Arts on Prescription

Swansea has just started an Arts on Prescription service. Read on to find out what that is and how the arts can support your well-being.

HARBWR is the name of Swansea’s Arts on Prescription Service. It runs creative and engaging arts activities to support people dealing with mild mental health problems, isolation and loneliness. It also offers to organise groups for carers and a ‘Dance to Health’ activity for falls prevention.

But what is arts on prescription? I hear you say. It is a part of a social prescribing service that guides patients to community services that support their well-being, through an arts activity. I know, I’ve dropped another term on you. Here’s an NHS definition of social prescribing:

“Social prescribing involves helping patients to improve their health, wellbeing and social welfare by connecting them to community services which might be run by the council or a local charity. For example, signposting people who have been diagnosed with dementia to local dementia support groups.” NHS England


Part of HARBWR’s service is a provision called Rengarific, and I am one of the artists running the provision. Here’s a little video from me explaining what it’s all about.

I delivered a version of this with 2 groups last summer, during lockdown. It was fascinating to see what people created from someone else’s art. And the final exhibitions were a joy to behold.

I am delighted to be involved with this developing service, it mirrors some of my own work and really can make a difference. The arts can definitely support people to work through challenging thoughts, feelings and experiences. But don’t just take my word for it, here’s a statement about just that from the Welsh NHS Confederation.

“Participatory arts and crafts activities in community and healthcare settings provide opportunities for people to engage with each other and their own creativity, directly improving their sense of well-being. The arts can reduce stress and increase social engagement as well as provide opportunities for self-expression.” Arts, Health & Well-Being May 2018

Simplify your camera setup

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

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


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

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

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

Seeing like a camera

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

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

Simplifying your camera set up

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

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

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

When practicing the seeing – mindful photography – I usually use aperture priority. This is a setting that I can use and adjust without even taking my camera away from my eye, almost intuitively. That is the kind of automated action you want to be looking for. So choose a setup that allows you to feel that way about the photographic process. Then you can pay attention to what you see, not having to stop to think about technical choices. A more intuitive reaction to what is in front of you becomes possible, and that has the potential to transform your photos from good to great.

Interested? Find out more by enrolling on Mindful Photography 101

Street Photography Lenses

There is plenty of debate and loud opinion about the ideal focal length for a Street Photography lens. I thought I would put two to the test during a recent walkabout in the city of Swansea in Wales. I’ll be considering the merits of a 27mm and a 90mm prime lens, both on a 1.5 crop factor sensor. Let’s start, as I did, with the 90mm.

Camera and lens setup

My camera kit for street photography

On a picture perfect day in sunny South Wales I met up with a mate to stroll about our home city of Swansea. After sorting out the awkward parking meter, our first conversation was about which focal length lens to use. Ralph had a 10 – 24 f4 and a 35mm f1.4, I think, and was not sure which to start with. I had already decided that I was going to attempt to channel Saul Leiter, who favoured the longer focal length, so was opting for my 90mm f2 on a Fuji X-T4.

Saul Leiter was a painter by training and liked the longer focal lengths as it compressed the scene into distinguishable shapes and frames, often creating a more abstract vision of the street scene. Another photographer I admire who makes similar use of shapes and frames is Alex Webb. With visions of their work at the back of my mind we discussed lenses and Ralph opted for his 35mm.

Of course, before we set off decisions were needed about camera setup. On the street you need to be able to respond quickly to the scene and have a clear vision of what you want your photos to look like. Do you want depth of field with a sharp subject and background? F8 maybe. What kind of focus set up are you using? Pre focused at a certain length and move yourself to that distance with at least an f8 aperture, or auto focus with a fixed or tracked point? What about the shutter speed? At least 1/500 helps to freeze the action and on a sunny day that probably means you can use ISO 400 or 800 (in sun or in shadow). I opted for f8 ISO 800 in aperture priority, which generally got me at least 1/500 of a second.

90mm lens from an alleyway

90mm f2

Using this lens on my camera is equivalent to a 135mm on a full frame camera. As I am used to using a 35mm (52mm equivalent) it’s a lot closer. Now, there is a street photographers’ school of thought that suggest the ideal focal length is 35mm (full frame camera). This provides a ‘normal’ view of a scene – similar to our eyes, and does not distort or compress any scene. This is true, it also often requires you to be quite close to people, and that’s what makes some photographers uncomfortable.

Fear of being confronted by someone who does not want their photo taken is something most of us do not like. Using a 35mm you need charm, positive body language (a smile), quick and confident shooting style and a ready apology should offence be caused. Of course using a 90mm you can be 3 times further away to get the same sized person in your frame. However, your lens is far more obtrusive and some believe can create an avoidable distance between you and your subject.

I’m not so sure about that. The photo above, created in an alleyway, still has great eye contact and the distance I was away from the pre focussed subject meant that I could use the reflecting bricks, on the left, for colour and to point at the subject. For me, it’s all about the final look you want to create, as well as capturing the decisive moment. Let’s take a look at some more of my favourite 90mm shots, before we compare this to the 27mm and consider whether black and white or colour is the way to go.

Concentrating in the Square

This is a great example of my preferred compositional style. I deliberately moved to place the angle of the rising concrete wall in the right corner, to point the viewer’s eye towards the guy on his phone. He’s also framed by the continuing wall, on the left, and the contrasting horizontal steps. It’s in B&W for the reason I’ll explain in a mo.

Which version do you prefer here? I believe that the B&W one is more aesthetically pleasing, but that it could be construed to be racist. I was concentrating on people walking right next to the coffee bean background, to have both them and the background sharp. I’d set up the green contrasting tree to cover roughly the right hand third. So, I focussed on the woman on her phone, the guy on the right came into shot as I pressed the shutter. They certainly have a different feel to each other.

After a while I decided to change from my 90mm to my 27mm. I hadn’t really found any scenes with the kind of depth, shapes and frames I had in mind. Perhaps I need a busier, bigger city to play in?

27mm f2.8

The Fujifilm 27mm f2.8 is a pancake lens, light as a feather and equivalent to 40mm on a full frame, and that’s about as close as you can get to the human eye’s focal length. I am more used to this lens and immediately stood in places to get close enough to people for them to react or avoid. Here’s my first attempt.

Alex Webb style?

I have an anthology book of Alex Webb’s fabulous street photography. He fills his frame with frames, shapes and people. This is the closest I got to creating an homage! I stood pretty much in the middle of a street corner, had my shutter on multiple shots, focussed on the guy on his phone and created a burst of 5 or 6 photos. In this frame there was great separation between the people, people in masks to root it in the now, and a humorous pair of hands appearing out of someone else’s chest. I also like the manikin calmly surveying the scene.

I then sat down, on street brickwork, near floor level, and opposite a row of male naked manikins. Initially, I framed the ‘Topman’ word, plus single manikin, I waited for men on their own to walk past. For contrast I then re-framed the shot to what you see here and waited for a female to walk past. I like it, and the B&W works for me.

Hop Top

Colour or Black and White?

Street photographers tend to be quite vocal about which is best, colour of B&W? Perhaps B&W is more gritty, more urban. It certainly accentuates pattern, shape, texture and lines. I shoot in colour then convert to B&W in certain circumstances. The question I ask myself when looking at the original colour photo, is would B&W enhance this photo? That enhancing may be about the colour being a distraction, or colour being a key part of the composition – like this one.

Red and White take away

In this photo red is the theme that links it all. The woman is even framed by the red and white advertising posters, creating a frame in the frame. It would probably work well in B&W too, but the red is there for a reason – to catch your attention – and that’s good enough for me.

Now, this final photo would definitely work in B&W too. I lined up the reflections in the phone booth on the left hand third to frame the women larking about, and then just as I pressed the shutter one of them, looked at me. Perfect timing. Lucky too, but then as Gary Player said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Back to the streets then!

Street fun

Creating art for exhibitions

Let’s reflect upon the process of creating art for exhibitions. The first few months of each year seem to be, what I have now named, ‘Call’ Season. Many national and international exhibitions and competitions call for new work to be submitted. As that period is passing (soon to be followed by ‘Rejection/Acceptance’ season) I thought I would reflect upon the process.

Generally, I have been working on something over the past year, and often that work is suitable for the ‘Open Calls’. In these circumstances it may just be a question of choosing the best of a series, to fit in with the number of submissions allowed, and ensuring that the titles fit the brief.

In the last 4 months I have entered selected works from my Pandemia Project to a few different competitions. The project attempts to process and reflect upon the felt emotions from our last pandemic year. One of my favourite photos from this series is ‘Global Sharing’, which like the rest of the project was created by using multiple exposure techniques in my local countryside. This one made use of extreme blue and green white balance settings create the ‘global’ feel.

Global Sharing

Some exhibition call outs though are themed. The Centre organisation, based in Santa Fe, had several different awards and categories this year. I chose to enter the ‘Personal’ one and created some new multiple exposure images in the style of Pandemia. This time however, to meet the ‘Personal’ theme, I chose to combine some of my existing multiple exposures as a double exposure in Photoshop. ‘Confined Freedom’ below is my favourite example of that, using simple visual metaphors and dynamic colours to convey the conflicted emotional experience.

Confined Freedom

I did feel at the time that I had reached an end with this particular themed work. However, it was a great experience of attempting to use your chosen approach to a particular brief. Sometimes this experience flows easily. Other times it feels a little forced. I believe that the stronger work is created when the experience flows, maybe not easily, but hopefully in a naturalistic manner.

Summer Exhibition 2021

I have entered the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition for the last two years. Initially, I was inspired by visiting the show curated by Grayson Perry in 2018. Walking round the oldest open art exhibition in the world I thought, I could enter something for this!

In early 2019, I went out for a walk with my camera, with the intention of finding a scene that could represent how I felt about Brexit. I was not looking for a photo, but one found me!

There was an old closed down pub on my route and I wandered over to have a closer look at it. The Cricketers stood facing the St Helen’s Cricket and Rugby Ground in Swansea. The pub was famous for being in shot when Garry Sobers hit 6 sixes in an over on the ground, at least one of the huge strikes sailing down the road next to the pub.

I was unprepared for the chaos inside that greeted me, when I looked through the only ground level window not boarded up. The floors were all gone, the low winter light that poured through the upper windows lit a scene of havoc. The main wall facing me was daubed with some graffiti that looked like two warring penises created in blood. It reminded me of the in-fighting, personal battles and arguments of the Brexit debate. Then I noticed that if a leant back a little I could capture some of the reflected clouds in the window, hinting at the possibility of the currently hidden hope of a resolution. The final version below has also had a change of artist’s name. The graffiti tag being replaced by the name Eris – the Greek goddess of strife and discord – a fine maker of the mess we found ourselves in.

Where’s the Brexit?

The experience of creating the art took a few minutes. Everything fell into place; seeing the opportunity, noticing the graffiti, light, chaos and reflection all happened immediately. Pressing the shutter only twice, I moved on, knowing that I had the photo. Later that Spring I was notified that my photo had been selected for the exhibition, and was displayed in the main hall. This was fortuitous, as the curator, Jock McFadyen, is an artist who works with urban chaos. It even sold to a collector from the Netherlands. Result!

Summer Exhibition 2019

Last year’s submission was a different experience. I definitely forced the development of my work to fit the brief and it was not selected. So, this year I determined only to select what felt right, although I did have a hankering to submit one piece from the Pandemia Project. And then brief dropped in. Here it is.

“The show is to be titled ‘Re-claiming Magic’ and will transcend a singular Western art history’s point of reference to focus on magic and a return to the visceral aspects of art-making. The exhibition will be a celebration of the transformative powers of the magical in art, a return to the ritualistic and the sheer joy of making. Western Renaissance art education, Modernist and Conceptual Art practices led to the devaluing of art practices from other cultures in their unmediated forms. This exhibition seeks to restore value to marginalised practices, to reclaim the magic of those works in the context of the Royal Academy. I seek to propose a new pride in the concept of ‘Primitivism’ as an equally valid form of enlightenment alongside other Art practices”. Yinka Shonibare CBE RA

I had already bought my entry before I read this properly. My initial reaction was, What? A few days of reading about primitivism and considering how it could be interpreted by a photographer, I came to three conclusions. One, this was gonna be a little out of my comfort zone and that was good. I needed to move on from Pandemia. Two, I had some techniques that I felt might work. Three, the work needed to be quite flat, celebrate shapes rather than forms, use bright colours and it required human presence.

One of the potential weaknesses of my Pandemia Project is that there are very few people in it. Moving on from that work, I felt that even my abstract multiple exposure work needed to have more human presence. The obvious model was me!

I decided that I would submit one photo from Pandemia, one that was full of colours, shapes and was visceral! I created ‘Go to work. Don’t go to work’, right after the conflicting advice from Boris Johnson in May 2020. His confusing and unhelpful advice incensed me, even though there was no direct impact. I went out on a mission, to echo those strong feelings in a photograph. Here it is.

Go to work. Don’t go to work

However, I had bought two entries to the Summer exhibition. Another photo was required. I decided to buy a new lens to help. In responding to brief I had explored older photo techniques and found out that I could buy a Pinhole zoom lens for my Fuji X-T4. The benefit I knew this would provide was a scene all in (soft) focus, thereby accentuating the shapes, rather than forms. It also meant that I could use extreme white balances to create bright colours in multiple exposure (ME) mode.

I decided that I wanted a park scene with a tree; a return to nature, but that the colours would be almost garish. I started in the centre of Singleton Park with a basic scene of one tree, me in a mask (an uncomfortable nod to primitivism and our recent experience) and a park and sky background. I tried different ME modes, settling on Bright, and then various combinations of poses and white balance colours. Some of the final combined images seemed to work, but nothing really popped, so I changed location.

Whilst I was walking towards a new potential location, I put my camera and tripod down in a tree’s shadow, to review what I had created. I looked over at a large oak tree and immediately knew I had my location. A few experimental images later I had my final image, a reflection of the shielding experience of last year and the future to come. It’s called Shielded Man, here it is.

Shielded Man

I do feel that this time I have responded to the brief in an authentic way that builds upon what I have previously created and pushes it further. Of course, the selection process is notoriously difficult to get through. It’s in two stages, from 16,500 original entries, down to a final few hundred. But I am learning and this brief has pushed me to look at other ways of creating photos that align my eye, my head and my heart. And this all that I aim to do.

One Year of Shielding (Part 2)

Carrying on from Part 1 of this One Year of Shielding there have been changes. All parts of the UK are slowly emerging from the 3rd lockdown and there is personal news on the effectiveness of vaccines.

Here in Wales, we are emerging from lockdown cautiously, but similarly to England and Scotland. We’re expecting non-essential shops to re-open this month and maybe outdoor hospitality. Indoor hospitality is at least a month away.

It’s strange to reflect on not going to any type of indoor hospitality since early March last year. No pubs, restaurants, or cafes. I miss the social aspects of that, well most of them! However, we have still made our own fun; home shopping deliveries, takeaways, zoom quizzes and chats, and lots of board games.

And now the big news. I am part of an ongoing national UK health and well-being survey called UK Biobank. I’ve been part of it for many years now and recently they contacted me to ask if I would do a Covid antibody test. I jumped at the chance, with no conviction of a positive result.

I take immunosuppressants and my consultant has urged caution as they don’t know if the vaccine will work. I can report that after one dose I do have antibodies. What an unexpected relief. This has not brought about any major change in our circumstances, as I am informed that antibodies does not necessarily indicate immunity. Basically, the immune response is far more complex than that. I could even be a false positive and not to do with the vaccine at all.

What has changed? A possible indication that I might be able to survive catching Covid, but it’s probably still best to avoid risk wherever possible. On we go then, managing our interactions and minimising risk.

In the meantime, here are my locked down photos for the other house.

One Year of Shielding (Part 1)

Just over one year ago I started shielding. We used the phrase self isolating at first, but I guess that had negative connotations, so shielding it became.

I started when my partner Dinah developed Covid. It wasn’t a difficult decision, but after her relatively quick recovery and two weeks of isolation, she came to stay at my house whilst we decided how we were going to do this.

I needed to avoid all indoor social contact, and maintain my distance from any outdoor connection. Online deliveries, car park waiting, long local walks, baking, takeaway deliveries, working from home, moving all my work online, and zoom quizzes and conversations all became part of our coping strategies.

Looking back now I can see that the greatest impact was the lack of variety of experiences. All pubs, restaurants, cafes, theatres, cinemas and exhibitions were out, and still are. How strange to not visit any of those palaces of distraction and entertainment for a year.

Then of course there were the holidays. Or there weren’t. Trips to The Hay-on-Wye Festival, Majorca and Vietnam were all cancelled. Instead we had a couple of UK based cottage weeks (when travel restrictions allowed) and a week in Chippenham in the van. Not quite the European tour we had imagined!

Instead we had our two houses. They became our main variety. Spending 2 – 4 weeks in one, and then swapping for the other. Not quite the same, but some kind of variety.

As we reached the one year anniversary, I thought that I would create some photos to capture the feelings that this experience has brought. I’ve aimed to create quite claustrophobic photos. Each of them are of one of the windows in one of our homes, I’ll be doing the other one when we’re next there.

I’ve tried to create the photos so that the inside and outside are almost one place, but everything is tightly held within the window frame. I’ve used a 135mm equivalent lens which compresses the depth of the scene and a narrow aperture to encourage the idea that it is all in one small space. Because the outside features were lit by brighter light, I have used fill flash to bring an even tone to the whole photo.

How do they work for you?

Multiple Exposure – Additive Mode

During my initial forays into Multiple Exposure (ME) I could not see any use for Additive Mode. If you have never heard of this then I congratulate you at not being as immersed with ME as I am. I bought a Fuji X-T4 just so I could have access to the four modes that more advanced digital cameras have, to understand what they were and explore their use.

Now 2 years, 1 self-created online course and 1 online gallery exhibition later, I am still discovering some of its mysteries. So this little blog post will share what I have learnt to date about Additive Mode and invite you to follow me down the rabbit hole!

Here’s what Fuji say about Additive Mode, “The camera adds the exposures together. You may need to lower exposure compensation depending on the number of shots.”. The important thing to note here is that it ‘adds the exposures together’, so with each added layered exposure the final photo will get brighter. That is why Fuji recommend lowering the exposure compensation.

When I first wrote about what I had found I commented, “This mode adds each frame on top of the next, in a kind of light accumulation process. It is possible that if you used this on a sunny day that by the time you had added nine images to one exposure you would just be left with a white rectangle. I have not yet explored its creative possibilities, as the other modes have been calling to me. But maybe its limitations would be something that could create unexpected possibilities.” This post is all about those unexpected possibilities.

But first let’s just pause and recap on the other 3 modes that are available of advanced digital cameras from Fuji, Canon and Nikon.

Average – This mode layers each image on top of the next, averaging the opacity, to create a balanced exposure. This is the standard mode for digital exposure and is available on older digital cameras.

Bright – This mode preserves the brighter elements of each image. For example, if your first image was of a silhouette or shadow, the second if brighter could layer the brighter elements over the areas of darker exposure from the first image.

Dark – This mode does the opposite to Bright mode. It preserves the darker elements of each image. Where there is light, there can be dark! Darker pixels are preserved over brighter ones.

Additive Mode’s Unexpected Possibilities

What Additive Mode is supposed to do is replicate how a film camera added one exposure to the last if you didn’t wind the film on. It does do that. The final photo gets brighter the more frames you add. Any final photo with 3 or more combined exposures will result in over exposed sections if you are not mindful about where the brighter sections are. However, if you are careful about where the dark pixels are and use them to place your brighter pixels for the next exposure, you will replicate that old film double exposure look.

However (and it is a big however) something else is going on too. Within the over exposed elements of a final exposure (usually with 3 or more layered exposures) something strange happens to the colours. This is only revealed after you rescue the highlights in Lightroom or similar software. Initially, they just appear white and overblown.

As you can see above and below, after you have pulled back the highlights, sky blue, pink and yellow emerge. Initially I thought that the blue was to do with the sky being present in a frame or two. But the two photos either side of this text are just of a wall – all of the layers are either part of a wall or a tree trunk, no sky.

My working theory is that there is something going on with the white balance algorithm during the in-camera processing. So, with that in mind I have started experimenting with my own white balance choices on each exposure. The next two photo are Additive Mode photos of 3 exposures after the highlights have been rescued in Lightroom. The first photo uses red and purple extreme white balance choices and as you can see the blue has disappeared. The second photo was created at the same location and has no white balance changes. The blue, yellow and pinks are all present.

When I choose bluer extreme white balance settings the pink almost disappears. When I choose blue and purple extreme white balance settings pink dominates.

In summary, I don’t know why these colour shifts happen, but knowing what happens to the final photo is the first thing to be aware of. I will continue to experiment. I don’t know what purpose the photos I create serve, yet! But the experimentation is interesting and I like some of my creations. And that is the main point. You only have to please yourself. Sometimes a purpose or reason for your photographic creations is revealed in time. A period of settling and reflection may lead to greater knowledge or it may not! Meanwhile, I will continue my exploration.

I should also mention that all of the wall related photos in this post were created whilst listening to KIWANUKA by Michael Kiwanuka. When I use music as a stimulating sense, I just let the music wash over me, not paying close attention to the lyrics. However, during the creation of the wall photos I did notice that the lyrics were of urban life.

If by any chance this post inspires you to experiment, do let me know how you get on. I would love to know if Canon and Nikon cameras have similar colour shifts in their Additive Modes.

Happy creating!

Your Photography Goals 2021

Over the last 10 months I have had plenty of time to practice and develop my photography skills. I can’t think why! A key aspect of that development was having a purpose.

To be honest any creative outlet can help, but as I am a photographer and writer I’m going to share some of the ways photography and writing help me.

During all of this Covid chaos many of us have lost our familiar purposes. Work and home life has changed immeasurably. Those changes have led to a change in our roles and responsibilities. All of this change is unsettling, I know. I have lived though a few years of tremendous change, and through that experience I have learnt that there are a few ways in which photography can help.

  1. Learning a new creative skill is uplifting. It is a fact that an old dog can learn new tricks. It’s been proven. Yep, your brain has the capacity to burn new neural pathways throughout the whole of your life. Any day you can learn something new. Now, I’m not saying that it gets easier as you get older, but it it is still possible and that feeling of developing and applying a new skill is life enriching. This year I have taken my skills in Multiple Exposure and ICM to another level and what fun I have had. I even get to share some of my favourite photos here, the photos in this post are all recent ICM experiments.
  2. Photography can help you to process change. Regular readers of this blog and my eBooks will know that I practice and share Mindful Photography Activities that can provide the means for you to express how you feel about something through a photograph. Not only do these photographs have the potential to illustrate an emotion you are living with, the process of creating them and the reflection upon what they look like a few days later can provide the space for the difficult feelings to soften and for you to move towards acceptance.
  3. Sharing your photos can help others. One of the reasons I write this blog and share what I have created is that it can encourage others to do the same. The ways that I support my own well-being have become something that I can share with others. It gives me social purpose. I feel that I am contributing to the common good. Some of the social contact that I am missing is substituted by positive feedback from those of you that find this useful.
  4. Writing about the creation of your photos can help you to develop your skills and understand what you are living though. I do this regularly myself in this blog and eBooks. I find it tremendously helpful. So much so that on my Online Courses I encourage the sharing of photos and comments about the process as a key part of the course. I know that it works. Not only does it support the development of your new skills and help you to process what you have learnt, it provides a social interaction with others who are doing the course. And that is one of the key aspects of learning. We learn from each other. We support each other. How many times have you not understood completely what was being taught, but one of your fellow students was able to help? So sharing your photos and comments about their creation helps you and others. It’s a win win.

So having a purpose can support your well-being and photography can be one of those purposes. Why not set a photographic goal for this year? An intention to learn a new photography skill or develop a current skill to a new level. Having a creative goal is positive at this time. If you have an idea for something you could learn that you’ve been putting off, why not share your goal with me (via email/contact form) and I’ll keep you on track with a reminder or two.

Me? I shall do the same. here is my creative photography goal: –

I will learn how to create fabulous close up/macro photographs. I have never really paid much attention to this, I’ve never owned a macro lens, but the work done by Tracy and Dan Calder at CUPOTY (Close Up Photographer of the Year) has inspired me. Take a look at last year’s winners and I challenge you to not be inspired.


Mindfulness encourages you to see things as they actually are in the present moment. As the present moment plays out, you practice noticing your feelings, your physical sensations and the thoughts that flit across your mind. It may well be that you do not like what you are experiencing. You may try to avoid, distract or just deny the experience.

Acceptance is the quality that allows you to be with all the difficulty, without turning away. Acceptance encourages you 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 your life.

“Just accept it,” friends may say after you have spent several days moping about after the end of a relationship, “There are plenty more fish in the sea.” Helpful? Of course not. Those wise friends know that you have to accept the situation to move on, but you are caught in the moment, trapped by the loss you are experiencing. Acceptance is part of the cycle of adjusting to loss.

This was first described by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross as the Grief Cycle and related to the stages we live through after the death of a loved one. Kübler-Ross pioneered methods in the support and counselling of personal trauma, grief and grieving, associated with death and dying. The stages she identified are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They are equally transferable to our adjustment to other losses; the end of a relationship, being made redundant or serious ill health.

I never realised that I was living through a grief cycle until more than two years after the initial acute ill health and the end of my college career. It only became clear after I had written a memoir, it had lain about for a while, and I later returned to read it and realised that I was describing myself in a depressed state. When I was living it and writing about it, I was unaware. It was only after I had experienced distance from the changes that I could look back at my behaviours and identify that I had been adjusting to great loss: the loss of my health and the loss of my career.

Mindfulness offers a practice to support living through this experience. In the secular mindfulness practice this can be described as a meditation that invokes wishing yourself and others well. This was developed from the Buddhist practice of Maitri – loving kindness or compassion for oneself and others.

This practice encourages you to be compassionate with your present experience. To accept and love yourself, in all the glory and the grime. Tara Brach (meditation teacher and psychologist) describes this as “Radical Acceptance, which means clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion.”

This is challenging. To regard the experience with compassion, first you have to understand, to witness what you are feeling. I don’t know about you, but I have always found this difficult.

Maybe it’s my British upbringing. What I do know is that I have had to spend many years since my loss, learning how to talk about what I feel and believing that it is OK to do so. Only with a cultivation of this ability to notice what I was feeling could I then begin to explore the possibility that I could be compassionate to myself, to recognise my feelings and not be judgemental about them. I have found this radical, maybe you will too, or maybe you find it natural.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers (psychologist)

As applied to photography

We can practice acceptance through photography in two key ways. The primary opportunity is to use a photography practice as a method of understanding and processing your current experience. In many of my courses and books I offer mindful photography activities that encourage you to attend to your present moment experience, particularly how you are feeling and representing these experiences through photos.

This can be achieved with an understanding how of the elements of photography composition can be used to embody emotion. This includes knowledge of representational ideas for colour, shape, line and so on, as well as the use of visual metaphors and symbols to communicate ideas and feelings.

On a more instinctive level you can also practice responding photographically to your environment when you are experiencing a strong emotion, creating photographs that spring from an intuitive response. These may well include knowledge of the visual language of a photograph, as described above, or your response maybe less planned and controlled. It may run contrary to popular ideas, resting instead on how the visual experience echoed how you felt.

The second opportunity is to understand and accept the kind of photographer (and person) you are. This is partly about what it is that you like to create photographs of, and partly about what those photographs can say about you, as well as about the subject. It is a study in how the outer world can reflect your inner world.

Mindful Photography Activity – One Object

The purpose of this Mindful Photography Activity is to remind you that things are how they are. Moving towards acceptance is undermined by your dislike of how things actually are and your attachment to how you would like things to be. When the cause of this is some kind of significant change in your life, your habitual thoughts, ideas and beliefs can obscure your ability to see how things really are. 

Moving towards acceptance initially requires tuning in to your sensations: what you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. This reality is often your anchor in a mindful practice and it provides a foundation from which to notice how you feel, think and are acting.

You will cultivate this ability by attending visually to an object that you are attracted to. I suggest that you choose something in nature, a tree, rock, bush, hill, mountain, stream, river or beach.

• Set aside at least an hour for this practice.

• Use your usual camera setting and lens, and turn off the review screen.

• Go for a walk at a favourite location and find an object you are drawn to.

• Spend time with your object.

• Sit. Have a picnic. Have a cup of tea from a flask. Settle.

• Spend time looking at your object. Notice its colours, patterns, structures, shapes, smell, feel and so on.

• Take this process slow, very slow.

• Create photos of your object that you are drawn to. Do NOT review them. Do not delete. Just be with the practice.

• When you feel the practice is finished go home. Download your photos and review on a large display.

• Notice your thoughts and feelings as you review the photos.

• Choose a few photos that best reflect how your chosen object made you feel.

• Looking at the other photos you have not chosen, consider how they make you feel and why you did not choose them.

• Repeat the activity.

I’m in the Amateur Photographer!

Last week I was fortunate enough to be featured in the UK’s oldest national photography magazine, The Amateur Photographer. In an interesting article about Mindful Photography I am one of three photographers who get to explain their take on this approach to photography.

When I first started using the term and developing my approach to Mindful Photography in 2013, I can’t say that I ever expected any degree of national recognition. The term was barely used and little understood. My development of this approach into an all encompassing way of mindfully developing your photography skills, has been 7 years in the making. It is now more than just applying mindfulness to photography.

What a joy to be asked to contribute to the article and to be seen as an authoritative voice on the topic. If you would like to know more about my approach do download the free eBook available here and maybe consider doing my 101 course – an introduction to Mindful Photography – it’s a bargain!

Practice makes perfect

Or does it? There is some disagreement. It generally goes like this: if you practice the wrong skills everyday you will ingrain bad habits, not perfection. I prefer Michael Jordan’s take on this.

“You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.” Michael Jordan

Michael knew a thing or two about excellence. Sure he was super talented, but he still practiced – a lot. Practice is a habit, but it also needs to be mindful. You need to pay attention to what you are doing. You need advice, guidance, support and a compassionate, curious, constructively critical mind. Practice for me is honing my skills, but I know I will make mistakes. That is part of the practice; noticing them, correcting them and absorbing the difference. Then practicing again.

As Michael Jordan suggests the fundamentals are everything. So what are the fundamentals (or as I call them the Foundations) of Mindful Photography?

The Foundations of Mindful Photography

The photo above and the others illustrating this post are from one of my recent Mindful Photography Practices around a local park. I use the Insight timer (a free app) to set a one hour period and followed some creative limitations that I recommend to help develop your seeing skills and support the development of your photography skills. What are they you ask? They include the limited time period, a limit on the number of photos you create (20 in this case), no deleting, and no reviewing of each photo created.

What is the purpose of these limitations? To encourage you to pay attention to what is in front of you – what you see, and to focus upon your use of photography skills – technique and composition. There is more to it than this brief explanation, but that is at the heart of it and is at the core of the next online course I am developing, ‘Foundations in Mindful Photography’. The course will cover these foundation skills:

  • Mindfulness and meditation skills – to develop your ability to be mindful throughout your life
  • Seeing skills – “Looking is a gift. Seeing is a power” Jeff Berner
  • Technical photography skills – knowing how your camera works, lighting, exposure, focus, lens focal length, camera maintenance
  • Compositional photography skills – the guidelines for effective composition, 7 elements of visual design, framing the photo

These are the foundations of photography. Learn and practice these and you are on the way to creating great photos. Of course, I teach these foundation skills in a mindful manner. I share methods, ideas and practices that you can follow to develop and hone these skills wherever you start from. If this is of interest to you, do download the eBook below and you’ll then be on my email list, and all the news about the course launch and Mindful Photography 101 will arrive in your inbox – with special offers for early enrolment (of course).

Let me finish with a great artist’s advice on this topic of practice making perfect.

“As practice makes perfect, I cannot but make progress; each drawing one makes, each study one paints, is a step forward.” Vincent Van Gogh

PS I have shared a number of thoughts and mindful photography practices on this topic over the year, you can link to them here

5 Benefits of Daydreaming

I have had two conversations with close friends in the last week where we have discussed the absence of daydreaming from our lives. This has set me thinking and daydreaming!

Being a man of late middle age, I remember a time before smartphones, computers and being constantly connected. In that space I daydreamed more; stared out of windows and contemplated, or just sat there and noticed what was going on around me. I believe that daydreaming has particular benefits that are being overlooked in our busy world. In fact I believe that they may help you cope with your crazy, busy, fully engaged world.

  1. Screen free time. I am never far from a screen. My smartphone is usually next to me, most of my work is online and I watch TV to relax. I have noticed though that when I sit for 10 minutes with just a cup of tea and no smartphone, computer or TV that I daydream, that other thoughts and feelings arise, that other possibilities emerge. Constant stimulation from a screen robs me of the other possible benefits of daydreaming.
  2. Rest, relax and recuperate. You are always busy. 10 minutes away from the striving to get something done will not make a big difference. I know, sometimes it might. But usually, 10 minutes spent relaxing will benefit you far more than another 10 minutes wrapped up in the striving.
  3. Clear the clutter. If you collect slow moving water from a pond or lake in a glass it will look murky. 10 minutes later it may be crystal clear. The floating residue will settle on the bottom of the glass. Daydreaming allows the head noise space to settle. Of course it might not for happen in the first 10 minutes, because that stream of consciousness in your mind is used to racing fast downstream. However, the more often you sit and daydream the more likely you are to notice the noise, and just in the noticing you are making a space for it to settle.
  4. Create space. If you create more unstimulated space, thoughts and feelings will rise in your conscious mind. These may be welcome visitors, or they may be undesirable guests. My first action is to notice where my mind has gone. If I don’t like the ruminative thoughts I choose to focus on a physical sensation; the tea on my lips, the sun on my face or just my body on its seat. This allows the thought to dissolve, although some thoughts may require more returns to the physical than others! However, there is also an uplifting side to this creation of space; positive thoughts, feelings and creative ideas may emerge. These can be cultivated and explored, whilst you sip your tea and notice your mind suggest that you take out your phone and take notes!
  5. Develop a creative idea. This period of daydreaming can be used to deliberately explore a creative idea or challenge. This is a space, without any other stimulation when you allow your mind to roam around the shape of an idea or challenge. During this exploration you notice any tendency to focus on the negative, balancing those thoughts with the potential, the positive and the beneficial.

Can you think of any more benefits? Me? I’m off to sit with a cup of tea and no phone!

I don’t want to die, just yet.

Yesterday global Covid 19 cases reached 230,000 in a day. Average daily death rates are over 5000. In the UK daily cases and deaths are lower than they have been, and have remained steady for 4 weeks, but they are still significant. After all, I only need to be close to one carrier, just once and I will die. I’m not being dramatic. Realistic. I’m on immune suppressants, have diabetes and a breathing condition. I would be a dead man. I don’t want to die, just yet.

The easing of lockdown in many countries, alongside the global growth of Covid cases makes me very uncomfortable. In fact the easing of UK lockdown measures seems to be something that many can’t process. My impression is that many people are acting as if it is all over. Shops and pubs are open let’s all party, seems to be a common theme.

The truth is more complex and that is confusing. Consequently, I still sit in carparks whilst my girlfriend shops. We don’t visit pubs, even to sit in their beer garden or socialise in anyone else’s house. There are just too many hands touching things that I may touch. Never mind the lack of social distancing. This is not over.

Today the news is all about face masks and I can’t help but think, what about their hands? Meanwhile the economy slowly opens and people try to imagine life is back to normal. I don’t. My world will probably not be as it was back in early March for a long while; if at all. So I have made plans!

Last month I applied for an arts grant from the Arts Council Wales to respond to our current circumstances and move all my current work online. I was successful! My plan falls into two phases. The first phase is all about creating a new set of photos that explore my feelings around lockdown and shielding. These will initially be shown in an online gallery, and one day in a live exhibition.

The second phase is to help you, by planning and creating a new online photography course. This will share everything I know about how to use mindful photography to support you when life is difficult, due to major change or significant loss. The course will be offered to NHS patients and will also be available for anyone living with tremendous personal challenges. I hope to have it live early in 2021.

Stay tuned this year for updates about the online exhibition and my new online Mindful Photography course.

Dear Mr Johnson

Dear Mr Johnson

You would probably prefer Dear Boris, but we hardly know each other and I am not sure that over familiarity is appropriate right now. This open letter will not be as political as it might be. I do have daily reminders of how poorly we are doing as a country and it would be easy to slip in comparison, analysis and complaint, but I would like to focus on sharing how I have a managed to stay alive, so far, despite your best efforts.

I am shielding and I have been since 15th March. Around that date my girlfriend, who lives in a separate house, manifested all the symptoms of Covid-19. Despite working for the NHS, although not on the front line, it was impossible for her to get tested. We cancelled our holiday, as we were due to depart 16th March and discussed what I should do. Self isolation seemed the wisest option, so we made that decision immediately.

I have a number of health conditions that cumulatively made it quite clear that I was at high risk should a contract the virus, although that was yet to be confirmed officially. In the meantime I decided that I would stay at home most of the time, not visit my girlfriend and do any exercise in the quiet areas that I can walk to from my house. It seemed sensible that as long as I stayed some distance from everyone and did not touch anything, that I could exercise safely. I say this as the advice that came with the first government letter, 24th March, instructed me to stay in the house and not see anyone for 12 weeks. Whilst I understand the physical reasons for this, at no stage did the mental well-being of those self-isolating (as it was still called then) get consideration.

I noticed in that first week or two that my mood was quite up and down. I am a relatively stable guy, but the change and its impact upon my life was a significant shift. Some days were not OK. Fortunately, I have a great relationship with my girlfriend. She had by now recovered and we decided as she was also able to work effectively from home, that it would help our well-being if we lived most of the time together.

At the same time I started to work through my feelings and experiences by creating videos and a free eBook all called Stuck in the House. Both activities gave me a purpose, structure to my days and a feeling that I was helping myself as well as others. Reflecting back now I wonder why this simple advice was not included in your government’s first letter to those of us who were most at risk. Sure you suggested rigid and appropriate social isolation that would work, but by not also recommending strategies (such as developing structure and purpose in our new normal) to cope with the isolation, you left hundreds of thousands of people to cope alone.

I feel that this experience is symptomatic of your government’s approach to this whole crisis. My mindfulness practice encourages me to develop the quality of reflection and consideration for how things actually are. The idea is that in this space we may then respond with skill and wisdom, rather than react in our habitual ways. Looking back now at the last three months I see that your government has been consistently reactive, and unfortunately those ingrained habits of yours have not been conducive to a considerate, caring, compassionate and wise approach to our experience. Other countries have managed this, have suffered far less and are recovering so much better.

The next year or so are going to be a significant test of your government’s ability. Do you have the skills, wisdom and empathy that will be required? I suspect not, but I do hope that you surprise me.

Your sincerely

Lee Aspland



Monty was a doggy guru

Monty died at the weekend. He was a lively and occasionally very naughty Bijon Frise. White haired, curious and very friendly. He will be much missed. What you may not know is that he was also a guru, who taught me about mindfulness, consciousness and the self. Can you believe it?

Monty was a creature of the moment. His day was shaped by routine and coloured by sensations and experiences. He was a conscious creature, aware of his surroundings and stimulated by what he perceived. His sense of smell was of course, acute. At any meal time, whilst food – especially meat – was being prepared or eaten, the patter of his little feet approaching the kitchen could be heard.

His sense of hearing was (allegedly) 10 times more sensitive than ours. I could be on one floor of the house and make a cat noise and Monty, on the top floor, would come thundering down the stairs in the hope of seeing, or perhaps catching a cat.

Monty experienced emotion. He experienced fear: loud traffic noises, flying objects, fireworks and certain dogs in the park all stimulated a strong desire to run back home to safety. Something he did several times, fortunately dodging traffic as he careered across busy roads. He had more than nine lives!

He looked for contact. He liked to be be stroked, held and played with. Apparently, when we stroke a dog serotonin is produced not only in our body, but also their’s. Are they experiencing a feeling of well being? Like Monty we are also experiencing our life through the sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise in our consciousness. Monty though, lived solely in the present moment. That was his greatest teaching.

This doggy moment

Monty had a vocabulary of 30 – 40 words. Each of these words stimulated a response. Cat, food, sit, No, go, Bijon, sausage, wait etc. were all associated with an action. And whilst we spoke to him as though he understood, language was of course a concept too far. So when I spoke to him about a cat he saw earlier in the day, Monty would perk up and look for the cat in the room at that moment. Not only was language a concept too far, so was the past or future.

Both the past and future are concepts we have created to explain and cope with the passage of time. We are smart enough to imagine that the past actually exists. But, of course, it does not. It is a construct we have created and that we hold in our consciousness. The past is not a reality. You cannot touch it or experience it in any way, apart from in our imagination. If you attend an experience that recreates the past – a play, film, themed event – you are experiencing the present moment, albeit a present moment that is shaped to look and feel like the past.

Similarly, the future never exists. For when we reach a particular point in time it is the present!

Monty knew this. He knew that there is only this moment right now. Monty lived in the present moment. The mindful hound!

The doggy self

Monty had one other lesson for us. Another trick up his furry sleeve which helped him to be present in the moment. Monty had no concept of self.

If I held Monty up to a mirror he may have looked at himself briefly, but quickly his gaze would slip away to what was behind or next to him. There was no curiosity. No checking out how he looked. There didn’t appear to be a recognition that he was looking at a dog, or that the dog was him.

So the idea that there is such a thing as the ‘self’ did not trouble Monty. He experienced his day as a series of sensations, feelings and thoughts arising and passing. Each one was a singular moment and each one was experienced in that moment.

We though get sidetracked. Our mind has created a construct it calls ‘self’. This construct is constantly being refined, developed, coloured and shaped by our sensations, feeling and thoughts. Above all it is the thought that we are an independent self, different from the next person that separates us from this present moment awareness.

My concept of self is strong and is reinforced every moment of every day. Sitting in meditation or following any mindful practice has the potential to remind us that it is only our consciousness receiving. There is no self experiencing. The self is an illusion. An imaginary beast. A construct created and recreated by our conscious mind.

Monty was always with the experience of the moment. They are fine teachers, our canine friends. Guru Monty had much to teach me!

Exploring Multiple Exposure

A few years ago I started experimenting with multi-exposure (more about this technique here) – the art of combining several images in one exposure in camera. A year or so in to my exploration I lost interest as my camera could only combine two images as a maximum, in any one exposure, and it simply layered one on top of the other. Recently, I upgraded my camera and the new Fuji X-T4 has the ability to combine up to nine images in one exposure, and has four alternate ways of combining these images. The exploration is back on!

The key question at this point is why would you want to do this? The answer for me is that it opens up the possibility of creating images that can document a place, experience or emotion in a personal, abstract and creative manner. I am also fascinated to compare and combine this with ICM – intentional camera movement. These techniques are not hugely popular, they create photos that can be ethereal, intriguing, emotive and abstract. It is these very qualities that draw me to them and suggest to me the possibility of a personal project. Something I am considering at present.

Meanwhile, practice and experimentation are required to investigate the limitations and possibilities of the techniques. I have learnt a few things so far which I will summarise, but first I wanted to thank my teachers; Doug Chinnery, Valda Bailey and of course Chris Friel. Doug and Valda have worked together to produce some great videos that explore and explain these techniques; they are detailed and generate plenty of possibility. Chris has been producing fabulous work for many years and is worthy of your investigation.


The photo above was created during the springtime explosion of blooms at Clyne Gardens in Swansea. My intention was to create some photos that were inspired by nature’s colours and beauty, and also echoed how such beauty can make you feel. The techniques I used were ME in dark blend mode, creative use of white balance, creative framing investigation, defocussing the lens and three or four layered exposures. Let’s look at some of those choices.

There are four blend modes available on my Fuji, something that is replicated on some Canon and Nikon cameras; they are Additive, Average, Bright and Dark.

Additive – This mode adds each frame on top of the next, in a kind of light accumulation process. It is possible that if you used this on a sunny day that by the time you had added nine images to one exposure you would just be left with a white rectangle. I have not yet explored its creative possibilities, as the other modes have been calling to me. But maybe its limitations would be something that could create unexpected possibilities.

Average – This mode layers each image on top of the next, averaging the opacity. This is the standard mode for digital exposure and it is the mode I used when I had the Fuji X-T2, as it was the only choice. Combined with ICM, defocussing or creative use of the white balance it has possibilities.

Bright – This mode preserves the brighter elements of each image. For example, if your first image was of a silhouette or shadow, the second if brighter could layer the brighter elements over the areas of darker exposure from the first image. This is similar to how a film camera used to capture a multiple exposure. Here is an example.

Dark – This mode does the opposite to Bright mode. It preserves the darker elements of each image. Where there is light, there can be dark! This is the mode I have used most so far in combination with creative use of white balance.

White Balance – All digital cameras give you a level of control over the white balance. The default position is to be in Auto. In this setting the camera tries to produce whites that replicate how you see white light. Of course, your eyes work differently to a camera. They work with our brain to self correct what we know to be white, to look white, even if it is really carrying another hue. For example: dusk light has a blue hue. You don’t notice this, but the camera does. The white balance can then correct this to match how you see. Taking control of the white balance allows you to tell the camera what hue the whites should have, affecting every colour in the frame. Camera manufacturers have different ways of allowing you to influence this. Some require you to know the Kelvin values of each colour. Others have a map of hues that you can pick from. My Fuji has the latter, which makes it dead easy. My experimentation so far has followed Chris Friel’s advice – to use extreme choices.

I have much work to do. I am learning how my white balance choices work with the ME blend modes and the colours of the objects in the frame. I have also learnt that playing with the lens focus can produce interesting softer shapes and patterns. These combinations of blend mode, white balance and lens focus have much possibility and will, I am certain, be used along with ICM to produce an interesting body of work very soon. I the meantime, here are a few of my favourites from the visit to Clyne Gardens.

10 tips for artistic creation?

I came across this information by that usual chance route; looking for one thing on the internet and finding another. The 10 tips for artistic creation that the painter, Richard Diebenkorm shared were reminders to himself about starting a painting. I have read through them a few times now and I think they apply to photography and pretty much any other creative endeavour. What do you think? Do you have any guidelines that support your artistic creation process?

“Notes to myself on beginning a painting” by Richard Diebenkorn

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.

3. DO search.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5. Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.

6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Happy Creating!

PS The photo is part of a creative experimental practice I am exploring at present. More about that soon.

For Dying Out Loud 2

A year ago today my Mum died. I am re-sharing what I wrote about my experience because I thought that it might resonate for some of you at this extraordinary time. Death of a loved one always throws up complex emotions and the threat of that happening is also particularly challenging. I understand that this threat might well be part of your pandemic life now. Living through the peculiar circumstances that surrounded my Mum’s death taught me a lot. The main lesson was that talking about my feelings, experiences and challenges around the experience was a positive and supportive way of living as well as possible through it. Here is what I thought about this difficult time last year. 

For Dying Out Loud

We don’t much talk about death. We skirt the issue. Express our condolences. Use stock phrases. This unfamiliarity and avoidance becomes self perpetuating. It doesn’t serve us well and it doesn’t support those who are living through death. But I have had a more uplifting experience of approaching death and the final exit over the last few weeks and I would like to share it. To share the love. To invite a positive way through this most challenging of life experiences: death.

Just over eight weeks ago my mother, who lived in Kelowna in British Colombia, Canada, had a car accident. Whilst travelling through an intersection, on a green light, she was ‘T-boned’ – hit side on – by a driver who can only have been distracted and didn’t see the red light. His car was one of those large trucks they love in that fuel friendly continent, so it made a mess of Mum’s hatchback. More to the point it made a mess of Mum.

She sustained many injuries, some which were apparent at the time, some which were discovered over the first few days and some which had existed before, but were not common knowledge. Mum broke most of her ribs, shattered her pelvis, tore her liver and broke bones in both legs. Later we discovered that her diaphragm was irreparably damaged, meaning that she was unable to successfully expel all the carbon dioxide each time she breathed out. This led to two comas and the need to wear a mask at night to expel the Co2.

Early on in her time in the Intensive Care Unit it became apparent that Mum had cancer in one of her breasts, and this cancer had been there for 5 years. Fortunately, it was ‘non-aggressive’ and slow moving, but it had still made a mess of her breast. Mum had chosen to not believe that it was cancer and to carry on without taking medication. Ultimately, this made little difference. However, it did lead to a later discovery that she had another type of cancer in her other breast. This one wasn’t so kind. It was the aggressive type and in a normal scenario would have led to masectomy and chemotherapy etc. This though was not an option.

The damage to her diaphragm meant that an operation was not possible. Nor was any other treatment when coupled with a potentially long and unsuccessful rehabilitation likely to rescue the situation. The prognosis was bleak. Life may have been possible for up to year (it was suggested) but the quality of that life would have been debilitating and very challenging.


Mum’s 86th Birthday

During all of this my sister Kim, has been at the centre of the care, communication and daily visits. Prior to the accident she and Mum had a good, but sometimes challenging relationship. Now, in an instant everything was turned upside down.

Kim visited daily, often for most of the day and into the evening. She moved into Mum’s flat in Kelowna and she was given fantastic support from Laura (her youngest daughter) who also moved into the flat. Between them they visited Mum every day, sat through the long days, entertaining each other and Mum, rushed in the middle of night when coma called and kept me in the loop every step of the way.

Of course, this is exhausting. Kim was in the middle of a storm of emotion, of fear, confusion and love. Often we spoke, via Skype or on the phone, and I offered what support I could from this distance. She was also supported by her husband Mike and older daughter Morgan, but it was Kim and Laura who daily faced up to potential death and the many feelings that accompany it.

Being an ocean away I felt distant, confused and tired. I was busy with work, but the unfamiliarity of the situation and feeling of helplessness was insidious and debilitating. I didn’t really realise most of the time how much it was exhausting me. The background hum of what ifs and what next are relentless. Fortunately, I had fantastic support from Dinah and other friends, so when Dinah spotted an opportunity in our diaries to visit, we booked straight away.

Before we went over I joked to Kim that we would be the half-time entertainment, that the first half was over now and after we left the second half would be quite different – ‘many a true word’…… The visit was a catalyst and support for us all. At the time Mum was deep in confusion. She did not know if she wanted to live or die. The full nature of her situation was known to us all, but knowing, fully understanding and accepting the implications of that are not the same thing.

She did not know what she wanted. To live and work through endless rehabilitation, whilst the spectre of aggressive cancer ate away. Or just to die. One afternoon she became convinced that she was going to die that night. We each spoke to her at length and said our goodbyes. That night we went back to the flat, drank lots of lovely wine and took a vote on the likelihood of her death that night. Gallows humour, I think they call it. Anyway, we all voted that she would survive and she did.

Death can also be tremendously healing. Kim and Mum spent so much time together, talking about nothing and everything. They healed all rifts and left nothing unsaid. Open, honest and authentic conversations are needed at this time. And with that comes love. Love fills in the spaces in our heart, spills over into the people we talk to and holds us up, to face what we did not know we could face. From and with love we develop resilience, heal wounds and become one family supporting each other.

The Second Half

Dinah and I left Canada on a Wednesday. We know now that on the Friday Mum had made contact with the people who could arrange her death. Canada has had Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) in place since 2015, over 7000 people following the procedure in the first three years. We didn’t know that Canada even had this option. Obviously, Mum did.

I think we knew that it was going to be happening on the Friday, we also knew from research that there was a ten day cooling off period. However, we expected the wheels of administration to move quite slowly. It was a shock to find out from Kim, over the weekend, that it was happening just over a week later. Mum must have signed all the papers and got the necessary permissions in place on the Friday after we left. Truly a catalyst of a visit.

On Tuesday 7th May at 7.30am local time, the procedure was booked to happen. Kim, Mike and Laura were present. The doctor may have been a little late, the space for Mum’s prayers may have slowed things down a little, but eventually she drifted off to sleep and then the heavy drugs did their work. She passed peacefully just before 8.00am and is now on her next journey. During the assigned time Dinah and I sat peacefully at the beauty that is Clyne Gardens. We chose a spot close to moving water and the sun came out to warm us.

Clyne Gardens

Kim and I and the extended family all support her decision. The quality of her life would not have been worth living. Why live on suffering and deterioration? Surely it is kinder to move on? We believe so. Mum looked so at peace and well in her final few days. This came from knowing her decision was right for her, that it was known and accepted by those closest to her and that she was loved. She lived a very full life, had two marvellous(!) children and four fantastic grandchildren. She lived a life of curiosity and enquiry, explored different ways of understanding this thing we call life and emigrated to Canada aged 70. A courageous and much loved woman. We will all miss her and carry her in our hearts.

“If we are able to give ourselves to the loss, to move toward it – rather than recoil in an effort to escape, deny distract, or obscure – our wounded hearts become full, and out of that fullness we will do things differently, and we will do different things. Our loss, our wound, is precious to us because it can wake us up to love, and to loving action.” Norman Fischer

Are you living in fear?

This whole Covid-19 experience is unprecedented in your lifetime and it is normal to experience fear. I know I do. If I catch the virus it is likely I would die. Fear is normal. Fear is an evolutionary habit, it is nature’s protector. The oldest parts of your mind provide the fight/flight response that is designed to enable you to function at your physical and mental peak, in order to save your threatened life. So, when you are in the midst of major change – like right now, this evolutionary habit is in full play. Do you want to run away and hide? Or do you want to rage and fight against the injustice of your difficulty? That is fear at work right now.

Fear becomes suffering when it oversteps. When there is a repeated perceived threat and it is not processed. When you are in the midst of living through your difficulty, still processing and not understanding. Fear then locks in, the fight/flight response kicks off and the sympathetic nervous system locks in. Your body’s response is made up of the physical response (flight/fight response, leading to a developing bodily tension, tightening in the body, causing blockages) and your thoughts (worry, planning, controlling, obsessing, imagining) which combined dictate your behaviour.

Your behaviour in this response may be not to look for what is wrong, but to distract yourself, to try to diminish the feeling of fear. You may look to distract yourself by eating, drinking, doing things, acting out with others or withdrawing. This state is almost a trance. The limbic system, from the flight/fight response, has hijacked your access to another part of your mind, the frontal lobe. This is the part of your brain that provides your capacity to be present in the moment, to notice what is happening and be mindful. The fear squeezes out your capacity to be present and loving as part of something bigger. Instead you are locked into the smaller part of yourself, your ego self. Everything is centered on that limited self perception. Everything is about how it is for you right now. Everything is about how you are suffering. You lose your connection to the moment and you are hooked into a reaction. This fear drives your addictions and your habitual behaviours. It brings you into conflict with yourself and others. You become more controlling and more manipulative, as you try to bend the world to your will. Deep into this process you may become less intelligent, act stupidly, your creativity becomes limited, you lose spontaneity and your heart closes. Hard to hear? Do you recognise any part of it?

Your intention has to be to evolve from this re-activity. To know that it is happening. To move beyond this fear response and to move towards befriending the fear. How can you do this? Is it possible for you to learn how to notice and then befriend the fear? How can you begin to just be with the fear and not react as you normally do? There are two key stages: Physical Awareness and Mindful Action (with thanks to Tara Brach).

Resistance to change

1) Physical Awareness

If you are to move onto stage 2 and take some Mindful Action to support your ability to soften the fear you have to be completely in the moment. Unfortunately, being completely in the moment when confronted by rising emotion, fuelled by fear, is not always possible. It is very difficult because all of your resources have gone into that old part of your brain. Fortunately, there are cues you can follow to raise your awareness that you have moved into this fearsome state. And if you know what is happening, you are moving towards being present with your experience.

Firstly, you can note those physical symptoms: these tend to be in throat, chest or belly. You can investigate them gently, with curiosity not judgement. Notice the churning in your stomach, the shallow breath, the quivering in your chest. Just be with the physical experience.

Secondly, pay attention to your mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take you? Notice them and where they try to take you. Hold back from following the thought rabbit down the hole. Stand on the edge and breathe, come back to your physical symptoms, they are the foundation of your present experience and the gateway to a more mindful response.

There you are in the midst of your fear response. If you have noticed it and are trying to stay with the physical then there is another physical action you can follow that can support the movement of your resources back into your frontal lobe, where you can take Mindful Action. Now, stay with me here. This may sound a little crazy, but I promise it does work. This trick was shared by an author who successfully writes books that explain how you can harness your mind and emotions to improve your health. You are going to move in a certain way that tricks your mind into thinking that all is well. If your mind begins to think that all is well then some of your resource will move back into your frontal lobe and away from that fear response. You do not have to believe it will work; you only need to move. The movement itself will cause your mind to believe that all is well. What is this movement, you ask? Dance. You are going to need to dance. To dance like you are celebrating the birth of your first child, the success you have always dreamed of, the dance of a person who has just had the first kiss off the person they love. Can you dance like that? Of course, you can. It doesn’t need to be great dancing, but it needs involve moving your hips, your feet, your arms, hands and head. Your whole body has to dance in celebration, even if right now you feel terrible. Get on your feet, sway those hips, put your arms up in the air and move like you’ve won the lottery.

I know this all sounds a little crazy. But trust me. Physical movement like this reminds the body and mind of happiness. Other chemicals get produced that offset the fear based ones. Other neural pathways begin to fire up. Slowly as you move, you move back to yourself. Back to that part of your mind that holds all your wisdom and kindness for yourself, back to a place where you can take Mindful Action.

Dance, dance, dance!

2) Mindful Action

The Mindful Action you will take is to begin to redirect your attention in a way that builds upon some of your strengths in what you love. Remember that you are connected by love to a bigger world than the small one you find yourself trapped in now. Remember your strengths. Remember who you love and who loves you. Remember what you love. Find access to a positive mental state. How do you do this? You need to train your attention to go where you want it to. You do not have to use the familiar neural pathways. You need to forge new pathways, new ways of thinking. The great truth is that you can do this, we all can. Forging new neural pathways is something you can do the whole of your life. You can teach an old dog new tricks!

You know that these habitual thoughts are the motorways of your mind. Re-training the mind to think differently means forging new off road tracks. This is not the easiest route though. It takes practice and commitment. However, it is possible to, “train your attention to have a different experience. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ If you consistently learn to pay attention a certain way, a way that reminds you that love is here, even when you feel scared…..then every time fear is triggered you get a little more access to remembering that, you get a little more space to be with the fear. Where the attention goes, energy flows.” Tara Brach.

In the midst of noticing that you are in fear, ground yourself. Feel the gravity: your feet on the floor, your bottom on the seat. Slow your breath, breathe deeper. Put a hand on your belly or heart. Breathe. Remind yourself of your qualities, of your strengths. Remind yourself that you are loved, that you love. Remind yourself that you are part of the whole. Reach out to wholeness. No matter what you call it. Can you accept that the fear is here and soften with it? Just allow it to be here. Breathe. Every time the fearsome thoughts arise come back to the physical and then think of something or somebody that you love. Remind yourself of the truth that you are loved. Slowly the fear will dissolve.

“Your path is to meet your edge and soften” Chögyam Trungpa

This blog post is an excerpt from Mindful Photography 2: How to use photography to explore your life

Fear dissolving



Stuck in the House – Outside!

My free eBook Stuck in the House has a Photo Activity in it called Point of View. It is very simple, can be done with any smartphone or camera and asks you to try and create interesting photos in and around your house.

The challenge is to explore different Points of View, to move up and down, in and out, right and left. These movements change everything in your frame and are at the heart of interesting and engaging photos.

I have completed it once and added photos to the Photography for Well-Being Facebook group, but I thought that it was time for another go. Only this time I would focus on the spaces just outside my house, but still on the property. Here are my favourites. Why don’t you have a go?