Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Photography is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis”
Henri Cartier Bresson

I do love this quote. Not only does it summarise my view of photography beautifully, it has also been an inspiration for my development of a mindful approach to photography.

Henri Cartier Bresson was a French photographer who is generally regarded as the father of photojournalism. He was an early user of 35mm, which with his rangefinder Leica and 50mm lens attached allowed him to develop his candid style of street photography. He is perhaps most famous for coining the phrase ‘the decisive moment’, to describe the optimum time to press the shutter.

This quote neatly encapsulates the key aspects of outstanding photography and is worthy of a brief analysis.

The Eye

What we see through our eyes is light and colour. Our eyes do not know what it is that they see. In that way they are very much like the camera, they record the light, they do not label what they see.

Our eyes also see like a combination of two lenses. They have a focal length similar to a 50mm lens, but with far wider angle of view. Our peripheral vision gives us the view similar to a fish eye lens – but without the severe distortion.

All of this sensory information is passed instantaneously to the brain, and that is where the trouble starts!

The Head

By head, we mean the role of the mind in photography. Its primary purpose is to interpret all of the visual information provided by the eyes. This is to keep us safe, identifying potential threats and potential sources of food. Except when we train to be photographers all of that identification and labeling can get in the way of seeing what is really in front of us.

The features before us are the light, colours, shapes, forms, lines, space, patterns and textures. Our mind receives this visual information and in a snap compares this to known similar visual data and labels the object(s). All very useful on the Serengeti Plains when out hunting. but as a photographer hunting a great photo it is the features that we need to see before the label. For it is this that will guide our artistic creation through compositional choice.

So how can we learn to forget the names of what we see and truly see everything, and every possibility? Practice. In the online course I am currently developing I share practices that can help to develop this ability.

The Heart

The heart is used here to signify the emotion of a photograph. If we are to create photographs that rise above the ‘good’ to be ‘great’ we need to engage the heart. Both ours and the viewers. How can we do that? Guess what? I share some of the foundations of how photographers first attempted to do this, and some useful mindful practices to support your development as photographers in my online course.

If you are intrigued why not download the free eBook below and then you’ll get some great information, and a mindful photography practice. You will also get more detail about the course (because you’ll be subscribed to my newsletter) and be the first to try out my free Introduction to Mindful Photography 5 Day Challenge, which will be released in September 2017.

Shattered

Sometimes events arrive in our world and all that we know is shattered. Even if we know that nothing is forever we sometimes imagine that it is. Then in a flash it is gone.

Loss, often in the form of death, is one such shattering experience that we all live through at some time. I was reminded of this by my friend Phil who recited (from memory) a short poem by Leon Wieseltier from his book Kaddish. I have not read the book, but I believe it is an autobiography that was written after his father’s death, about his loss and how his faith and exploration supported his acceptance of the shattering event.

Phil has kindly recorded himself reciting the poem. It is less than two minutes long. Do listen.

Relieved

Are you relieved to see a bit of sunshine? If you are UK based then you’re probably expressing delight or misery, dependent upon whether you’re enjoying some well earned rest or working in the heat. It is very warm for the UK. And boy do we let everyone know!

I was looking for some inspiration to go with the ‘relieved’ title and came across this favourite photo of mine from a Paignton Seafront visit a couple of years ago. For those of you with an interest in photographers as inspiration I must confess that this photo owes a debt of gratitude to Martin Parr’s Last Resort. That series of photos truly nails the British on holiday in Britain. It’s the little details, with an edge of caustic humour that I loved in his photos and this one kind of echoes that intention.

I love the irony of the guy on the left reading the Sun under an umbrella. And the Britishness just shouts out: the striped deckchairs, the edge of a sandcastle, the beach huts, the mix of dress choices and those fluffy white clouds against a blue sky. They all lend to the seaside postcard feeling.

Do you think they are all relieved to be on their holidays? Let’s hope so!

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What can your dog teach you about mindfulness?

Monty is a middle aged Bijon Frise. White haired, curious and very friendly. What can a four legged creature teach a two legged one about mindfulness, consciousness and the self?

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

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

Monty experiences emotion. He experiences fear: loud traffic noises, flying objects, fireworks and certain dogs in the park all stimulate a strong desire to run back home to safety. Something he has done several times, fortunately dodging traffic as he careers across busy roads.

He seeks out contact. He likes 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, lives solely in the present moment. This is his greatest teaching.

This doggy moment

Monty has a vocabulary of 30 – 40 words. Each of these words will stimulate a response. Cat, food, sit, No, go, Bijon, sausage, wait etc are all associated with an action. And whilst we do talk to him as though he understands, language is of course a concept too far! So when I talk to him about a cat he saw earlier in the day, Monty will perk up and look for the cat in the room now. Not only is language a concept too far, so is 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 knows this. He only knows that there is this moment right now. Monty lives in the present moment. The mindful hound!

The doggy self

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

If I hold Monty up to a mirror he may look at himself briefly, but pretty quickly his gaze slips away to what is behind or next to him. There is no curiosity. No checking out how he looks. There doesn’t even appear to be a recognition that he is looking at a dog, or that the dog is him.

So the idea that there is such a thing as the ‘self’ does not trouble Monty. He experiences his day a series of sensations, feelings and thoughts arising and passing. Each one is a singular moment and each one is 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 is always with the experience of the moment. They are fine teachers, our canine friends. Guru Monty has much to teach me!

The last act of your life

“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I’m not sure where I first came across this, I tend to jot down quotes I like for future reference in a little notebook. This was in there.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor in the 2nd century who wrote several books, now known as Meditations, over ten years whilst on military campaign.

This particular quote reminds me that each and every moment is here but once. Whilst the encouragement to ‘do every act…..as though it were the very last..’ is somewhat melodramatic reminder, sometimes we need those dramatic thoughts to shake us from drifting through the moment and day. Perhaps he did not mean it so literally, merely as a call to wake up and be present in our day. Which reminds me of what a wise bear once said about waking up and the day ahead.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”

A A Milne

An Ending

Every ending may be a beginning, but sometimes we find the adaptation to this change beyond comprehension. I was discussing endings and beginnings with my good friend Phil today and he recited a short poem he had learnt on this very topic by Leon Wieseltier, from his book Kaddish.

A poem should always be read out loud, so I asked Phil (who needs no second invitation, being a trained actor) to record himself reading this fabulous poem. If you can spare 2 minutes please sit quietly and contemplate these wise words.

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3 steps to letting go of the outcome

It’s got to be great!

There you are, setting out on a little activity. It could be a photography job. It might be a DIY task or a children’s birthday party. Whatever it is you will have at the front of your mind an idea of what the outcome will be: a storytelling photo, an effective shelf, a fantastic party. You have an attachment to the outcome.

“Nothing wrong with that” you say. “How else can I ensure success unless I work towards a great outcome?”

Perhaps what you are really saying is, “How else will I know that I am ok unless this activity turns out well?”

We look to our successes as evidence that we are great: fantastic photographers, nifty DIY experts or loving parents. Perhaps the focus of our attention should be elsewhere.

What if we were tuned in to the journey rather than the destination?

Step 1: Begin with kindness

We do give ourselves a hard time. Everything we do carries with it an assessment of how well we think we have done. We may also think about how much better we could do.

What if instead of focussing on this judgement, of a yet to happen outcome, we centred on the process we found ourselves in? What if we started with kindness towards ourselves?

Let’s cradle how we feel about each of the steps that make up the complete task. Looking at each step, let’s tune in to how each part might be. How difficult or easy. How much would be fun. How much might be tricky.

Let’s have some empathy for how these steps might make us feel. Let’s start with kindness for the journey.

Step 2: Loosening our attachment to the outcome

Once we develop some compassion for our feelings as we engage in the activity, we can begin to loosen our attachment to the outcome. By tuning into the whole process we encourage an awareness of how we will be along the way.

By practicing being totally present with every element of the activity we give credence to our feelings. We allow ourselves to be who we are. We begin to recognise that we are perfect in our imperfectness.

An ability to see that our attachment to the outcome is narrow can develop. Our understanding expands to know that every step along the way is an opportunity to flourish. In this fertile ground our capacity for non-judgement slowly rises.

Our ability to let go of our attachment to the outcome becomes possible.

Step 3: Sharing the merit

Instead of sharing the outcome, however we may judge that, we can now consider sharing the merits of the journey. Our capacity to see all of the experience as holistic life experience underpins our knowledge that we are OK. All this stuff is just life happening. Everything, the glory and the grime, has the capacity to expand our understanding of what it means to be human.

We may also want to share the outcome, but this now may just be another part of the process of self understanding. We may now be able to explain that although the outcome was not what we had hoped for that we wouldn’t have changed the experience ‘for the world.’

Loosening our hold on the outcome allows us to become more present with each element of the activity.

This is mindfulness in action.

“In the end, just three things matter:
How well we have lived
How well we have loved
How well we have learned to let go”
– Jack Kornfield

 

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Stopping

How often do you truly stop? Slow down from your busy pace? And what happens when you do?

This week I have stopped. Yes, I do count writing this post part of the stopping! It’s the reflecting and paying attention bit.

Over the last month I have been struggling with my breathing. In fact, if I am completely honest it’s been tricky (on and off) for most of this year. I have been aware of this and have done all I could to support my health, but within the normal pace of life.

My normal pace varies between high activity and output, to torpor. With not much in between. The torpor is my recovery when my body is telling me that I have overdone it. This is a pattern I am familiar with and it is my daily practice to notice how I am and make wise choices. Of course I don’t always get that right!

However, I have been aware for a while that I needed to stop, completely. Fortunately the ending of my part time job included some owed holiday. A week in the sun was calling.

In the period of time between deciding to take a week’s holiday and actually booking it, two things happened.

Firstly, I decided to give my throat an opportunity to open up, to remember how it could be, and took a week’s course of steroids. I do not make this choice lightly. There are many side effects from the drugs, as I have discovered. However, sometimes our body just needs help and a reminder of how it can be. Also I knew that I would then have a week in the sun to re-balance and rest as I withdrew from the medication.

The second happening was an unplanned joy. I fell in love. In a perfect moment everything changed. I have discovered that the poets and troubadours are right; that indefinable magic exists and gravitational love can explode into your life. Your life then takes a whole new trajectory.

Now I sit in the brilliant Turkish sun and scribble this post in my notebook. I am filled with warmth, deep in my soul. My breathing has re-balanced, I am deeply rested and the sun heals my need to rush off to do the next thing.

I feel great love for my lover, for myself and for everyone in my life. Sometimes it is only when you stop that you reconnect with the fathomless well of love that is often obscured by the day’s busy-ness. For it is this daily activity, driven by the need to to achieve, to do, to complete, that agitates the muddy water in our glass of life. Then your ability to see your truth is clouded. Only when you stop, does the sediment (life’s noise) settle. Then the water in your glass becomes crystal clear and you see you are surrounded by love.

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Beginnings 2

Further to my post yesterday about Beginnings in my working life, I thought I would follow up by sharing my feelings about new beginnings in my personal life.

When I started writing about how my life was and the particular challenges I was facing some two years ago now, it was part of the process of working towards accepting my vulnerabilities that surrounded these challenges. I recognised that a mindful life, paying attention to my feelings, could support this process and by sharing these experiences here I may also inspire and support others to be similarly fearless.

For it is fearlessness that we need if we are to hold how we feel about difficulty. To not run away. To not distract ourselves, or to avoid the feelings and consequences. But what about the fearlessness needed when exciting and positive developments explode into your life? Do you still need to be fearless? And if so how does this relate to a mindful life?

Indefinable Magic

Two months ago I started dating again. To be honest it has been a little wearing this time around. I have been on several initial meet ups, once or twice these then led to a proper date. But whilst many of these were interesting and occasionally fun there was something missing.

We all look for a strong physical attraction. We then hope that we have an immediate ability to be able to communicate naturally. But even if those two elements are present we also look for that other major factor, or at least I do! The indefinable magic. This may be called ‘love at first sight’ in books and the media, but I believe that it is something more. Hopefully you will know what it is when it happens. For me it is a deep knowing. An instinctive surety. A fundamental connection of body, mind and soul with another person. A certainty that this is the one.

This happened to me on Sunday. I knew immediately. I nearly held her hand as we first walked together. The rest of that first meeting confirmed those first two hopes; the physical attraction and great communication were both present. And I knew at a deep level that the indefinable magic was present. We are now building upon this knowing, for it is mutual, and I am grateful that we have this foundation from which to develop our relationship.

So why does this fantastic experience require fearlessness? Because fear is always present. Even in the midst of huge excitement there will probably be a small little voice that starts with, ‘What if…’ Practicing mindfulness means that you are developing the capacity to recognise your feelings and rest with them. To not react. To notice where they play out in the body. To give yourself time to process the fear and to respond with compassion for yourself.

Maybe such an experience could also generate so much excitement that you loose your centeredness, that connection with your true, deep self. This can be as distracting and confusing as fear. But your potential to notice your feelings, to respond skillfully rather than to react habitually, remains the practice. Just as it is with fear. Fearlessness is facing your emotions gently. Noticing how they make you feel. How they make you think. The noticing is enough, and noticing the physical sensations in the body helps you to get out of your head.

So I practice noticing the butterflies. That slight shakiness deep inside. That little jump in the stomach. And I breathe. And then I write to you about it so that you can share, remember and practice.

The Female Form

 

Beginnings

As one door closes another opens. You are familiar with this phrase. Of course often it’s a sop to comfort you when the change was unexpected. Sometimes though it is you who exits and closes the door. That is how it is with me right now.

Yesterday I left my part time employment with the Dylan Thomas Centre. I am now full time freelance. This is an exit I have thought about for some time and has an intention at its heart. I have chosen to do this to focus on the development of my online course in Mindful Photography.

Those of you who read this blog (even occasionally) will know that I have intended to do this for some time. However, there never seemed to be enough time and still keep life in balance. So something had to change. I have managed to gather enough resource and other income streams together to give myself a few months of dedicated time to this development. The summer months will be time where I develop the course content from the Mindful Photography book I already have written. Then it will just be a question of attending to the marketing and technological challenges before launching sometime in September 2017.

Yesterday I walked out of the Dylan Thomas Centre for the last time as an employee. It felt good. The right time. I am ready for this. Bring it on!

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10 Tips to Survive a Photo Marathon

Having completed a few Photo Marathons now, I thought I would share a few tips to surviving (and thriving) at a Photo Marathon. I’ll be explaining what a Photo Marathon is, why you should try one and illustrating this post with the photos from my most recent event – the Bath Photo Marathon 2017.

What is a Photo Marathon?

A Photo Marathon is a test of creativity, endurance, photography skills and sense of humour. It is usually a competitive event, often with prizes, and takes place over a set period of time. A common format is 12 Topics, 12 Photos, 12 Hours. In that format you have to create 12 photos to illustrate the 12 topics, one photo per topic and they must be in topic order. You start with a clean memory card and complete with only the required 12 photos, unedited.

Why you should do one

A Photo Marathon is a test of your photography skills, knowledge and observation. It will test your stamina and resilience, but ultimately it is a test of your powers of creativity. It is worth noting that the 5 Creative Habits of Mind are described as: Inquisitive, Imaginative, Collaborative, Persistent and Disciplined. A Photo Marathon tests all of those habits of mind!

Taking part will fire your creativity, get you exploring a new city, introduce you to people with the same interest and challenge your photography skills. What’s not to like?

Ten Tips to Survive (and thrive) a Photo Marathon

  1. Read the rules and guidelines. Make sure you understand the timescale, photography requirements, locations, pick ups, final deadline etc
  2. Start with an empty memory card and a charged battery. Carry spares of both. Spare battery and charger will keep you in the game. Spare memory card means you can create other photos as you go (if you have the energy)
  3. Wear the appropriate clothing. Comfortable shoes, trousers that will get dirty and pack clothes for possible weather changes
  4. Enter the event with a friend. One of you has the camera, both of you fire off ideas at each other. Two heads are definitely better than one. You also get to spend time with that person and get to know how they think. Probably a good thing huh?
  5. Pace yourself. Make sure you build in breaks and refreshment; it is an endurance event. Often you are more creative during the first half, but more decisive in the second half. Excitement at the beginning creates more ideas and photos. Tiredness makes you more decisive.
  6. Aim to do a negative split. Be decisive in the first half and then you’ll be more creative in the second half. (That’s a running joke!)
  7. Decide on each final photo as you go. Do not leave that until the end, you’ll be tired. Do each topic in turn. Complete and choose the final photo and then move on. This provides creative clarity.
  8. Discuss and view topic photos together, but decide in your pair who makes final decision on choice of photo (usually the photographer)
  9. Use insider knowledge. It is helpful if one of you knows the city. If not then talk to locals. Ask for advice. However don’t let your knowledge or information about the city limit you seeing what is right in front of you.
  10. In a standard Photo Marathon with the same number topics as photos and hours choose a simple overarching theme to link the photos. Some use a prop to do this (like a mini lego figure who appears in every photo). Others use in camera processing (usually allowed) e.g Black and White. Or choose a theme, like a colour or technique – red or low/high point of view. Surely someone will soon submit a set using a drone camera, if they haven’t already!

Bath Photo Marathon 2017

I did this year’s Bath Photo Marathon with my old friend Simon. It was a great excuse for us to meet up – as Bath was kind of equidistant – and we got to catch up and have a few beers after.

Our photos are below. They are in the order given, the titles are underneath and have an over arching theme – Scarlet. Well, it was red really, but a little orange crept in! We had to create 20 photos in 10 hours. These were provided in two sets of ten, with a location to pick up the second half.

Our favourite photo after all this was the ‘Fashion’ photo. This best illustrates our collaborative process and sense of the absurd!

Your Entry Number

Contrast

Red

Looking through

Fashion

Fragment

Corner

Refreshing

Control

Crossing the line

Next Generation

Street Life

Movement

Self Portrait

Abstract

Missing

Found

Show off

Sign

The End!

 

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External Reality Internal Resonance

I have recently changed my camera system. After more than ten years as a Canon DSLR gunslinger I have traded everything in for a Fuji mirrorless system. What’s all that about then? Why choose to make any change? And why choose that change?

I am living through a period in my life of great change. I have made some choices, choices to live in a certain manner, that have sent ripples through my life. These have primarily impacted upon my relationships and livelihood. What I have noticed, in that process, that once you start with major change not only does each change have fundamental consequences, there is also a burgeoning desire to make other changes.

Whilst changing camera system might seem unimportant in itself, it is related to the life changes and could be seen as a metaphor for them. I have changed to a simpler, lighter, smaller system. In making the change I have had to ask myself what is important in creating photos? What do I need to achieve that? The outcome is one Fuji XT2, the kit lens and one prime lens – the 35mm f1.2.

Those choices are about portability and focal length preference. They are born out of experience. Experience and knowledge of how I work best. How I see the world. And it is in this respect that it is a choice that chimes with my other life choices. Simplifying and responding to what feels real, authentic and true.

Creating Photos

So there I am with my new shiny new camera. And just like starting a new job or primary relationship there is unfamiliarity and uncertainty. I breathe, return to myself, and remember that there is something in the creation of an abstract photograph that calls to me.

It is worth reflecting for a moment what abstract art is. It is defined as relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours, and textures. Its effect is that in losing your clear link to an identifiable object you connect with how the photo/art makes you feel. This feeling is conveyed by the use of colour, shapes, colour, texture and the other visual elements of design.

In this process the artist can express how he feels, though how the viewer feels when viewing the photos may be different. But it is in this sharing that the magic lies. For the photographer can aspire to the broader definition of abstract – existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence – abstract concepts such as love or beauty.

I can be experiencing an emotion, thought or idea and through my visual design choices I can attempt to convey my experience. For me the true magic lies in the gaps between our common cultural interpretations of visual design elements, the personal experience I am living through and the viewer’s current lived experience. It is this interaction, which is part in my control and choice and part completely free of my interference that calls to me.

So there I am with my shiny new camera. It is unimportant. What is present is my experience in that moment and what I can see in front of me. These four photos represent that experience. They are the interaction between the external reality and my internal resonance of that reality. What I was feeling and what you feel (once you have got beyond the need to try and identify what the objects are!) is the magic between us.