough sleepers, but I know that keeping this indispensable service running has been a work of love and commitment. Sean complimented his army of volunteers, but keeping the team together is impossible without some spiritual guidance and Sean provides plenty of that.

Sean shared two stories from the street that were both moving and illuminating. They were a reminder that each of us, no matter our circumstances has the capacity to feel and share love. We all felt the love!

Last up, was the no less inspirational and successful, local entrepreneur Nathan John. Nathan’s story of dreams and determination followed his journey from being told at school that he was thick, should leave school (pre GCSEs) and work in the local factory, to establishing his innovative business Rewise Learning. The trick Nathan pulled off was using his own unique study method to first succeed at his GCSEs and then turning his idea into a business.

Nathan was not thick. The school had failed to diagnose his dyslexia. Nathan set his GCSE revision to music, after all we all can remember lyrics to the songs we like, and then passed all his GCSEs. From then to now has seen many successes, including endorsement from the Prime Minister and Richard Branson.

Nathan echoed Sue’s message of hard work and dreams that underpinned his adventure. After all, ‘You’ve got to have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?’ (as Captain Sensible reminded us)

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Using one focal length

Mindful photography is about being present with what you see. It is also about adapting to the situation. I often use a simple set up for my practice; usually a single focal length lens (a 40mm) on my DSLR. This is my go to, walkabout lens.

I choose to use this lens because the focal length is very similar to how we see (which is around 43mm, albeit with a greater width and a mind that looks to zoom in). Using one lens regularly, particularly one that is similar to how we see improves our seeing and how best to create photos that reflect what we see. Using this one lens I become attuned to the camera’s way of seeing. I begin to think in terms of how the camera will record the scene.

Over time this photographic thinking, which includes colour rendition, the framing, composition and the dynamic range of the light, becomes learnt and familiar. With continued practice, reviewing the outcomes and adjusting my technical choices, I begin to know what to expect from my camera. Through this doorway lies the possibility of reacting more instinctively to the scene, allowing my subconscious to make more of the technical and compositional choices. In this moment I let go of trying (to take a great photo) and allow the creation to occur. Through this process the possibility that there may be something of me, and the way I feel about the world, in the photo becomes more likely.

When I first tried shooting a whole year using just one lens I did it for reasons of artistic impression. Using just one focal length creates a unifying similarity to your photos. This can be beneficial if the photos you are creating are part of an ongoing project. It is ideal for those 365 projects that comprise of one photo a day. Then along the way you will also reap the benefits of instinctive creation and greater connection between what you are seeing and how you feel about the the world you are experiencing.

The photos that accompany this post illustrate my musings. A visited Caswell Bay, the Redcliff end, with Taylor to take him surfing. However, I decided to take my camera with the 40mm lens on, rather than the big zoom, and not shoot surfing photos. Instead I would see what was there and respond to my experience. I chose a black and white edit because of the high contrast of the scene.

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Fear and the imagination

Lately, I have been very interested in the role that fear plays in our lives. My most recent post on the topic explored fear as an opportunity and how it can be a practice for our life. In a similar vein I have recently come across this TED talk below by author Karen Thompson-Walker ‘What fear can teach us’, that looks at the link between fear and the imagination.

The talk provides plenty of links between fear and the process of creation and as such underpins the experience I have followed in using my fears to inspire my photography.

It is an 11 minute talk and is sure to fire your imagination.

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Beginning the Day

Recently I have considered the impetus created by our imaginative idea that we have now started a New Year. I say imaginative, because it is our ability to imagine that something exists – to give it structure, definition, and rules for its existence – that has produced the idea that we are in a New Year. Every other animal on the planet just carries on like it is any other moment.

I still feel very close to this concept. Maybe it is because I have been considering the Twelve Photos theme (Beginning) and following a mindful morning photography experience to start the day. So I thought I would share the activity to provide you with an opportunity to begin the day in a similar manner.

A Mindful Photography Practice

First up: you have to have a camera close to hand when you awake in the morning. Ideally you then lie there, camera in hand, slowly coming to, eyes open, paying attention to what you notice. Each time something attracts your eye you take a photo. Repeat for 5 photos. No more, no less, no deleting.

I have to admit that I wasn’t completely prepared, camera was downstairs, head was thick, stomach was calling. I first grabbed my little compact camera, made a cuppa and some toast and retired back to bed. After the refreshment had done its work I commenced the activity, as described above.

The photo above is the last one I created, contemplating the beauty of the morning. The full set is below. I enjoyed the experience, followed it with a 20 minute meditation and felt grounded and ready for the day. I commend it to you! Perhaps you could share one of your photos in our Facebook group?

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London Street Photography

Over the last couple of months I have made two visits to London. Each time the coach has arrived in enough time to deposit my bag at my accommodation, before heading into the city to explore a little dusk time street photography.

Unfortunately, my photos from the first trip were not backed up before my hard disk drive collapsed under the strain. Most of my edited photos from 2015 are currently missing. Many I have in their original raw state (nearly 2000!) but the November London photos have vanished. I know – always back up your work.

The photos here are my favourites from a couple of hours around Piccadilly Circus, the photo above being my absolute favourite. I had noticed that the intermittent rain had brought out the umbrellas and was considering using the big advertising lights at Piccadilly Circus as a backdrop when I saw the potential for a silhouette. I only had to wait in position for less than 10 minutes before the couple came past, sheltering together under their umbrella. Result.

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Feel the Fear

Over the last six months I have written several posts that have explored the theme of fear. Each time my motivation for looking at this area was spurred by personal experience, in particular living through a very difficult health period. It is difficult enough to experience the challenging events in our life, but then to also consider that our behaviours that surround the event may be underpinned by fear is maybe a challenge too far. But it is in this arena that there is space for the greatest personal understanding and growth.

One of the thoughts I was often drawn to was that the fear we experience is a fantastic opportunity. Does this sound ridiculous? After all we do not want to feel fearful, do we? But how would it we be if we explored what was underneath the fear? What would it reveal? How would that enrich our life experience?

Yesterday, I had a consultation with a friend who is a homeopath. Rita is an old friend of many years, who I find it very easy to talk to. In the course of a few consultations, over the last few months, we have been exploring my current health challenges and the path that has led me to this point.

Our discussion yesterday started with the major changes that have manifested in my life in the last month: a diagnosis for my breathing condition and the decision for Beci and I to separate. Both of these changes have provided the ground for some big decisions and it is clear that I am at a particular crossroads in my life. After some discussion around how I felt about these changes, including the fears I had regarding the potential decisions that are impending, we returned to discussing my life choices that had led to the beginnings of my health condition, some 10 years ago.

I talked about the drive and desire to succeed that underpinned my attitude and commitment to my work and my running. At the time I was working at Swansea College as a senior manager and had secured a new management position in a re-organised college led by the new Principal. I was very keen to be successful and to be seen to be ambitious. At the same time I had committed to a thorough, and slightly obsessive, training schedule to run in marathons and other long distance races.

This driven and success orientated attitude to life was ‘normal’ consequence of the evolving culture of the time. You could say that I was simply immersed in the Zeitgeist. Alternatively, you might ask, (as Rita did) what was really fueling this behaviour? The answer came instinctively: fear. My desire to be brilliant at my new job, to be seen to be a committed and influential manager was fired by a fear of not being good enough, of having to prove that I was a talented and successful senior college manager.

Similarly, my commitment to a campaign of long distance races with incremental time and distance improvements was underpinned by exactly the same fears. I needed to be seen (by myself and others) as being good, and getting better at long distance running. There was also more to it; an element of challenging the effects of ageing was certainly present.

Mid-life often means we no longer play team sport and we may become seduced by the idea that keeping fit can be achieved through a programme of distance running. And this is of course true. But, there is also more going on. By striving to keep fit we are also trying to keep ageing at bay: or perhaps we could say that we are fearful of getting old and ultimately, dying.

Fear as the practice

The realisation that fear drove my behaviour over 10 years ago is not that much of a surprise, but it is only now that I see that it is an ongoing feature of life. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing in the background, like the hum of a radio, is fear. Understanding what each fear is, that is directing our behaviour, is the opportunity, the practice.

How can we learn to attend to and befriend the fear? How can we inhabit the motivation to hang out with fear?

There are two key inter connected practices: Present moment awareness and Training the mind

1) Present moment awareness

Present moment awareness is being completely here now. However, being completely in the moment when confronted by rising emotion, fueled by fear, is not always possible. Fortunately, there are cues we can follow to raise our awareness that we have moved into fear. Firstly we can note our physical symptoms: these tend to be in throat, chest or belly. We can investigate gently, with curiosity not judgment. Secondly, we can listen to the mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take us?

Now we need to train the mind to be able to come totally into the present moment and to connect.

2) Training the mind

Our intention is to “redirect our attention in ways that build some of our strengths in what we love, so that we can be with our fear“. We remember that we are connected by love to a whole world. We remember our strengths. We find access to a positive mental state. How do we do this? We need to change our habits, to train our attention to go where we want it to. We don’t have to use the familiar neural pathways. We need to forge new pathways, new ways of thinking.

I often liken our habitual thoughts to being the motorways of our mind. Re-training the mind to think differently means forging new off road tracks. As Tara Brach says,

“We can train our attention to have a different experience. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ If you consistently learn to pay attention a certain way, a way that reminds you that love is here, even when you feel scared…..then every time fear is triggered you get a little more access to remembering that, you get a little more space to be with the fear. Where the attention goes, energy flows.”

So, in the midst of noticing the fear ground yourself. Feel the gravity: your feet on the floor, your bum on the seat. Slow your breath, breathe deeper. Put a hand on your belly or heart. Breathe. Remind yourself that you are part of the whole. Reach out to wholeness. No matter what you call it (Jesus, Buddha, higher self, Gaia, God, soul, universal energy – everything in the universe is made of the same stuff). Can you accept that the fear is here and soften?

“Our path is to meet our edge and soften” Chögyam Trungpa

 

Sky, sea and sand

We have been fortunate over the last few days to experience a little sunshine in between the showers. As it has pretty much rained every day since November I have been very keen to get out and experience the sun.

Whilst I have been walking I have particularly been drawn to the interplay between the sky, sea and land. Each of the photos below is a favourite that illustrates that relationship. The light, patterns, textures, reflections, contrast and colours all have called me to create a photograph that demonstrates the demarcations and echoes between each of these elements.

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Four mindful photos

A couple of days ago I went for my regular circular walk. As Monty is currently away experiencing the Gower I decided to strap on my headphones, put my music on random and follow my eyes.

The walk takes me down local urban streets into a large park. Halfway round Singleton Park there is a cut through between Swansea University and Singleton Hospital that links up with the boating lake and park. From there you can cross the main road onto Swansea Beach and walk back amongst sandy footprints towards town, before heading back across the main road, up through the bottom of Singleton Park and back to the house.

What a joy to be able to experience this variety of views and terrains. The walk is around 4 km and takes between 40 and 80 minutes depending upon the number of photographic stops and prevailing wind!

The four photos I have chosen represent the three main areas traversed. For the photo that heads this post I was intrigued to contrast the urban telephone lines with nature’s more colourful lines. The second photo below was created to set the portentous sky against the dazzling lime green, golden sunlit trees. The third photo juxtaposes nature’s winter bones with ugly man-made purpose; also lit by the same golden morning light. The final photo was created to reflect the lines of beach, wet sand, sea with yet more ominous clouds.

What a difference a little golden light makes to creation of beautiful photos!

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January word

Have you joined the Twelve Photos Facebook Group yet? This is an open group who share one photo a month that represents a word. The word for January is Beginning.

I haven’t submitted my photo yet, but I have the idea I want to share and I am just waiting for the moment to occur. In the meantime I was reminded by the photo that accompanies this post, that every beginning is also an ending.

The photo shows the new Lifeboat station at the end of Mumble Pier. I was particularly struck how that every time the lifeboat descends to the water it is a beginning of a rescue. That the entrance to the sea is also an exit from dry land is immediately apparent. But I also reflected upon the way that the lifeboat’s journey was both a successful ending for those rescued (hopefully) and then a beginning. For any major event in our life is kind of a marker for change. A movement from before the event, to after the event.

This is the theme that the photo I intend to create will follow. Every beginning is also an ending and in between is a moment when the world shifted. I am really looking forward to seeing your photos on this theme and if you haven’t yet submitted, don’t panic there are still 23 days to go!

 

Simplify your camera set up

I have written in the past about how imposing limitations can fire up your creative juices, but simplifying your camera set up can also allow a greater connection with the visual feast in front of you. Let me explain.

I believe that the greatest area for development for a photographer is in our seeing. This is at the heart of Mindful Photography. There are two primary aspects to this seeing.

Anchor

The first is using what we see as our anchor; rather how a meditator uses the breath. As a photographer we can always return to what we are seeing when we notice that our mind has drifted off into thoughts, or we experience emotions, whilst photographing.

This thinking may be do with future events or past happenings. Perhaps a more common thread would be to experience judgmental thoughts about our photography. These can often be related to your photographic fears: fear of making a mistake, missing the shot, our photos not being good enough, a potential subject saying no and so on. With the practice of using our seeing as an anchor we can notice the thought and return to what we can see. Focusing our eyes upon the visual elements and what is in front of us.

This relatively simple instruction is of course difficult to maintain. Our thoughts are tenacious, particularly those that have fear as their root. But the practice of returning to an anchor can provide a little space for some of those thoughts to dissipate.

Seeing like a camera

The second aspect of our seeing development is in the process of learning to see like a camera. Slowly over our developing photography practice we begin to learn how what we can see can be replicated, and also completely different, from how a camera sees.

This area of knowledge can be studied and practiced and encompasses aspects that include: lens choice, point of view, our camera’s sensor size, framing, dynamic range, shooting in raw, direction of light and more. Each area of knowledge can be investigated and practiced to develop our understanding of the similarities and differences between our eyes’ and the camera’s light collecting abilities.

Simplifying your camera set up

Choosing to set up your camera in a simple way – that you are confident in using – allows you to concentrate on these two areas of practice: the seeing anchor and how a camera sees.

When considering which of the following set ups to use, one should choose a set up that feels instinctive. The priority is to practice the seeing. There is a time to practice and become more confident in using the manual features of a camera and there is a time when simplifying those choices allows you to practice the seeing. These are your set up choices.

  • Auto – camera makes all the decisions
  • Program mode (P) – camera chooses aperture and shutter speed but you can override those choices. Camera chooses ISO
  • Aperture Priority (Av or A ) – you choose aperture, the camera chooses shutter speed. You or the camera can choose ISO
  • Shutter Priority (Tv or S) – you choose shutter speed, the camera chooses aperture. You or the camera can choose ISO
  • Manual – all the decisions are taken by you

When practicing the seeing – mindful photography – I usually use aperture priority. This is a setting that I can use and adjust without even taking my camera away from my eye, almost intuitively. That is the kind of automated action you want to be looking for. So choose a set up that allows you to feel that way about the photographic process.

Interested? Find out more by attending one of my workshops.

 

 

Oxwich Point Surf

As the father of an avid surfing son I often get dragged out to explore new surf spots. This way I have ventured out to places on the Gower, such as Pete’s Reef, Bluepool and now Oxwich Point, that I would probably not visit otherwise.

Oxwich Point, I am reliably informed by Taylor, only works as a surf break when there is a huge swell, low tide and south – westerly winds. These conditions have been pretty regular over this holiday season, as big swells have piled in on the back of ex hurricanes and Storm Frank.

It is a 10 minute walk out from the Oxwich car park, down to the Point. Most of the way there is a sandy route, only as you get close to the end is rock scrabbling required. The day we went there was a 50 mph wind whipping round the headland, providing a challenge just to stand upright whilst watching Taylor catching clean breaking 5-6ft waves.

It was interesting to be stood almost at 45° to the breaking wave, but unfortunately Taylor was then mainly surfing with his back to me. So I had to wait for a top turn to get a glimpse of his face – generally a desirous effect even for a surf photo! Anyway, here are my favourite few, with a final portrait as requested by his Grandmother.

 

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