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Why mindfulness is relevant to photogaphy

My refocusing of my photography business as an online service that offers self development and enquiry through photography, with Mindful Photography at its heart, has encouraged me to reflect on why I have applied mindfulness to photography. Jon Kabat Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living), who has probably been one of the main catalysts for the growth in popularity of Mindfulness in the West, explains some of my thinking.

“….bringing Mindfulness to any activity transforms it into a kind of meditation. Mindfulness dramatically amplifies the probability that any activity in which your engaged will result in an expansion of your perspective and your understanding of who you are.”

Expanding your perspective

I like this a lot. “An expansion of your perspective” is a fabulous way of saying that you are totally immersed in the moment. Aware of what you are experiencing. Aware of the emotions coursing through your mind and feeling them in your body. Aware of the ground beneath you and the sky above.

As a photographer that would translate first and foremost to being completely tuned into the visual experience in front of you. The light, the colours, shapes, forms, patterns, textures and more would be what would provide your anchor. Like the breath can in meditation.

Furthermore the relationship between this visual experience and creating an equivalent of it with your camera (taking a photograph) would provide the opportunity to practice mindfulness with your technical and compositional choices. This is a huge subject; one I will continue to address through my online course (coming this September 2017)

Understanding who you are

The final part of the sentence, “…..and your understanding of who you are.” opens the possibility of using photography as a vehicle for personal enquiry. This is something that interests me greatly and I will continue to create resources throughout the next year to support personal enquiry through photography. I’ll be testing them on myself first and sharing them here.

Henri Cartier Bresson provides us a glimpse of how this enquiry is possible in his famous book ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

“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.”

It is these two areas: expanding our perspective and understanding who we are, that will be threads running through my mindful photography offering into the future. It is going to be a fascinating journey I do hope that you will join me.

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Is vulnerability a strength?

Vulnerability

In our fast moving, success orientated world it may seem that vulnerability is a weakness. Having worked in the vibrant hospitality industry and the results orientated education industry I am familiar with that perception.

My travels through the hierarchical world of management, from trainee to senior manager, certainly reinforced that view. Managers who reacted in ‘inappropriately emotional’ ways or had a ‘health crisis’ were often encouraged to follow different paths. Our learnt behaviour, through observation, was to be logical, determined and resilient.

Health crisis

My own health crisis occurred in the middle of my aspirational College career. I believed that I was on track to even higher levels of responsibility and was (almost) completely signed up to the accepted model of management style.

When I first became ill, I carried on. I worked for another 3 months, through a major inspection before succumbing to increasingly more challenging health. Whilst I was well supported by the College for over a year, once it became clear that I was unlikely to be able to return to my job I was encouraged to take a redundancy package.

Allowing vulnerability

Some eight years beyond that final departure, I began to see another side to vulnerability. I had finally begun to understand and accept my own choices that had led to acute health changes in my chronic condition. I  made the conscious decision to be open about my situation; to write about it here and to share my own vulnerability.

This allowing and admittance of a natural feeling has had two positive effects. Firstly, it has given me freedom to change my path. I have let things go. I have chosen to develop more supportive practices. Whilst this is still early days, by celebrating my authentic position I feel more myself, more rooted in core beliefs I am comfortable with. I can see that this change will provide the best opportunity to be healthy (as distinct from cured).

The second positive effect is that by sharing my own vulnerability I have given others permission to be vulnerable. I have received messages from others who have offered supportive words and related their own challenges. My friendships with other men have changed, deepened because a platform for discussion about difficulty has slowly developed. This has in turn further encouraged me that I am on the right path.

I am now two years on from that point and much has changed in my life and is continuing to change. The simple act of beginning to be open about my feelings has allowed more to surface. This opening in turn has changed my choices and decisions. My life has taken a new direction, and is still developing. It is like a stone thrown into the pond of life, the ripples spread out and out and continue to come. Eventually all will be calm, but perhaps the pond will never be quite the same again.

Vulnerability means facing up to my fears. Working towards understanding them. Working towards understanding why I make certain choices, why I behave in a certain way in particular circumstances. It is a doorway to greater self knowledge, and helps the development of fearlessness. You could say it is a superpower!

Vulnerability is an opportunity. By connecting to our own vulnerability, feeling it in our body and knowing it in our mind, we are one short step away from changing it from a perceived weakness to a strength.

Photographing Vulnerability

Photographing feelings and other invisible matters requires a few tricks. First up, you gotta have your imagination fired up. For me, that generally means before lunch and maybe just after a large steaming mug of tea! Then you need to consider your preferred working style. If you’re a planner, who needs to consider all props and conditions, then get out a notepad and start brainstorming. If you’re more intuitive and responsive, then take a look around. What is before you and how can you use it?

I think it was Walker Evans who believed that the photographer’s greatest tools were metaphor, paradox and oxymoron. Me, I do favour a visual metaphor and in terms of my style I lean more towards the intuitive, with a touch of planning.

I created the photo below at a community photography workshop a couple of years ago. Having spotted our box of lego mini figures my first thought was to represent myself (the photographer) as one of the figures by using the lego camera prop. After I had decided against any of the hair additions (there not being a thinning grey haired one available) I had the inspired idea to use the T Rex as a metaphorical ‘threat/fear’, creating a vulnerable position for the lego photographer. Then it was just a question of an interesting location, use of the available light and choosing the appropriate exposure. Voilà!

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Slow down your photography

Digital Photography is fantastic. Its ability to capture what we see and allow instant review has revolutionised photography. It has changed how we create photographs and how we edit them. But perhaps the most fundamental change is that it has supercharged the creation of a photograph. Photographic creation and sharing is now more like a Ferrari 812 Superfast, when back in the film days it was more like a classic mini.

Maybe you still hanker for that classic mini experience. We are currently experiencing a growing interest in film photography. Perhaps there are elements of that slower pace, more engaged process and almost ritualistic nature that we are missing from the digital experience. But there are ways of experiencing a film like experience with your digital camera. Ways of slowing the process down and re-introducing some ritual.

So, in honour of Slow Art Day 8th April, and in a desire to provide you with techniques to connect you with the creative experience, I offer you the following 10 tips for slowing down your photography. See what I did there – or didn’t do? A whole three paragraphs without using the word ‘mindfulness’. Whoops. Now I have. But mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment and these tips will help you to do that too!

10 Tips to slow down and connect with your photography

  1. Turn off your review screen or tape a small piece of card over it – Just like a film camera you can’t see what you have just created. This assumes you have a viewfinder to compose the photo. If not you could still do it and shoot blind, imagining what is in your frame.
  2. Limit the number of photos you create – go filmic with a 12, 24 or 36 limitation
  3. Use a small packet of sweets (Skittles work well!) to count/remember the number of shots you have used – Count them out before you start. As you can’t see the screen (using number 1) use 12, 24 or 36 skittles in a little bag. After every shot eat one sweet. It’s a win win!
  4. Limit your location area – Combined with 1, 2 and 3 this encourages you to really notice what is around you. Limit the area to a 100 yard square area, or less if you are feeling bold.
  5. Turn your lens into manual focus – Turn off the auto focus. It is a great art re-learning how and where to focus, and it also slows you down!
  6. Shoot from the hip – Now this one could actually speed you up. But if you hold your camera at your hip, and compose by imagining what your camera can see, you will slow down. Especially if you combine it with 1 and 2.
  7. Return to the visual – Whenever you notice your mind thinking about your next meal, tonight’s activities or some aspect of photographic skill, STOP and return to what you can see in front of you.
  8. Do not download your photos for at least 2 days – Back in the day we had to wait. Unless you were developing your own film, but even then it took time. I used to send my film off for developing and then wait a few days before looking through the returned photos, hoping at least one was a keeper. So, wait for a few days – at least 2 – before downloading. When you do look through them, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Notice the judgement and the commentary.
  9. Set your own mini photo marathon – Randomly choose 4 words, set aside 4 hours and create 4 photos in order, to represent the words. Photos must be in the word order and you must finish with only 4 photos. You could limit and slow yourself even more by ONLY shooting 4 photos. No deleting.
  10. No deleting allowed – Closely linked to number 2, do not allow yourself to delete any photos. Knowing that you cannot delete will encourage choice: whether to photograph or not, and this will slow you down.

PS The three photos accompanying the post follow some of these tips

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Get Creative – Impose Limitations

On the 25th March I am running a Photography Walkshop titled ‘Creative Limitations’ in Swansea. This post explores a little of the ground that this idea sprung from! If it interests you why not book on, there are still a few places left and it will be a small group ( not more than 10). There will also be cake. What’s not to like?

We often think of limitations in a negative sense. Can’t do this. Not able to do that. But there is a positive side to limitations that can fire your creativity and attitude to life.

I have been living with a physical limitation for several years. Many people do. It is undoubtedly true that this limitation has shaped the way I live my life. It has influenced my career, relationships and interests. It would be possible to see these changes as negative, but I feel it has provided the framework for a more conscious life.

The limitations perhaps should be described as parameters, boundaries in which I can live, love and breathe. And in much the same way we can decide upon a set of parameters in our creative work and this then can fire our creativity. I recently came across this idea in the book The Photographer’s Playbook (published by Aperture). The book comprises 307 photographic assignments and ideas from a range of practitioners of the art and this particular idea was shared by Christopher Anderson (Magnum photographer).

“The greatest freedom is to have no choice. Confining yourself to certain parameters can actually lead to discovery of a universe of subject matter that is hard to find when you (if you are like me) tend to wander endlessly.

Make a set of parameters in which you will work. This could be a geographical parameter (one city block for instance), or a psychological, thematic, or technical one. The point is to create a method of working where you make some very strict and precise choices about how you will not work. The stricter the better. Set a time constraint (one week, month, whatever) during which you will work only this way. After the time period is finished, repeat the assignment by creating an entirely different set of parameters.”

An example

I have used this idea of parameters several times, with varying degrees of commitment and outcome! I thought I would share a few photos from a project called 50/50 which I started one January a couple of years ago.

My intention was to take 50 portrait photos of people I met using just my 50 mm lens. I managed 16 before something changed. Not sure what but I stopped doing the project. Perhaps it was because it was not time bound. I now see the benefit of that. Anyway here are a few of my favourites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Life and Photography

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” – Ansel Adams

I was looking for inspiration today and came across this fabulous quote by the landscape photographer Ansel Adams. His thought expresses a concept I have explored before and one that I shall be revisiting on my second Spring Photography Walkshop.

The relationship between your inner world – your thoughts and feelings – is one that must reflect your creation of a version of the outer world – the photograph, if you are to create a great photograph. You cannot separate the photographer from the person. The photographer is the person, and if your photographs are to say something of how you find the world then you have to allow that to shape and influence the photographs you create.

The photos I have included to illustrate this post were all created yesterday whilst practicing mindful photography. In that practice my intention is to remain (or return) to the visual whilst my mind shoots about. In that continuing practice I quieten and become more attuned to my outer world. The hope is that in this still place a connection between what I perceive and how it makes me feel is established. In that moment I press the shutter.

“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” – Ansel Adams

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Guest Post – Kim Manley Ort

Photography and the Web of Connection

I spent the summer of 1976 living with my Dad in Windsor, Ontario (Canada), a place I’d never lived before. He’d moved there a few months earlier and was able to get me a job where he worked.

My second part-time job that summer was teaching figure skating at the local arena. A few weeks in, the skating club had a “test day” – where skaters perform before judges to see if they’ve achieved the required skills to move to the next level. The cold and cavernous arena was filled with the chatter of skaters, coaches, judges, and parents all gathered for the big day. There was a sense of camaraderie in the air. When someone passed a test, you could hear joyful sounds of celebration and when they didn’t, you heard groans.

While I had been warmly welcomed by the skating community, it was clear on this day that I was an outsider. I didn’t belong. At least, I felt like I didn’t. Most of the people there had long established relationships that would continue long after I left. Surrounded by hundreds of people, I felt very alone.

Sometimes, we feel the most disconnected and lonely in a crowd.

Maybe you’ve felt this way too. Since I was a young girl, I yearned to connect in a way my family members and closest friends could not always satisfy. It wasn’t the kind of connection met by conversation or through sharing experiences or memories. It was another kind, but what was it? It took me years to realize what I was missing and how to fill it.

In fact, it wasn’t until I began to photograph that I discovered the very connection I was missing. When that first image of winter trees in my backyard appeared in the solution so many years ago, I felt an aliveness I’d never experienced before. The photograph was a tangible representation of my connection to a place. Those intertwined branches represented the inherent way everything is already connected. My camera was showing me how to be fully in the moment and to connect through my photographs.

“All my creation is an effort to weave a web of connection with the world. I am always weaving it because it was once broken.” (Anais Nin, Winter, 1942)

Ever since then, I’ve practiced reweaving my web of connection through photography.
My camera teaches me how to slow down (pause), pay attention (focus) and then connect with what’s there (click the shutter). It teaches me about myself, what I’m drawn to and what I turn away from. It teaches me how to engage, and most importantly, how to trust what I must share.

Every photograph is about relationship – between photographer and subject or between subjects within the frame.

I believe that we live in an interconnected, interdependent world and that the quality of the world and of our lives depends on the quality of our connections and relationships. We are unique individuals, but we are not islands. We are connected. We belong. Photography then becomes not simply a way to express myself, but that connection. A photograph is a symbol of relationship. It’s a visual Namaste, where something deep inside of you connects with the essence of your subject.

To give you an example, while in Chicago, I walked along the river one cool and rainy morning. Colours often stand out on these types of days. This was certainly true on this day as I found myself drawn towards two small, fuchsia pink leaves glued to the back of a lime green bench. They were slightly overlapping and covered with big, fat raindrops. The scene felt so tender, like one was comforting the other. The contrast of the two bright colours accentuated the feeling. I moved in close to focus on the two leaves against the lime green bench.This simple and minimal image shows what I saw and hopefully, what I felt.

10 Ways to Connect through Photography

1. Pause and notice what’s resonating inside. What stopped you?
2. Focus by looking closer with a soft and loving gaze.
3. Notice any judgments that come up and let them go.
4. See everything as a worthy and potential subject.
5. Open to new possibilities by changing perspective.
6. Welcome the unexpected. Let the photographs come to you.
7. Use all your senses in the experience.
8. Notice what you’re feeling.
9. Trust yourself and what you value.
10.Share yourself generously.

We are all forces in this world with the potential to connect and contribute. Each one of us has something to offer. Get to know what you value and what matters most and you will begin to live out your purpose. Nothing needs to be added to make your life more interesting. Instead, eliminate what’s not important and follow your instincts. Your life will be richer and more rewarding, and you will have a greater impact on others. Everything you do and say and create matters.

Kim Manley Ort is a photographer and workshop facilitator. You can connect with her through her website, Facebook page, or on Instagram. The photographic exercises in her book, Adventures in Seeing: The Camera Teaches You to Pause, Focus, and Connect with Life, will help you to tap into a deeper awareness of yourself and the world around you. You’ll rediscover your own connection with a world fully alive, a world where you belong and have a place.