Ascend is the WordPress photo challenge of the week. These word challenges resonate when I can relate them to my living practice of paying attention to the world and responding skillfully to events and challenges, rather than simply following old habitual thoughts or actions.
To ascend simply means to climb up, or to rise. It is in the latter interpretation that I find an echo of my practice. To rise or soar, to my highest potential is ultimately my intention. I chose the word intention, rather than goal because I want to indicate that this is an ongoing practice, a daily paying attention, rather than a goal to aspire to. I am not certain that there is an end point, that would be the the purpose of using it as a goal. It is more a regular tuning in to how I am living. What I am doing, the choices I am making. The way I am through each day. Living a mindful life is regularly reminding yourself that you are intending to live a mindful life!
So to soar to my highest potential is a journey of small increments. Not of steps forward and retreats back, but more of flowing with the current of life’s river, my head above the water paying attention to my travels. It is about noticing when I fight against the general flow, or cling to the banks to avoid being torn away by the way life is heading, particularly when I am uncomfortable with the direction or speed.
I am fortunate, at least I call it good fortune today, I didn’t a couple of days ago. I get reminders if I cling to hard, or try swimming against the flow. My body reminds me that I am trying too hard. My breathing condition manifests as a physical change. I literally have to slow or stop, for my limited breathing will not allow anything else. After the initial anger, and the necessary medication, the breathing usually re-balances. And in that space, where I am right now I reflect upon my choices that led to the physical change.
Each time I get a little wiser. Only a little! Each time I learn a little more about how I am and how I could be. Soaring in your life is not a one time event, those ascensions are just happenings that bring us joy and make us feel alive. They are the opposite of the crashes. Both are to be treated with the same equanimity. They both pass, and by paying attention to how we are in them, we get a little wiser and more attuned to who we are and how we are. Living a mindful live is an intention not a goal.
The photo is simple metaphor for keeping your feet on the ground when you are looking at the heavens. It was created all in camera, using a double exposure and playing with the white balance.
I went to the park yesterday with the goal of creating a photo to illustrate the word serene. It did not turn out as I expected. In fact the only photo I liked of the set created (the one in this post) echoed how I was feeling rather than what I had intended. Demonstrating that what I teach is in fact true!
On my online course, and at workshops and live courses I teach about how to illustrate a feeling with a photo. In summary there are two approaches.
- Learn all the ways in which you can use the elements of design (shape, form, colour – or tone in b&w, line, texture pattern and space) to indicate a feeling. This relates to our cultural interpretations and familiarity with the visual elements. A good example of our cultural interpretations can be found with our emotional reaction to colour. Just think about how red or golden yellow make your feel. How much of that feeling is culturally driven?
- Alternatively you can just go out when you are experiencing a strong emotion, pay attention to what you are seeing, not look for a photo and then see what presents itself. I know that this instruction is a little Zen like. To see, but not look. But I can guarantee that it does allow something to happen that is quite magical, a connection with how you are feeling. However, you do have to practice.
Back to yesterday, and the serene photo. I went out with a goal and some preconceived ideas. I did not practice what I preach! It was a glorious day and I combined a few ideas about what I imagined would provide a serene photo with some technical experimentation in camera.
It was all a bit too much. I was trying to hard and nothing really flowed. I became a little agitated. BUT (and it is a big but for me) I noticed. I stopped trying, went and sat down on a bench in the crisp brilliant sunshine and had a cup of tea.
I sat and I just looked. I occasionally created a photo. I took a sip of tea. I chatted with a local. I rested. In this slowing down I became more present, although still a little preoccupied with my goal. I reviewed my photos and noticed that one (the one here) illustrated my emotional experience just after I had stopped trying.
The photo made me feel a little unsettled and I wasn’t sure why. Now I know. It reflected my disappointment at not achieving my goal, my restlessness, my trying to hard. There is something a little unbalanced and forced about it for me. It has done exactly what I have summarised above in point 2. It has connected with how I felt.
When you go out experiencing an emotion and don’t look for a photo you may well find that you are drawn to create photos that reflect your inner world.
“I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.”
Cartier-Bresson ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952
ME or Multiple exposure is as old as photography. Back in film days it often happened by accident when you forgot to wind on after taking a shot, then the second image would be superimposed on the first. It is also something that I have experimented with in the past using a Holga camera – a medium format film toy camera. The image below was created in the cold Winter of 2011, and was created from three consecutive exposures.
When I owned a Canon 5D II I had hoped to be able to create digital versions of the technique, but Canon didn’t introduce the feature until the mark III was released.
This week I have been editing my Mindful Photography book (again) and rediscovered the art of Chris Friel a creative genius with ME and ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). He uses a Canon 5D III and is self-effacing about his intriguing creations.
It was reading about his technical choices that reminded me that my Fuji X-T2 might have the facility to create ME photos. I checked and it does, although there are limitations with its use. Only two images can be combined in camera, whereas the Canons can combine many more.
I also noted in Chris’s generous advice that he uses many extreme settings in camera and tries to avoid doing much post editing work, only doing minor adjustments in Lightroom. This appealed to me. I like to work as much in camera as possible and it seemed to me that ME had the possibility of creating work that was an emotional response to found scenes, rather than documenting them.
A Mindful Approach
Of course being a photographer who is practicing living a mindful life I have started to consider a mindful approach to experimenting with ME and have come up with the following 7 steps. They are equally applicable to any genre or photographic technique.
- Read and study the skill. This is a great start.
- Understand the possibilities and limitations of your camera.
- Go to a location with possibility, stay in one place and practice.
- After each photo review what you have done and consider changes.
- Be compassionate with your creations. They are signposts to your path forwards.
- Share your art and get feedback.
- Keep practicing, refining, reading, studying, comparing and distilling what you create. Your aim is to discover what you like. Your photos only need to please you. Feedback from others is interesting and potentially helpful, but ultimately if you like the photo then that is enough.
In the spirit of being a teacher who practices what he preaches, I have started practicing. The photo below is my favourite from a set I took at twilight last night on Swansea Bay. I invite your comments! The extreme colours were created by playing with the white balance, the highlight tones, shadow tones and colour settings in camera.
Chris Friel recommends NOT combining ICM with ME. I get that, but I decided to experiment with it anyway. Hence the rather soft defocused nature of the tree. I believe there is possibility here and will continue to practice.
It struck me today, whilst out walking at the beautiful Langland bay that a ME selfie would make the perfect header image. The me in ME! Here it is below in all its glory. I will continue to practice and refine how and why I use this technique. I am interested in its ability to convey emotion experienced through visual elements of design and the blurring of what we consider reality.
This was the final week of our 8 week development of mindfulness through photography, and along the way create some fabulous photos. This week we covered two more mindful attitudes: Acceptance and Non-Striving, shot a little video of the some of the students sharing their experiences on the course and had some lovely cake (provided by the students)!
Just so you don’t miss it, I’m going to start with the video which shares some honest and enlightening tales of what was experienced on my Mindful Photography Course. Here it is
Mindfulness encourages us to see things as they actually are in the present moment. As the present moment plays out, we practice noticing our feelings, our physical sensations and the thoughts that flit across our mind. It may well be that we don’t actually like what we are experiencing. We may try to avoid, distract or just deny the experience.
Acceptance is the quality that allows us to be with all the difficulty, without turning away. Acceptance encourages us to turn towards the difficult experience. To sit with the feelings, sensations and thoughts, allowing them to ebb and flow and slowly, bit by bit allowing them a little space in our lives.
When we experience major change or loss in our lives we often find that accepting how things are now beyond difficult. The loss we are trying to understand may have left us quite different physically, mentally and emotionally, in comparison to how we were before it happened. We may be attached to an idea of who we are that reflects how we were, rather than how we are now.
Processing this major change may take us a long time and there is much difficulty to work through. The Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle that was developed to illustrate our adjustment to the death of a loved one is also applicable to any other major change or loss in our life. We have to live through the Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression before reaching Acceptance. And whilst these are often described in linear fashion they are not always lived so clearly. We may move between the various stages, hopefully slowly moving towards acceptance.
Carl Rogers (psychologist) wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
As applied to photography
Photography can help us live through these stages, creating photos that illustrate how we feel, when we are feeling it. Last week I set the students homework to go out with their cameras when they were experiencing great emotion and create some photos. Not to look for particular scenes, but to simply walk and create what called out to be photographed.
Each student then shared their favourite photo and we reflected upon how it made us feel. Here they are.
Non striving is non doing and was the second Mindful Attitude we looked at. Meditation can be described as a non doing activity – if that is not a contradiction. We sit and we be. We are present and we are ourselves. What we experience we pay attention to. We may choose to return to the breath when we notice thoughts flit across our minds. We are non goal orientated.
Now this is all fine and dandy in theory. However, we live in a ‘doing’ culture. We have grown and developed in a society that values action, activity and succeeding. We need to feel that we are doing stuff and that we are ok. So when we begin to meditate we do see it as an activity, something to do. We must do our meditation. We must do certain things to ensure that we are doing the meditation correctly. We choose a certain place, time of day, length of sitting, structure to follow and so on. Then we try to get this all ‘right’.
Often then, especially as we begin meditating, we may feel discouraged. Our mind is incessantly busy. We don’t experience any quiet. Or we may choose to notice experiences that reinforce our belief that we are doing this meditation thing right. We may experience feelings, colours, great peace and any of these confirm our confident belief that we have got this meditation thing cracked. We are either doing it right or wrong! Either way we are doing it.
So how do we move from doing meditation and mindfulness to being and non striving? There is a blurred division between doing and being. In meditation we set out to meditate, we are doing the activity. But it is in our approach to being present with our experience, of non striving, of being non goal orientated that we move to being in the moment. We achieve this by paying attention, that is all. We pay attention to our present experience, we come into the present moment and we stay with our anchor – the breath or seeing (mindful photography) – we become what we already are, a human being.
As applied to Photography
Non striving as a concept applied to photography is a fine aspiration. As photographers we are very attuned to the processes we must follow to create a great photo. Our attention to technical and compositional choices is fundamental to the creation of a good photograph. But a great photograph requires something of us, something of our soul, something of who we are. To create memorable photographs we must marry the technical and compositional with our intuitive heart. How do we do this? By being in the moment.
That fine dividing line between doing and being is present at the moment of visual creation. The decisive moment that we choose to press the shutter is a moment that we are not holding tightly to our doing. We know, on a practiced and confident level, that we have made the right technical choices. Our practice and training has equipped us with the skills to flow into creative compositional choices of the visual elements before us. All of this is not at the front of our mind as we simply rest in the moment of creating a photograph. We allow the photo to come into being. This being in the moment encourages an instinctive connection with our feelings, our very essence becomes part of our created photo. To photograph is to be, wholly and magnificently, in the moment.
The students were given the challenge and practice of creating just one photo. BUT (and yes it is a big but) they had to walk and not look for that photo. To create a photo without looking for a photo is not only very zen, it’s a fabulous practice and one that can be spread out over a day.
The striving part of our mind wants to make sure that the one photo is a ‘good’ photo. We may have preconceived ideas about where to walk and what we will see. The practice is to notice these thoughts and to return to what can be seen. To simply walk and trust that an opportunity will manifest. Here are their photos.
“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I am going is what inspires me to travel it.” – Rosalia De Castro
I have been a little preoccupied of late. Very busy living life; fulfilling commitments, completing tasks. It leaves little room for reflection and contemplation. As a consequence my blog posts have echoed this period, with plenty of feedback upon my live and online courses. Nothing wrong with that of course, but just occasionally it helps to stop, get quieter, be a little less driven, reflect upon where you are at and contemplate the path ahead.
I was sent the quote that heads this post by my Mum last night. She lives in Canada and dutifully sends me things she comes across that she thinks I will find interesting. The quote comes from a novel about a man who restores old photographs, and I have a few more quotes she sent to call on too.
Following the path
I particularly resonated with this quote. Since I quit my part time job in May I have been working freelance. This has involved a period of re-adjustment and of course, trying to generate work that pays! I have launched my online course and I am delivering a live version of it to Brain Trauma Injury survivors. Both are going well.
I also have project work with the Arts Council Wales, working with schools, pupils and artists to deliver creative learning. It’s great fun, inspiring and interesting. It is also, like all contracted work, short term. I know what I will be doing, work wise, up until June 2018, but beyond that it is a mystery.
I kinda know the path I am on. It involves developing and delivering more mindful photography courses and workshops, both live and online. This resonates with my own personal exploration and intention to live as authentically as possible. The two aspects are intertwined and together form the path.
What I am uncertain about is what lands I will travel and where the path will take me. That is both the attraction and the uncertainty of the path. And as Rosalia De Castro said, ‘…….not knowing where I am going inspires me to travel it.’ But occasionally it is seems helpful to stop, look back at the path travelled so far, look ahead at it disappearing over the hill and wonder at the magic that keeps me on track.
The home stretch! This penultimate session carried on with our consideration and development of mindful attitudes through photography and we started by reviewing the photos created by the students for their homework. After that we looked the mindful attitude of Beginner’s Mind, before setting more homework around Acceptance.
Homework – Rightness and Wrongness
Last week I finished by setting the students a mindful photography practice for homework. The goal of the practice was to notice our habit of judging our life experience. We are constantly evaluating how the world is treating us, and this usually manifests as a judgement that we either like or dislike what is happening.
From this habit we then try to repeat the things we like and avoid or deny the things we dislike. All perfectly reasonable you might think, that is how life is, but not always helpful when we can’t control what is happening and we are looking to reduce the stress in our life.
There is a middle way. A noticing that we have made a judgement, taking a few breaths and being with how it is. Feeling those emotions playing out in our body. Noticing the thoughts around avoidance creeping in. And breathe! Slowly the feelings and thoughts will soften and then dissolve.
It is a lifetime’s practice, but how can we work with this habit photographically? We make the same judgement about every photo we create. We either like them or dislike them. What if we were to create photos that were good or right and another set of the same scene that were bad or wrong?
Can we look at the different photos of each subject, notice how they make us feel and consider whether sometimes the wrong photos are more interesting than the right ones. What you need is some photos to compare. Below you will find the pair that each student chose to share.
The cultivation of a beginner’s mind is an intention. We resolve to receive each moment as if it was the first time we experienced it. (Which it is!) We imagine that the sensory information we are experiencing is fresh and new to us. We really notice what it is that we can see, feel, smell, touch and hear.
When we are sat meditating the object of this intention is often the breath. To sit and experience the breath as if for the first time is to alert our senses to where and how we feel the breath in our body. Its cool entry at our nose. The gentle rise and fall of our stomach. The subtle expansion of our chest. The sharpening of our senses brings us into the experience and roots us in the present moment. To expand this practice into other areas of our day and life supports our intention to be mindful.
The trick is taking this sensory experience and developing it in situations and environments that are familiar. This is a re-tuning of our senses. A conscious decision to notice. We may choose one particular sense to work with or simply remain open to what our senses reveal.
The very essence of this practice brings us into the moment, encouraging our presence within our current experience. In photography this can be explored as part of a mindful photography practice. Our intention within the practice is to notice the visual experience as if for the first time. And that is what we did!
Each student was encouraged to return to a location they had used before and to imagine that it was the first time that they had been there. Then to create some photos that represented that experience. Below you will see each student’s favourite photo from their mindful photography practice.
Homework – Acceptance
I finished by introducing the mindful attitude of Acceptance and then set the students homework around this challenging area. To find out how they got on call back next week!
Week 6 took us in to new territory! After a recap of what we had covered to date (Seeing and composing photographs) We started a new topic: Mindful Attitudes.
In 1990 when Jon Kabat-Zinn published his book Full Catastrophe Living (the backbone of the MBSR Course) he included 7 attitudes that help to underpin a mindful attitude to life. They were Non Judging, Beginner’s Mind, Patience, Acceptance, Trust, Non Striving and Letting Go. In later additions of the book he added more: Gratitude and Generosity.
I believe that there is one more essential attitude: intention
Intention is the commitment to turn up for yourself. Your intention is what sets you on the mindful path to developing your self awareness to find more ease, freedom, and peace. Intention is the doorway to those other mindful attitudes: non judging, patience, beginner’s mind, acceptance, non striving, letting go, trust, gratitude and generosity.
Making mindfulness an intention is a beginning. Intentions are found in the present, so just by making one, you have already accomplished what you set out to do. An intention cannot fail, because it happens right now. With an intention, there is no required result—we are simply connecting to our chosen course. “I’m just going to practice, and see what happens.” Therefore we invite curiosity, a sense of experimentation: “Well, this is interesting, I wonder what’s going to happen now?” Intention has strength, as its rooted in reality, but also suppleness—holding to an intention doesn’t mean our actions can’t change, based on what we discover.
Ed Halliwell Mindful.org
I then set the group a practice. The aim of the Mindful Photography Practice was to understand the difference between a goal and an intention.
An intention happens in the present. A goal will be achieved (or not) some time in the future. The intention of the practice, was to do the practice. Easy, huh? The goal was to produce five photos that illustrated all four compositional themes: Balance, Subject and Background, Point of View and Simplicity.
My last words were is does not matter if you do not achieve the goal. Remain with the practice.
Upon return each student chose two photos to share. They may have achieved the goal or not. The only criteria for choice was that they like them. Here they are.
Week 5 built upon the Photography Composition skills we learnt last week. This time we looked at the Elements of Visual Design.
There are seven to be aware of that are relevant to photography. They are: Shape, Form, Line, Colour, Texture, Pattern and Space. After some explanations and examples everyone was challenged to choose just one of the seven and create some photos that illustrated its use.
This is more difficult than it sounds, because the students also had to not look for a photo; to walk and observe what they see. This is a tricky proposition, to see, but not to look. It is of course a mindful practice, almost zen like!
The students reported back different experiences: frustration, excitement, disappointment were all common. This is normal, in fact it is great that the feeling experienced is noticed, for that is the practice. The photos are a useful, hopefully interesting, outcome.
Each student then submitted two photos that illustrated their theme and we had to guess which one it was. This was not always easy, as most photos contain more than one of the elements of visual design. They are all presented below in pairs. Can you identify the theme for each pair?
What is Zen?
“To study Buddhism is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.” Dogen Zenji
OK, let’s start with a definition. Or let’s not! For that’s how slippery Zen is. For there are those that suggest that defining Zen is like describing the taste of honey to someone who has not tasted it. Sure you can relate it to other things, explain its texture, its colour and so on. But to taste it is the experience. The only way to know what it tastes like is to taste it.
It’s the same for Zen, it is an experience. But perhaps a little explanation would help. Here’s one from the website Zen Buddhism.
“At the heart of the Japanese culture lies Zen. Zen is, first and foremost, a practice that was uninterruptedly transmitted from master to disciple, and that goes back to the a man named Siddhārtha Gautama – The Buddha – 2500 years ago in India.
The practice of Zen meditation or Zazen is the core of Zen Buddhism: without it, there is no Zen. Zen meditation, is a way of vigilance and self-discovery which is practised while sitting on a meditation cushion. It is the experience of living from moment to moment, in the here and now. Zazen is an attitude of awakening, which when practised, can become the source from which all the actions of daily life flow – eating, sleeping, breathing, walking, working, talking, thinking, and so on.
Zen Buddhism is not a theory, an idea, or a piece of knowledge. It is not a belief, dogma, or religion; but rather, it is a practical experience. Zen is not a moral teaching, and as it is without dogma, it does not require one to believe in anything. A true spiritual path does not tell people what to believe in; rather it shows them how to think; or, in the case of Zen – what not to think.”
All clear now? Mmmm, I know it’s slippery. But at the heart of that definition is the knowledge that it starts with just sitting and extends out to all aspects of your life. Zen is mindfulness. It is the practice.
Perhaps the real question is why am I banging on about Zen?
I will be very clear here. I am no expert, but I do believe that there is great merit in a Zen approach to photography. What do I mean? Zen is experiential. Zen is full and complete presence. Zen is paying complete attention to your present experience.
Everything I read about Zen reminds me of my mindful approach to photography. The foundation of Mindful Photography is clear seeing. Using what you see as your anchor, the thing that you return to whenever you notice that your busy mind has taken you into the past or future. In fact the 4 Stage Seeing Practice (that I share at all my workshops and courses) has as its first and second stages very Zen like features.
Stage 1 is all about anchoring yourself in the moment. It is a meditation upon your presence at your location. I encourage an awareness of the sights, sounds, smells, touches and what you can hear. This brings you into the moment. But it is Stage 2 that is most Zen like.
Stage 2 is all about the seeing. But it in the instruction that the challenge lies. I ask you to walk, to observe what you see, but not to look for a photo. It is this instruction that causes most confusion and resistance. After all why should you not look for a photo? That is what you are doing, looking for things to photograph.
Yet if you do not look, you will see more. How can that be? You will not be so limited by your mind’s interpretation of what would make a ‘good’ photo. If you keep yourself open to possibility, you may begin to dissolve that very strong drive of your mind to present you with things that you are familiar with or interested in. If you remain open and aware of this drive you may see more. You may see things that ordinarily you would have missed.
Of course what makes this practice most Zen like is that you will read this and you may not understand. It is experiential. You have to do the practice with the intention of following the instruction and an awareness of your mind’s tricks. Only then will it begin to make some sense when interesting sights present themselves, or you create a photo that in some way resonates with how you were feeling when you were there. A deeper connection develops and infuses your photos.
David Ulrich has written a fabulous sounding book Zen Camera: Creative awakening with a daily practice in photography which is due out next March. He is an active photographer and writer whose work has been published in numerous books and journals including Aperture, Parabola, MANOA, and Sierra Club publications. Ulrich’s photographs have been exhibited internationally in over seventy-five one-person and group exhibitions in museums, galleries, and universities.
Here is a little bit about the book. Mine is on order!
“A beautifully illustrated guide to developing a daily photography practice that draws on mindfulness and Zen Buddhism. ‘Zen Camera’ is a photography and mindfulness programme that guides you to the creativity at your fingertips – literally – requiring nothing more than your smartphone or any other type of camera. You’ll learn how to use the camera in your pocket to explore self-expression as a photographer and produce photographs that are both wildly beautiful and unique. Gorgeously illustrated with full-colour photographs, David Ulrich’s lessons combine mindfulness principles with concrete exercises and the basic mechanics of taking a good photograph. He guides you through a programme of taking photos every day and also offers insight into the nature of seeing, art and attention.”
PS The Photos
The photos were all created during a Mindful Photography practice that centered upon a consideration of my Point of View. As you might be able to tell I created the photos on a wet day in a children’s play park (in autumn of course!). I spent around 30 minutes slowly walking around the space stopping at each piece of equipment to consider how I could create an arresting photo. Did I succeed?
The halfway point of our 8 week exploration of Mindful Photography saw an investigation into mindful composition.
Now I know that composition is a huge topic, one that books delve into in great detail, but I had 2.5 hours. So my intention was to summarise the key concepts (or guidelines) and then encourage the students to choose one of those to use as their anchor, whilst practicing the 4 Stage Seeing Practice.
Now this is a tricky proposition, but it is a practice. The students were asked to choose one of 4 compostional themes: Balance, Subject & Background, Point of View, or Simplicity. Each one contains several elements and the students also had the option of including one of those.
Then all they had to do was find an interesting location and create some photographs. After everybody returned they each chose to share their favourite photo, and talk about why they chose it. Here they are.
If you or your organisation are interested in a Mindful Photography Course for your team, participants or students take a look at the Course Page and get in contact for a chat.
In June 2016 I took part in the Edinburgh Photomarathon. It was a tricky competition as we were given disposable film cameras with only 12 exposures possible.
If you’ve taken part in any photomarathon you will know that you get given a number of topics, usually the same number of hours and have to produce one photo for each topic.
With a digital camera this is easier as you can practice, reframe, delete and create as many as you like before settling on one that you feel meets the brief. With a film camera you just have one shot, one attempt and limited creative control.
So when topic 4 was revealed to be
Cacophony my immediate thought was, ‘What the hell will I do with that?’ Kim (gf at time) and I headed towards Waverley Station, thinking well it’s bloomin’ noisy there, perhaps we’ll get ideas when we’re there.
As we approached the station I noticed a group of women, boisterous and all dressed similarly walking down the hill. ‘Hen do,’ I thought and imagined that they would be up for acting up and noisily for the camera!
After chatting to them to explain what was going on and establish that they were up for it, I explained that I was going to lie on the floor and that I wanted them to lean over and, on the count three, shout uproariously at me.
I had realised that I needed to fire the flash as well, as the sky was quite bright and otherwise they would have been in silhouette. I explained I only had one chance to get it right and counted down….. and they went for it!
My only disappointment was that the photo did not win the topic category as I felt not only was it cacophonous, but that it was also technically and compositionally tricky. Ah well, another opportunity to practice living with disappointment!
Week 3 was our second week looking at Clear Seeing. In particular this is about establishing Seeing as an anchor; the foundation of our Mindful Photography Practice.
To do this we use the 4 Stage Seeing Practice: an activity that encourages us to use Seeing as an anchor in the same way as we can use our breath when we meditate. So we walk and we do not look for a photo. We observe what we see. We notice what we see. When something catches our eye we stop. We pay attention to what it was that stopped us. And before we press the shutter we consider where we are going to place the frame. Then we press the shutter and move on.
Throughout this practice when we notice our mind shooting about – thinking about photos, thinking about whether we will be able to create a ‘good enough’ photo, thinking about ourselves doing the activity – we notice and return to what we can see. It is a practice.
A Small Space
The Mindful Photography Practice (photo activity) we all followed this week was called ‘Small Space’. In this activity everyone chose a small space to remain and walk around for 40 minutes. 20 photos were created, composed through the viewfinder (or screen where this was not possible) and not reviewed after creation!
Only when we returned to the classroom were we allowed to review the photos. During the review stage I encourage everyone to notice their thoughts, particularly the judgemental one, ‘I like that one. I don’t like that one.’
Everyone then got to share and talk about one of their photos. Here they are.
This week was all about developing a Mindful Photography Practice where Seeing was our anchor. Clear Seeing was the key topic and we looked at what that is and how it is that we see. We then compared how we see to how a camera sees and began the process of noticing those differences.
The foundation of Mindful Photography is the Four Stage Seeing Practice. This is the practice I share on all of my courses and workshops and stands at the heart of developing our ability to be present with our desire to create photos.
Like meditation the Four Stage Seeing Practice is easy to understand, but difficult to remain present with. But if we are to create fabulous photographs then we must learn to see – everything that is in front of us. And seeing everything that is there is not as easy as it sounds. Our minds consistently trick us, presenting those things that we are interested in, rather than the totality of all that is in front of us.
Of course they do this to help to support our progress through the day and to keep us safe. But it also limits our visual experience and if we are to create fabulous, resonant photos then we need to develop our Clear Seeing.
We followed two Mindful Photography Practices to develop our Clear Seeing. The first one was based on a quote by John Updike – ‘giving the mundane its beautiful due’ and challenged everyone to create beautiful photos from an ordinary object. Here are our favourites
Seeing in Colour
Our second Mindful Photography Practice centred upon the creation of photos where colour was the key feature. It was fascinating to reflect that whilst we followed these two practices students following the full Online Course in Mindful Photography were doing the same activities in different parts of the world. Here are our favourites.
Today’s blog post is a personal story from a friend of mine who is also a Mindful Photographer. Ruth’s story is a personal account of how mindful photography has helped with her wellbeing and mental health. It is an honest account of living with difficulty and how mindfulness combined with a creative outlet can support you to live with the experience.
Mindful Photography: a tool for improved mental health
In September 2014 photography started to take on a whole new meaning to me. For some time I had struggled with episodes of anxiety and depression and I was going through a particularly challenging time. I decided to attend a retreat “The Photography of Being” in Scotland for a week.
I allowed myself to feel the debts of my thoughts and spent a couple of days immersing myself in the darkness of the dense mossy wood where I was staying. As the week went by I started to feel lighter and found myself coming out into the open, where I observed the movement of the running stream and the beauty of the nearby Loch.
The warm autumn colours were already in their full glory and I lay on the ground and bathed in their warmth. My series of photographs from the week show my process of being in the dark and coming out into the light. The experience was incredibly therapeutic.
A year later, I experienced what at the time I called a full on breakdown. I was overwhelmed and burnt out and my body forced me to stop. Fear got the better of me and I was not able to work for a few months. As part of my recovery I went for walks in the beautiful woods and commons where I live in Stroud in the Cotswolds. I took my camera or my mobile phone with me and found myself asking nature to support me.
I allowed myself to be guided instinctively towards particular places, objects, colours, textures, shapes, patterns, and areas of light, dark, or shadow that caught my eye. I looked at the detail as well as the bigger picture. I started to ‘be’ fully present in the moment, to breathe and to experience what I was looking at, not only through my eyes, but through all my senses. Sometimes I would take photos; sometimes I would simply look. I found that nature would ‘speak’ to me through my eyes or the lens and help me look at my life with a fresh perspective.
As part of my recovery I also renewed my interest in mindfulness; I had participated in an 8-week mindfulness course some years previously, which was helpful but in some ways added to the stress I was feeling at the time – it was another thing I had to do! This time though, I instinctively thought: mindfulness + photography = mindful photography.
Over the past year or so I have been sharing mindful photography through the photography walks, workshops, commissions, projects and talks that I offer through my photography business Look Again, which I launched in 2012.
And it was with great delight that I found that other people were also practising mindful photography. I was particularly drawn to the work of Lee Aspland, who I have since met and has now kindly asked me to write this blog!
What I realise now is that my breakdown was in fact a breakthrough. Mindful photography has become a practice that I use to help myself deal with my own mental health challenges and that I love to share with individuals, communities, organisations and businesses through my work with Look Again. It’s wonderful to slow down, look, look again and see with new eyes.
Please contact me or visit Look Again to find out more.
As you may have seen in my last post 5 Mindful Photography Tips to help you create fabulous photos I recently followed a mindful photography practice on the beautiful Gower Peninsula.
I am fortunate to live a short 15 minute drive from the south coast of this ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. The beach at Pwlldu was viewable on my circular walk, one of my favourites on this section of the glorious Welsh Coastline, and features in this small selection of favourite photos from the practice.
I have just got back from a mindful photography practice on the beautiful Welsh coastline and I was struck by the thought that it had provided me with an experience that I would not have had unless I had followed the practice.
Immediately I thought, how can I share this in a way that helps you!
So here it is, a concise version of what happened and how mindful photography practice can support your creation of fabulous photos and reverberate mindful awareness through your life.
I parked the car in a safe quiet car park, set my camera up in Camera Scan Practice set up I use (Aperture Priority, f8 ISO 200 – it was a sunny day) and set my meditation timer to 1 hour.
I already had my 35mm prime lens attached to my Fuji XT-2 (roughly equivalent to the human eye’s focal length) and had a simple circular route planned to walk at a gentle pace. My intention was to use my 4 Stage Seeing Practice, and to return to what I could see every time my busy mind took me off to future plans or reviewing past events.
I walked at a steady pace, enjoying the warm sunshine on my face, the edge of autumn on the air and the signs of nature turning down towards winter. Each time something caught my eye I stopped, observed completely what it was that had taken my eye and then made choices about how to create the photo, before pressing the shutter and moving on.
Sometimes this process took a few minutes, sometimes only seconds. The length of time is immaterial, it is the attentive presence that is at the heart of a resonant photo that inhabits how that moment was for you.
Over the next hour I walked though my route and created around 15 photos. I did not review any of the photos as I created them, just pressed the shutter and moved on.
After completion I still had a little way to walk, and all uphill. As I reached the top of the lane, a flock crows flew over and I was aware of first my desire to create a photo of them flying over, and then my judging mind as I responded too slowly to capture the experience.
I stopped at the top and breathed. Partly to recover my breath and partly to attend to those feelings. I smiled to myself, compassionate with my judging mind and pulled my camera in front of me. As I did this a few crows flew back over, I lifted my camera and instinctively created the photo at the top of this email.
Of course as I was using a 35mm this photo has been cropped quite a bit, but I was struck by how my presence and timing had been able to create an image where this was possible and the crow was sharp against a blue, blue sky.
This experience is the inspiration for these 5 tips below that highlight the benefits of a mindful photography practice. I hope that you find them useful.
5 Tips for Fabulous Photos
- Plan a regular photography practice. Set aside at least one hour, once a week when all you are going to do is practice photography.
- Regularly use the same lens and camera set up. Familiarity with how the camera sees in relation to how you see will develop. Your ability to see like a camera will develop.
- Use a meditation timer to formalise your practice. I use the free Insight Timer app. This works even when there is no signal. This is ideal for then you can also turn your phone to airplane mode, to avoid distractions, and then the timer will log your practice when you next connect.
- Do not have a goal to create photos! Your intention is to walk with your camera and observe what presents itself to you. When something visually attracts you stop, breathe, really pay attention to what it is that has caught your eye. Notice the strong desire to ‘take’ a photo. Breathe. Consider how you will frame the photo. Consider if you have to move your feet or camera.
- Press the shutter and walk on. Release your desire to look at what you have created and return to your walk and the seeing.
After your practice don’t look at the photos straight away. Take your time, notice how you are. Return to somewhere quiet, get a cup of your favourite hot beverage and sit peacefully and review your photos.
As you look through each image be aware of your mind. Be gentle with the judging thoughts, the mind that says this photo is good and that photo is bad. Notice the judgement and smile. It’s OK, you noticed. Breathe and look through the photos. Notice how you are after the practice. Has it made a difference?
This week I started the delivery of my 8 week course in Mindful Photography for Morriston Hospital’s Brain Injury Service. I was particularly excited to start this as it is the first occasion I have delivered in this format, although I have worked with the service delivering other provision since 2012.
My intention over these 8 weeks is to introduce the students to mindfulness, meditation and mindful photography. The aim of the first week is to provide an overview of those topics and start the practice of slowing down the speed at which we create photos.
Digital cameras are fantastic in many ways, but your disposable relationship to the photos created has underpinned a disconnection to the present moment. When I used to shoot film there were a limited number of shots on the roll. I could not see what I had just taken. The cameras were often manual. I had to attend to what I was seeing, and to what I was doing with the camera, to be certain that I was creating the best representation of my visual experience. This meant that the process of creating several photos was slower than it is now.
Now you can take eight photos per second. Take fifty of a scene, review them instantly and discard the ones you do not like. Throughout my courses and workshops (online and live) I encourage a greater attention to this experience and share mindful photography practices designed to slow you down and truly connect to the visual moment.
It was entirely appropriate then that the first activity I shared in Week 1 is called ‘Slow Down’. In this practice (I call the photography activities practices because it implies that you don’t have to get then ‘right’ and that they can be repeated, again and again) the students cannot see the viewscreen and have to imagine what the camera is receiving. They are also only allowed to create 10 photos in a set period of time. All of these limitations slow the process down, or encourage a slowing down! Some still find it challenging.
After the activity the students return to the class and look at their photos for the first time. During this process I encourage an attention to the thinking that is taking place, particularly the judging mind that reviews each photo and determines whether it likes or dislikes a photo. This is the first time of many that I relate the mindful photography practice to life. For your judging mind, and its interpretation of experiences as ones you like or dislike is echoed in the ‘Slow Down’ Mindful Photography Practice.
Each student then chooses one photo to share with the group and we all follow a ‘Creative Review’ mindful practice where we practice connecting to how the photo makes us feel, rather than critically reviewing its composition or technique. Of course those critical thoughts also pop up, but the practice of connecting to how the photo make us feel is a foundation for future mindfulness and mindful photography work.
Here are the students favorite photos. How does each one make you feel?
I try to schedule 3 retreats a year. These are a time when my intention is to slow down and be present. I sometimes have a goal, often something creative, but the intention is the foundation.
There are all types of retreat possible, but at the heart of any ‘spiritual’ retreat is “a period or place of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation” (Oxford Dictionary). It is possible to do guided retreats with others or choose solitude. Many retreat centres welcome all faiths and beliefs, whether you consider yourself a participant in that belief system or just want to be somewhere peaceful and safe.
I choose to follow a solitude retreat at Llannwerchwen Retreat Centre. This centre is situated in the hills north of Brecon, Wales and is run by a Catholic order. Whilst they do offer support and guidance they also welcome everybody to use the space and accommodation for solitude retreats. I only ever see the people running the centre at the beginning and end of the retreat.
I have visited many times over the last ten years. I have witnessed the bare bones of winter and sneezed through the vibrancy of spring. I have been sunburnt in high summer and most recently experienced the onset of autumn. Each visit brings a different experience. Some of those experiences are coloured by the accommodation allocated, its view and feel. Others are influenced by what is on my mind when I arrive, but always they are shaped by the choices I make whilst I am there.
So I thought I would share a few ideas that I believe help support the possibility of a beneficial (solitude) retreat. This knowledge has been gained the hard way! For every tip below I have done the opposite. I don’t claim that the list is perfect, every experience will still be different, but these tips support the potential for an enriching experience.
15 Tips for a beneficial (solitude) retreat
- Set an intention. This is best kept simple. For example, to slow down or to be completely quiet. It is not a goal – something you have to achieve – this is to be a way of being whilst you are on retreat.
- Turn your smartphone to airplane mode. Set the ‘vacation responses’ on your email and text and still be able to access those talks by wise guides that you have pre-saved. It will remain a temptation to switch back on, but all aspects of a retreat require discipline, this is just one other. The hardcore alternative is to leave your phone in the car or at home!
- Be self sufficient. Bring with you all the food, drink, toiletries, reading material, arts equipment and other props that you require. But be lean with your choices, always ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this?’
- Don’t drive anywhere. Leave your car in the car park
- Exercise. Walk in nature, slowly paying attention to the sensations you experience. Do gentle yoga.
- Meditate. Commit to a regular meditation practice (maybe morning and night) and integrate other mindful practices: walking, washing up, art, photography. Centre upon the development of concentration.
- Get creative. Take the materials for a creative outlet. The quieter and more rested you get the more likely your creativity will be sparked. Try painting, drawing, colouring, sketching, writing or photography. The quieter and less stimulated you want to be the less of these things you will take.
- Eat well. Cook wholesome fresh food with quality ingredients. Use the preparation, cooking and eating as a mindful practice.
- Contemplate. Sit in nature or in your accommodation in complete silence doing nothing, maybe enjoying a hot mug of your favourite beverage.
- Limit sound. Choose whether your retreat will be in complete silence or if you will be supported by dharma talks or similar. Try not talk to yourself (out loud or in your head). This is particularly difficult initially.
- Take with you…. A flask, water bottle, pens, paper, colours, camera, inspirational reading, appropriate seasonal footwear. The quieter and less stimulated you want to be the less of these things you will take.
- Pay attention to how you are each day. Be aware of your sensations, your thoughts and your feelings. These will guide wise choices.
- Read (if you have to) that which will support your intention. Not material that will agitate.
- Be gentle with yourself. Be compassionate for your experience. Everything is possible. It is all passing through.
- Ease in and out of the retreat. Think about how the phases before and after can support your experience.
Here are a few of my favourite photos from my recent retreat
I hope that you’re enjoying the day and have taken the opportunity to enroll on my FREE Mindful Photography Course.
This post is all about what it is like to do a Mindful Photography Course with me.
Ailsa Brims, whose story follows lower down, enrolled on my Mindful Photography email course a couple of years ago. Her story is a great illustration not just of how much you’ll learn with me but also how it will change your photography and you!
Do have a read – and by the way the photos are Ailsa’s too.
In January 2015 I suddenly found myself redundant from a career I loved and I was rather lost and depressed. I used some of my redundancy payment to buy a small Canon camera and signed up for Lee’s course. I’m so glad I did!
I really enjoyed the step by step, week by week approach. The Mindful Photography Practices were challenging but I threw myself into the tasks and was amazed at the pictures I was able to create. Until then, I had seldom taken a picture that I was really happy with, I’d see something, snap away and then be disappointed. Lee taught me to stop and slow down and to really focus on what it was about the scene that had appealed to me. I started creating abstract shots that were far more ‘me’ than the landscapes I had always attempted before.
The feedback from Lee and the other class members was invaluable in giving me support and encouragement to carry on.
After the course I continued to take mindful pictures and develop my style but I also wanted to learn more about mindfulness. I read widely and started to do mindful meditations and found benefits in many areas of my life. Mindfulness in general has had a huge impact on my life, I am less stressed, more grounded and more in touch with the real me, I am much more confident.
An example came a few months after completing the course. I had just completed the excellent mindfulness course by Mark Williams and I was photographing at Brighton Station. After a few minutes a security guard came up to me and asked me to stop (he actually had no right to do that, I was not doing anything wrong) but I happily stopped and got on my train. Sat on the train I reflected about what had just happened. The old me would have been aghast that I had been singled out to be ‘told off’ in that way, I would have sat on the train embarrassed and angry, I would have fumed all the way home. The new me was mildly amused – a much more relaxing way to live!
Soon afterwards I had the opportunity to study for an MA Fine Art which was a complete change from me (I’m a scientist!) but my work for the year ended up being around what mindfulness feels like and included a lot more mindful pictures.
I am now working as an artist and about have a solo exhibition of mindful photography and I am always grateful to Lee for setting me off on this path.
I highly recommend his course to anyone!
Visit www.peppermintsea.com for more information about Ailsa and her work