mindfulness and photography

Water colours

So what’s mindful photography all about? 

Sometimes also known as contemplative photography, or miksang (Tibetan for ‘clear seeing’), it’s a way of approaching photography that’s not easy to sum up in a quick sentence or two.  Some of its main characteristics are:

  • it avoids planning or having an agenda
  • it’s accepting of whatever is there in front of us and works with this, not wishing it were different or trying to make it so
  • it’s characterised by an attitude of open-mindedness and curiosity
  • it’s about the process rather than the end result
  • it doesn’t put labels on the world, dividing things into categories, or labelling them good or bad, and subsequently dismissing them

But what does this actually mean in practice?  The easiest way to understand it is to compare it with what it’s not.  Imagine you’re out taking photographs, you’ve planned to go to a certain place and take some pictures of certain things, and you’ll be very disappointed if you don’t find those things.  At the back of your mind, you’re imagining how great your shots are going to be and how everyone on Facebook will ‘like’ them.  You’re also worried that they might not.  You’re not even going to try unless the weather and light are perfect for your purposes, and you spend a lot of time thinking about the techniques you’re using and worrying that you’re getting it ‘right’.  If you come away at the end of the day without a decent photo, you’ll consider your time wasted.

Contrast this with a mindful approach. You go out without looking for anything in particular and you don’t try to control what happens.  The camera you take with you can be a high-end DSLR or a phone camera – it doesn’t matter.  You let go of any expectations, goals, desires, techniques and anxieties and you stay in the moment, open to the possibility of the unexpected and willing to let the photograph come to you rather than trying to track it down.  You move into a state of flow, where time passes without you noticing because you’re so absorbed in the moment.  You begin to see and notice things you’ve never noticed before, and images effortlessly present themselves to you.  You become relaxed, absorbed and happy and your innate creativity comes out to play.  It doesn’t matter if, at the end of the day, you don’t have any decent shots because the process itself is rewarding.  However, it’s very likely that you will have taken better shots than you ever have before.

Light on stone

What can mindful photography do for me?

  • it allows your chattering mind to relax and switch off, leaving you more relaxed and ‘chilled’
  • it increases your awareness of the world around you and helps you see how miraculous, beautiful and astonishing it really is, even those things you might normally label as ‘ugly’ or ‘boring’
  • it allows your creativity to emerge and you begin to see things as never before
  • it can help, like all mindfulness practices, with emotional problems, depression and anxiety

But I don’t understand – what does photography have to do with mindfulness?

Let’s look at mindfulness first.  First of all, a quote from Uncovering Happiness, by Elisha Goldstein.

‘Put quite simply, mindfulness is awareness.  It is the action of intentionally using your five senses to bring complete attention to your experience of the present moment, while letting go of judgements and biases.  Although it is rooted in Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness has undergone extensive scientific study in the West and has been shown to be a powerful, effective way of eliciting psychological wellness.  It has been used with great success to help people with depression, anxiety, stress-related dis-orders, chronic pain, addictive behaviour, and even chronic stress.

…Mindfulness [is} a flexible and unbiased state of mind where you are open and curious about what is present, have perspective, and are aware of choices.’

There are many ways into mindfulness, and photography is only one of them.  Meditation is one of the most used techniques, but doesn’t appeal to everyone and many find it hard to sustain a meditation practice.  For lots of us, an easier and more enjoyable way to cultivate mindfulness is to take up an activity like photography that, approached in the right way, will move you into a mindful state while at the same time giving you a new interest, developing your creativity, and as a bonus, getting you some fresh air and exercise.  Photography is fun, absorbing, satisfying and fulfilling.  Where meditation uses the breath as an anchor, mindful photography uses your visual experience as an anchor.

What if I don’t know anything about photography?

You don’t need to know a thing about photography, just be open-minded and willing to give it a go.  You can use any camera, even a phone camera, and no technical knowledge is needed.  If you do happen to know a bit about photography, then that’s great but the real benefits lie in learning to look at the world in a very different way, being aware of it in ways you never have been before. If you want to learn more about the technical side of things later on, or buy a better camera, then it might help you express yourself more effectively but it’s not necessary.

It’s a bit like writing poetry.  Anyone can write poetry and they don’t need to have extensive knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, or any understanding of poetic forms and structures in order to express themselves effectively – in fact, sometimes these things can even get in the way.  Children often write very effective poetry because they state things clearly and simply and authentically.  Mindful photography is like this – you come from a place of looking at the world clearly and simply, following your authentic desires and interests, and the results have a simple truthfulness and clarity.

sunset with tree