Last Friday I was invited by Professor Andrew Kemp to talk about Mindful Photography to his Positive Psychology students. I will be explaining what positive psychology in a moment and exploring the links between it and what I do. There are plenty. I should also say that it wasn’t really a ‘talk’, more an experiential workshop. After an outline of what Mindful Photography is and sharing my 4 Stage Seeing Practice, I got the students and Andrew to complete a mindful photography activity and then share and discuss some of their favourite photos.
What is Positive Psychology?
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. University of Pennsylvania
The link above is a great starting point and there are many more resources there that will provide you with all you could ever want to know about this fascinating branch of psychology. I’m gonna relate the three pillars of positive psychology below and it is from the same source. Dr Martin E.P.Seligman is kinda regarded (informally) as one of the fathers of this and he works at the University. His book Flourish is well worth a read. (I am not an affiliate)
The Three Pillars
The Three Pillars: Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits involves the study of strengths, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.
University of Pennsylvania
What has Mindful Photography to do with Positive Psychology?
All mindful activities intend to bring you into the moment. Mindful Photography is no different. You use what you see as the anchor to return to, every time you notice photo thinking, looking for a photo or any other thoughts or feelings arising.
All mindful practice leads to a greater ability to notice your thoughts and feelings. Such practice is not always easy, but the intention is that by being more aware you then have the opportunity to make a more skillful response, rather than your habitual reaction. Continued practice leads to greater self awareness, and an opportunity to practice being with the difficult moments, thoughts and feelings, rather than reacting in a normal human way – denying, deluding or distracting yourself!
This is true practice. Challenging practice. It is a practice because you don’t always get it right. Your habitual patterns and reactions are well ingrained, but practice leads to new neural pathways being created and the possibility of responding skillfully and positively to life’s challenges.
It seems to me that all mindful practice provides the foundation for understanding the self, one of the three pillars of Positive Psychology. This is the area that I have developed my work with Mindful Photography, particularly to support living with difficulty after major change of significant loss. It is at this time that everything you believe you know about yourself is uprooted, the tethers to your kind of ‘normal’ dissolve, and whilst you still remain attached to the version of who you were before the change, living with who you are now brings huge difficulty.
I believe that there is an opportunity to use Mindful Photography Practices to explore and understand who you are after this major change and significant loss. Sometimes talking about your thoughts and feelings is difficult, impossible or just not something you are used to. Learning how to represent emotions and ideas in a photograph provides a visual way of representing how you are. It also allows you to get personal and share as much or as little as you are comfortable with. The photos can exist shared or kept private, with or without explanation. They can be a window to your soul and the practice allows you time to process what you are living with.
I believe that this is my work for the next few years. I am finally finishing my book on the subject, and it will be available in 2019 initially as an eBook. I will continue to offer courses and workshops and will also offer free talks on the topic to interested groups. I also have an application in with the Arts Council to fund a project called ‘Who Am I Now?’ that will create up to 15 diptych self portrait photographs with people who are living with significant loss. One photo will represent who they were before the change and one who they are now.
I plan to develop my website and newsletter to support this clear direction and would welcome and thoughts, ideas and interest from you.
Back to the workshop with the psychology students. We were blessed with a glorious day and they were all invited to create 5 photos in 30 minutes, without looking at their creations and not deleting any photos. Upon their return they got into small groups and chose one photo per group to share and talk about to the rest of the group.
All of this was done with smartphones and a cool app called Slack. This allowed the students to upload their photos, share a written comment and it appear instantly on the feed. Kind of a closed Facebook group but without the need for a FB account. Unfortunately, I forgot to get written permissions so I cannot share any of their photos – you’ll have to manage with mine in this post!
One of the other ideas we were exploring that links Positive Psychology with Mindful Photography is that of Psychological Flow – the moment of being completely attuned, holistically, with the one thing that you are doing. It’s the kind of experience where time dissolves and you achieve maximum performance without realising how you did it. Practicing the skill is the bedrock of this experience, then somewhere approaching 10,000 hours of practice (Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers) you slip into the flow. In photography the camera becomes an extension of your body, all of the technical and compositional decisions just happen and a great photo is born.
At the end of the workshop Andrew asked the students if any of them had the flow experience. A few put their hands up. I’m grateful they were so polite!
Many thanks for the invitation for Professor Andrew Kemp and for the students for getting fully involved