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Foundation Skills Course – Week 5 Elements of Visual Design

After a two week break we were back to Mindful Photography this week. Building upon the compositional guidelines we explored last time, I introduced the seven elements of visual design that can be used to consider how a photo can be arranged.

The seven elements are: Shape, Form, Colour, Line, Pattern Texture and Space. We explored some ideas around each one and then I set this week’s task. Every student was assigned one of the seven elements with the invitation to practice using it as their mindful anchor. Not only to create photos that represented the idea, but to come back to the element when they noticed how busy their mind was or how they were striving to create a ‘good’ photo that illustrated the concept. A zen like challenge!

The two favourite photos from each student are below. Can you identify each element they were using?

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Mindful Photography and Positive Psychology

Last Friday I was invited by Professor Andrew Kemp to talk about Mindful Photography to his Positive Psychology students. I will be explaining what positive psychology in a moment and exploring the links between it and what I do. There are plenty. I should also say that it wasn’t really a ‘talk’, more an experiential workshop. After an outline of what Mindful Photography is and sharing my 4 Stage Seeing Practice, I got the students and Andrew to complete a mindful photography activity and then share and discuss some of their favourite photos.

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. University of Pennsylvania

The link above is a great starting point and there are many more resources there that will provide you with all you could ever want to know about this fascinating branch of psychology. I’m gonna relate the three pillars of positive psychology below and it is from the same source. Dr Martin E.P.Seligman is kinda regarded (informally) as one of the fathers of this and he works at the University. His book Flourish is well worth a read. (I am not an affiliate)

The Three Pillars

The Three Pillars: Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits involves the study of strengths, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.

University of Pennsylvania

What has Mindful Photography to do with Positive Psychology?

All mindful activities intend to bring you into the moment. Mindful Photography is no different. You use what you see as the anchor to return to, every time you notice photo thinking, looking for a photo or any other thoughts or feelings arising.

All mindful practice leads to a greater ability to notice your thoughts and feelings. Such practice is not always easy, but the intention is that by being more aware you then have the opportunity to make a more skillful response, rather than your habitual reaction. Continued practice leads to greater self awareness, and an opportunity to practice being with the difficult moments, thoughts and feelings, rather than reacting in a normal human way – denying, deluding or distracting yourself!

This is true practice. Challenging practice. It is a practice because you don’t always get it right. Your habitual patterns and reactions are well ingrained, but practice leads to new neural pathways being created and the possibility of responding skillfully and positively to life’s challenges.

It seems to me that all mindful practice provides the foundation for understanding the self, one of the three pillars of Positive Psychology. This is the area that I have developed my work with Mindful Photography, particularly to support living with difficulty after major change of significant loss. It is at this time that everything you believe you know about yourself is uprooted, the tethers to your kind of ‘normal’ dissolve, and whilst you still remain attached to the version of who you were before the change, living with who you are now brings huge difficulty.

I believe that there is an opportunity to use Mindful Photography Practices to explore and understand who you are after this major change and significant loss. Sometimes talking about your thoughts and feelings is difficult, impossible or just not something you are used to. Learning how to represent emotions and ideas in a photograph provides a visual way of representing how you are. It also allows you to get personal and share as much or as little as you are comfortable with. The photos can exist shared or kept private, with or without explanation. They can be a window to your soul and the practice allows you time to process what you are living with.

My Work

I believe that this is my work for the next few years. I am finally finishing my book on the subject, and it will be available in 2019 initially as an eBook. I will continue to offer courses and workshops and will also offer free talks on the topic to interested groups. I also have an application in with the Arts Council to fund a project called ‘Who Am I Now?’ that will create up to 15 diptych self portrait photographs with people who are living with significant loss. One photo will represent who they were before the change and one who they are now.

I plan to develop my website and newsletter to support this clear direction and would welcome and thoughts, ideas and interest from you.

The Workshop

Back to the workshop with the psychology students. We were blessed with a glorious day and they were all invited to create 5 photos in 30 minutes, without looking at their creations and not deleting any photos. Upon their return they got into small groups and chose one photo per group to share and talk about to the rest of the group.

All of this was done with smartphones and a cool app called Slack. This allowed the students to upload their photos, share a written comment and it appear instantly on the feed. Kind of a closed Facebook group but without the need for a FB account. Unfortunately, I forgot to get written permissions so I cannot share any of their photos – you’ll have to manage with mine in this post!

One of the other ideas we were exploring that links Positive Psychology with Mindful Photography is that of Psychological Flow – the moment of being completely attuned, holistically, with the one thing that you are doing. It’s the kind of experience where time dissolves and you achieve maximum performance without realising how you did it. Practicing the skill is the bedrock of this experience, then somewhere approaching 10,000 hours of practice (Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers) you slip into the flow. In photography the camera becomes an extension of your body, all of the technical and compositional decisions just happen and a great photo is born.

At the end of the workshop Andrew asked the students if any of them had the flow experience. A few put their hands up. I’m grateful they were so polite!

Many thanks for the invitation for Professor Andrew Kemp and for the students for getting fully involved

 

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Foundation Skills Course Week 4 Mindful Composition

Week 4 brings us to Photography Composition, with a mindful twist. Now photography composition is an area of knowledge that generates books and courses on its own, and I cover it in two 2.5 hour lessons. Obviously, I have a particularly mindful approach, one that centres upon following a compositional guideline as a mindful practice. But I am getting ahead of myself. First a definition and then the guidelines.

Composing a photo means arranging elements within it in a way that suits the core idea or goal of your work best

As the topic of photography composition is so large I separate it out over two weeks and make use of a summative structure to help new students remember all the possible guidelines. This week I introduced the four overarching themes, each one having a few individual elements of composition that kind fit the theme. The four themes and elements are:

▪ Balance (Rule of Thirds, Weight, Frames, Diagonals, Symmetry)
▪ Subject and Background (Depth, Foreground, Isolate Subject)
▪ Point of View (Juxtaposition, Leading Lines)
▪ Simplicity (Minimal, Fill Frame)

The elements of each theme are each of themselves photographic composition guidelines, I just group them in this way to help understanding and learning. This is also backed up with visual examples and discussion. But the heart of my course is experiential mindful learning and that means a Mindful Photography Practice.

The students were invited to spend an hour following one of the themes and elements to create some engaging photos. They were encouraged to follow the 4 Stage Seeing Practice and to review each photo as they went, and then make adjustments.

The next session will cover part 2 of composition – the 7 Elements of Design. Later in the course we look at why, when and how we break the guidelines. Ooo, breaking the rules. Exciting.

Want to learn more? Come on one of my courses! Here are the students favourite photos.

 

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Foundation Skills Course – Week 3 Seeing the Photo

The beginning of the Foundation Skills Course in Mindful Photography is all about encouraging your ability to see a photo. An easy ambition you may think. Seeing a photo implies an ability to see a photographic opportunity. Perhaps the major challenge lies in that thought that may just have popped in to your head, “How do I create a good photo?”

The little voice we all have, can be curious about your ability to create a good photo. It may be particularly judgemental, saying things like, “Your photos are often no good.” “You can’t take good photos.” Or simply, “That’s rubbish”. This judging mind can be a real pain. And it gets in the way of what you are really capable of. My intention on the course is to connect you with what you can see and then to teach you the most interesting ways of representing that in a photograph. But what you have to do first is really strange, almost counter intuitive. I ask you to not look for a photo, whilst you are out creating photos.

I know, crazy right? How you can you not look for a photo and then create a photo. Ah well, that is what I teach on the course. It is a challenge, but it is also easy. What I encourage you to do is to remain present with what you can see. To walk in your location, not looking for a photo, but alert to what you can see. Then something will catch your eye. Only then do you stop and consider what it is. Really look at what is there. Look at where it is, how far away, what it is about it that stopped you.

Maybe you need to move closer. Maybe you need to change your point of view, move up, down, left right, in or out? Only after this consideration do you press the shutter, not look at the photo and move on. Walking, not looking for a photo.

I know. I said don’t look at what you have just created. This is helpful. It holds back your judging mind. If you don’t look at your photo, you will just move on, not looking for a photo. This way of being with your camera will improve your connection to what you can see. Then of course your photos will become more interesting.

This week’s mindful photos

This week’s task for our intrepid students was to create 20 photos in a small space in 45 minutes, not looking for a photo, not looking at what was created and just being with the seeing. Each photographer then shared at least 2 photos with the group and talked about why they shared them. Here they are.

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I’m a Square Peg

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Steve Jobs

Let me be honest here. I do believe that I can change the world. There I have said it. I don’t see this bold statement as egotistical, the belief comes from a deeper place than that. It is something I have felt for many years. It predates my major change of life several years ago. I felt it when I imagined I could do it from inside the machine. It was only being spat out that provided the circumstances and the experience for the basis of this work. Now many years down the line, after several slow steps along the way to an understanding, I find myself at a place where I know what I need to do.

Many of you will know that this exploration of Mindful Photography I have been living this past five years is more than just a means of self expression, it has also been the practice that has supported my positive acceptance of the new world that has become my life post acute health crisis. It is this knowing that forms the basis of how I would like to change the world.

Change the world

You may be familiar with the Mindful Photography work I have been doing with Brain Injury patients over the last 7 years. Most recently this has included two 8 week courses with one group that culminated in the Course “Who Am I Now“.

This latter course specifically supports people who have experienced significant loss or great change to understand what they are living through and move towards a positive acceptance of who they are after this momentous life event. The courses have been particularly well received by patients and staff and we have three more scheduled.

During the last course we were also visited by staff from the Welsh Burns Unit, who see how the course could benefit their patients. They are currently considering how they could fund the work.

Delivering this course made me realise that this is the work I was born to do. I have the experience of living through great loss, finding the adjustment to the new version of myself to be close to impossible, and then finding a way that I could combine Mindfulness and Photography to live through, process and move towards a positive new life.

That I can now share methods to do this with others brings me great joy and significantly adds to my own wellbeing. Not only is the work to continue to deliver further courses, it has finally given shape to my desires to write a Mindful Photography book; the book I have had partly written for 4 drafts and 3 years now has a clear purpose and audience.

The work will also form the basis of a collaborative Photography Project with others who are working though the same process after their own significant loss.

How do I know I can change the world? I already have. Don’t just take my word for it, here’s feedback from a student on my last course.

“The course has helped me to begin to accept what has happened – it’s not bad, but a challenge. To open up to others, my thoughts and feelings through the photographs I have created.

I have learnt that I am not alone. I am in a group where I feel safe and secure. That I can relax, breathe and create beautiful, meaningful photographs. That I find peace and mindfulness in the little things.”

NB. The photo is from one of my favourite cafés in Swansea called Square Peg! It’s where I first saw the Steve Job’s quote at the top of the page.  They serve great tea.

 

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Who Am I Now? – Week 8

Last Friday was a momentous day for our group. The last session of “Who Am I Now?”, the last one of 16 weeks together. For this course was the follow up the “Developing Mindfulness through Photography” Course. Two 8 week courses where much has been learnt, shared and experienced.

For our last week, in true teacher style, I led the group through a review of everything that we had covered and that they have learnt (hopefully!). This is worth sharing for those of you who may be curious.

This is what we cover in the “Who Am I Now” Course which focuses on using mindfulness and photography to explore who we are and how we are living after major change in our life.

  • Becoming Present – Mindfulness and Mindful Photography
  • Experiencing your thoughts and feelings – Creating photographs that express how we are
  • How is it now? – Exploring change and loss
  • Who are you now? – Learning to love and accept who you are now

We explore these areas through a variety of shared photos, thoughts, quotes, meditations and mindful photography practices. All of these lead the students to hopefully learn the following.

  • How to create photos of invisible things
  • Abstract photography
  • Using visual metaphors and symbols
  • Creating photos intuitively
  • How to face the fear (that accompanies the significant loss and change in life)
  • Loving yourself now (moving towards accepting how life is now )

The Final Week

After our review of the course I set the group a challenge. This particular mindful photography practice was one that was used by the innovative photographer Minor White. He favoured using this particular practice as a beginning for his students and sent them out with only this instruction (below) and their cameras. It is quite a challenging task, requiring self awareness and honesty. Ideal for the finishing group I felt, but challenging for Mr White’s new students!

Photographing your essence

“Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you. When you approach it, you will feel a resonance, a sense of recognition. Sit with your subject and wait for your presence to be acknowledged. Do not try to make a photograph, but let your intuition indicate the right moment to release the shutter. Continue photographing until you feel the process is complete”

Minor White

Why not try it out for yourself? In the meantime here are the photos (below) from our group, minus the honest explanations that were shared in the room.

This has been a fantastic experience and I feel honoured to have shared it with the group. I would like to leave you with the thoughts of one of the students when asked to share something about how the course had helped and explain what had been learnt.

“The course has helped me to begin to accept what has happened – it’s not bad, but a challenge. To open up to others, my thoughts and feelings through the photographs I have created.

I have learnt that I am not alone. I am in a group where I feel safe and secure. That I can relax, breathe and create beautiful, meaningful photographs. That I find peace and mindfulness in the little things.”

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Hafal Workshop in North Wales

On Monday I was invited to Snowdonia to deliver a mindful photography workshop for people who receive support from Hafal. The session was part of a whole afternoon that also included creative writing and was organised and funded by Literature Wales.

We were fortunate to have the use of Yr Ysgwrn a fabulously restored cultural and historical centre in Trawsfynydd, which is owned by the Snowdonia National Park. This is a beautiful part of the county and we were also blessed with a gorgeous day.

As this was my first session with the group this was very much an introductory session. I explained what mindfulness is and led the group through a short guided meditation. I then explained how photography could be used to develop mindfulness and invited the group to create photographs of colour in a beautiful surroundings.

After the session we wrestled with some technical challenges to save everyone’s favourite photos, but with tenacity we succeeded – and here they are!

Yr Ysgwrn Centre

 

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Who Am I Now – Week 7

Week 7, the penultimate week was all about love. Ahh! And all you need is love, don’t you? This week was the cure for the two previous weeks, which focused on Fear. Love is the antidote to fear, both holistically and chemically. Love produces oxytocin which is the natural antidote to the cortisol produced when we are fearful. See, all you do need is love!

Our first week on love centred upon the greatest love, love for oneself. If we can be compassionate for ourselves, fully accept and love ourselves then we have more space and capacity to love and be compassionate for others.

However this is not always easy. In the midst of our struggles with our own difficulty, swamped by fears, we may find it difficult to access love for ourselves. As a stepping stone to this the students spent a week creating photos of things in their lives that they were grateful for. The practice of gratitude supports the softening towards acceptance of our life as it is. If you would like to read more about this try this.

As a practice in reflecting what we love about ourselves the creation of self portraits is a challenging but great start. We looked at how photographers have represented themselves in photos. From the earliest of film days through Vivian Maier and Lee Friedlander to the modern take of creating selfies. All that was left was to create some of our own. Here are some of our favourites.

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Who Am I Now Course – Week 6

This week we built upon our discussions about loss and change. Specifically we focused on fear and how this emotion causes  physiological changes in our bodies. If you would like to read all about this here’s a link to my post on the topic.

One of the key features of fear is that it causes the body to release a cocktail of chemicals that get us ready to fight or flight. The problem with our modern world is that some of the stressful events that cause this physiological change do not require us to run away or fight, but instead to respond skillfully, instead of in our normal habitual way.

The challenge is that we are often unable to access the logic and reason we require – our limbic system (the oldest part of our brain) has kind of hijacked our mind to enable the fight/flight action without interference. So the key question is how can we keep calm and develop the ability for clear thinking in a crisis?

What we need to do 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”. To remember that we are connected by love to a whole world. To remember our strengths. Then we can find access to a positive mental state. How do we do this? (More on this next week)

There are many practices that develop this. One that I shared this week that the students started is a Gratitude Practice. In our mindful photography version the students created photos of things, ideas or feelings for which they were grateful. They shared their favourite ones with the group and they’re below. They are also going to continue this for the week.

If you would like to read about the science behind a Gratitude Practice try this

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Who Am I Now Course – Week 5

This week began the final half of the course with an exploration of how we are living now.

Often we live attached to an image of ourselves from a few years earlier. Most of us like to imagine that we are younger than we are and not admit that we are getting older. This gentle but relentless change is a challenge to us all.

However, if we experience a major change that includes a significant loss then the adjustment to this life event is even more challenging. All of the students on the course have experienced a major loss. Brain trauma happens immediately and life is unlikely to ever be the same again.

Any major loss in our life: health, relationship, loved one, job, career leads to grief, and a cycle of adjustment we know as the Grief Cycle. We may well know that the stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. We may also know that they are not linear. However it is unlikely that we will find it easy to live.

Photography provides a means by which we can create photos that illustrate how we feel. It also can be used on an ongoing basis as part of an exploration of how we are experiencing our life. Next week we will be looking at one of the engines of our struggles to adjust to great loss: fear.

After a long discussion about change, loss and grief, an opportunity to reflect how this made us feel was required. The Mindful Photography Practice we all did invited the visual contemplation of a tree, and the creation of photos that illustrated how we felt. Everyone took their time and then shared their favourite photos, and why they had chosen them with the group.

Here they are.

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Who Am I Now Course – Week 4

This week was all about the application of knowledge and skills learnt in the first 3 weeks and was an opportunity to get personal.

We were all invited to consider a barrier in our life, particularly one that was current. These barriers would generally be things that we are not comfortable with and would like to be different, but quite often the first thing we need to do is accept how it is now. This is particularly challenging when we would prefer the world to be different to how it is.

Every photo below was created in less than an hour in response to this invitation. They are personal to each photographer and represent the emotions caused by the barrier or the barrier itself. Every student opened themselves to this process and shared with the rest of the group what the barrier was and what the photo represented. This is powerful and important work. I congratulate you all on your bravery and honesty.

Who Am I Now Course – Week 3

This week I took the students understanding of abstract photography a step further and expanded their appreciation of using photographs to illustrate how they feel.

After a general introduction that discussed the use of elements of visual design (space, form, colour, line, pattern, texture and space) to influence how a photo makes the viewer feel. I illustrated how our cultural interpretations evoke particular ideas and feelings, for example the colour red represents danger, fire, war, power etc.

In addition to this we discussed how an element of visual design can produce a personal resonance, evoking specific memories particular to the photographer. This relationship between the view/scene and the photographer’s emotional experience when viewing the scene is fundamental to the production of great photography.

Stieglitz and White

To explore this territory we visited the work of Alfred Stieglitz (Equivalents) and Minor White, who was heavily influenced by Stieglitz’s work and produced a famous response – Equivalence: The Perennial Trend.

Both photographers explored this territory. Stieglitz was the first to demonstrate how other objects could represent human emotions with his photographs of clouds. This was his response to the critic Waldo Frank who maintained that his portrait photographs were only great because of the power of the subjects.

Minor White took this further, into the realm of the personal response to a scene, particularly one in nature. He liked to photograph scenes and objects that he felt a deep resonance with.

After examples and discussion and the students were encouraged to produce their own ‘Equivalents’, photos that represented how they felt and a particular time and place. They were then asked to select one to share and discuss with the group, explaining what the photo meant to them and how it made them feel. Here they are.