Mindful Photography is mindfulness applied to the process of creating a photograph
Mindful Photography is mindfulness developed through photography. It starts with seeing clearly and extends through the technical and compositional choices, towards an encouragement to align your eye, your mind and your heart whilst you are completely present.
There is a lot to unpack in that definition, so let’s start at the beginning. Where does the term Mindful Photography come from?
If you enter the term into a popular search engine and review the sites that are presented you quickly come to a conclusion; it is being used by many people to mean different things. However, the general consensus is that Mindful Photography is the development of mindfulness through photography and strong identification is often made for its links with Buddhism. So let’s start there.
When one first explores the idea of applying mindfulness to using a camera, the practice of contemplative photography becomes relevant. The main evolution of the practice of contemplative photography seems to have been through Buddhism.
Buddhism has a rich tradition of expressing wisdom and realisation through the arts and it seems that the Lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche may have been the first to have used his camera as an exploration into clear seeing. This history is explained by Michael Wood (the co-author of The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes) on his website. He explains Buddhism’s connection with clear seeing thus,
“Buddhism is concerned with clear seeing because clear seeing is the ultimate antidote for confusion and ignorance. Attaining liberation from confusion and ignorance is Buddhism’s raison d’être. Clear seeing is a primary concern for the art of photography because clear seeing is the source of vivid, fresh images—photography’s raison d’être.”
Buddhism is not the only religious tradition to have seen the possibility of photography as contemplative, reflective tool. The book The Tao of Photography offers a Taoist approach, considering how photography and The Way can be mutually supportive.
I have also read Christian based explorations. In The Little book of Contemplative Photography Howard Zehr relates the Christian tradition of contemplation to clear seeing with a camera. Does that sound familiar?
One thing that all these explanations have in common is that it is the process of clear seeing that is central to being at one with the present moment; to connecting with what you are experiencing. When I practice Mindful Photography my first intention is to use what I see as my anchor. I walk, with my camera, observing the world. I am not looking for a photograph I am observing the visual panorama before me. Every time I notice that my mind has wandered into planning, reflecting or judging I come back to the seeing.
Then there will come a moment of visual stimulation, something will ‘catch my eye’. I stop and rest in that moment. I try to stay with what it was that stopped me, connecting to the visual nature of the scene.
Finally, I receive the photograph. This is achieved by creating the equivalent of what I see with my camera. I consider where to place the rectangular frame. Maybe I move in or zoom in, or both. It is almost inevitable that during this final stage my clear seeing will be influenced by barriers; these include photo thinking, excitement, conceptualisation and judgement. I notice these thoughts and return to the visual stimulation that first stopped me. Press the shutter and walk on.
How do we see clearly?
Those barriers to clear seeing each have a lot to them. Let’s start with conceptualisation as that has the clearest link to the process of seeing.
Your eyes see light. It is your mind that then makes sense of what you see. In micro seconds your mind assembles all that visual information and applies labels. Colours, three dimensional depth, form, shape, pattern and texture are identified and the objects are given names.
But your camera doesn’t see like that. It captures light, just a small rectangle (not the almost 180 degrees that you see) in two dimensions. It does not know what it is seeing. So to ‘create the equivalent’ of what stopped you in that moment of visual stimulation you need to see like a camera. Claude Monet explained this clearly.
“In order to see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at”
In forgetting the name, or label, we start to see the light. Is that easy? Oh no, it takes practice, lots of practice. In fact as Malcolm Gladwell suggested in Outliers it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master of anything. This truth is fundamental to our development as Mindful Photographers particularly when we consider the photo thinking – the technical and compositional ideas that underpin successful photographs – that swirl about our mind when we are trying to see clearly.
I believe that Mindful Photography must build upon the foundations offered through contemplative photography. It must offer practices that support your intention to remain with your clear seeing, whilst all that photo thinking and emotional experience is occurring. As you develop as a photographer, as you learn the technical and compositional context, there are mindful photography techniques and practices that you can follow that will help: wherever you are on that journey of 10,000 hours.
What are these techniques and how can you learn them? Read on…
Mindful Photography Practices
I have created many activities that can help you to develop a mindful approach to life through your photography. I call these activities Mindful Photography Practices.
Each one of the practices is an activity designed to either apply mindfulness to the art and science of photography, or to support your development of a mindful life through photography. Within this exploration of life and photography there is an opportunity to become more familiar with who and how you are.
What you need is an example! Here is an example of a mindful photography practice that will support you on this exploration.
What happens when you practice mindfulness?
When you practice mindfulness, be it simply sitting for meditation, following a mindful movement practice like yoga or engaging in a mindful photography practice, you have the opportunity to notice what your mind is doing. Many people new to mindfulness have an expectation that it will help them respond skilfully, rather than react habitually, to the stress in their lives. This is true it will, but there is more to be aware of.
As you focus upon just doing one thing (sitting and following the breath) you begin to notice how busy and noisy your mind is. As you continue to practice over many days, months and years this experience allows you to become more aware of your mind’s habitual thinking. It is quite possible, even likely, that the more you practice the more older thoughts and feelings will arise.
These previously well buried thoughts and feelings emerge into the space and quietness that you have created. You may find this very uncomfortable. I have a mindful photography practice I am going to share here that may help you hold this experience with gentleness, as you move towards accepting what you are experiencing.
Mindful Photography Practice – Feel the photo
This practice is designed to support you through a time when you are experiencing thoughts and feelings that you do not like. You may be angry, upset, annoyed, frustrated, fearful or confused. Whatever it is that you are finding uncomfortable this practice is for those times.
- Set up your camera in a shooting mode that you can use instinctively. Auto is fine, or if you prefer a little more control use aperture priority (choose an aperture of f8 and ISO auto).
- Turn off your view screen so that you cannot see or review what you are creating. If you are not sure how to do this tape a piece of card or paper over the view screen, taking care not to cover any essential buttons. You can create photos by looking through the viewfinder or just shoot blind, from the hip!
- The purpose of this is to tune you in to what you are feeling and release the control you may experience about creating photos.
- When you are experiencing strong emotion, set your camera up as explained above, and go walking with your camera.
- Choose any location you feel drawn to.
- As you walk do not look for a photo opportunity, just walk, paying attention to what you can see
- Notice the thoughts and feelings that relate to your difficulty.
- At some point something will catch your eye. Stop and consider what it is.
- Move closer. Frame tightly. Create the photo and move on.
- Repeat this, paying attention to your feelings and the visual feast before you.
- Act instinctively and release your attachment to what your photos look like.
- Finish when you feel ready.
- Return home and DO NOT LOOK at your photos! Leave it a day.
- Next day review your photos and notice the feelings you experience.
It you find this practice useful please share it with your friends.
10 reasons to embrace Mindful Photography
My top 10 reasons to embrace mindful photography are outlined below. These may stimulate more questions for you than they answer. Some of those will be explored in my forthcoming online course. In the meantime I am happy to answer any questions you may have, just use my website contact page.
1) Learn how to see like a camera – A camera does not know the name of anything in its viewfinder. It sees light. You can learn to see the light, but you must forget the name of things!
2) Use what you see as your anchor – In meditation the breath is often used as an anchor; the thing we return to when we notice sensations, thoughts or feelings playing out across our mind. In Mindful Photography we return to the seeing.
3) Develop your photography skills and knowledge whilst remaining connected to the visual feast before you -My online course will explain how you can use the visual feast before you to return to the present and create photographs that capture that moment.
4) Express how you are feeling with a photograph – Photography can be used to explore and represent emotional experiences that are current or past. It can be literal, metaphorical or symbolic. Or it can just be a photo of something that resonates for you.
5) Use photography as a vehicle for self enquiry – The more you practice mindfulness the more you discover about yourself. Photography can be used to explore your world and can act as the intermediary between your inner world and the outer one.
6) Cultivate your ability to let go of unwanted thoughts and feelings through mindful photography practices This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges that mindfulness and meditation can support you with. Practicing mindfulness provides the opportunity and training to recognise the thoughts and feelings that are playing through your mind. There are mindful photography practices you can follow to support your intention to allow these to dissolve. – I provide these on my new online course.
7) Develop patience in your world through understanding and accepting your development as photographer The journey to mastery in any skill may take 10,000 hours (Malcom Gladwell in Outliers). There are mindful photography practices you can follow that support your development. These allow the quality of patience to develop as you pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise in the process of learning your craft.
8) Develop your ability to see the world as if for the first time – A beginner’s mind is a mindful attitude. It is one that you can apply to the practice of creating photographs. If you choose to return regularly to the same location, to spend time slowly exploring the visual feast available you may begin to see beauty which once eluded you. At this familiar place you can practice “giving the mundane its beautiful due” as John Updike suggested. This ability, cultivated through mindful photography, can support you to look at your daily experience with fresh eyes.
9) Develop trust in your own feelings – If you are to create photographs that are personal, unique and authoritative then you must listen to your heart, as well as your head. You can learn to trust and follow your own intuitive guide. If you cultivate this skill through mindful photography practices it will begin to seep through to the rest of your world.
10) Bring mindfulness into another aspect of your life – Mindfulness does not have to be limited to the meditation cushion that is merely the training zone! As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “Mindfulness applied to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation.” By developing mindfulness through photography we expand our potential to be fully present in our life.