If you type in a search for mindfulness on the National Library of Medicine website you will return 19,487 results of scientific research covering all aspects of mindfulness.
The sheer amount of evidence which exists to support the practice of mindfulness gives weight to the recent popularity of mindfulness as an aid to enhancing our health and wellbeing, although in fact people have been practising mindfulness for thousands of years.
In the light of this, for the photographer the art of mindful photography has become an important tool in helping us to look after our mental wellbeing.
There are many reasons to recommend this practice, particularly to those already interested in photography.
Here are just 3 powerful reasons why you should embrace mindful photography.
#1 Mindful photography can enhance regular photography
Mindful photography is not an alternative type of photography practised by those who are not ‘real’ photographers. In fact, many professional photographers, such as former news photographer Paul Sanders and creative photographer Benjamin Stevens embrace mindful photography and find that it enhances their photography practice.
Well known photographer Anthony Epes, while not being strictly a ‘mindful photographer’ does advocate using this type of approach to photography, and he regularly promotes aspects of mindful photography such as curiosity, using all our senses, becoming ‘suprasensitive’ to what is around us.
In a recent blog called Walking: The Secret to Great Photography, Epes says,
“The whole process of walking for a few hours or more at a time becomes almost a meditative practice with my photography that is simply essential to how I love to shoot.”
Taking a mindful approach to photography may be different to how you regularly approach photography, and it may take your photography in a new direction, but most of the elements of mindful photography are common to all photographers, and mindful photography has a lot to add to photography in general.
Whether you are learning to play a musical instrument, trying to become proficient in a new language or aiming to perfect a particular skill, it is true that in most human endeavours, the more you practise, the better you become. This is equally true in photography; the more shots you take the more you improve at image making. I find that since I began to practise mindful photography I go out a lot more often, either with a camera or my phone, and I make more images. However, simply because you go out more often, are not hampered by expectations and love to shoot what catches your eye, does not mean you can allow mindful photography to become an excuse for bad photography. While you may be able to let go of the expectation to capture the perfect shot, and while you may experience more freedom to be creative with your photography, you do still want to make the best images that you can make. For this reason, you still need to learn photography techniques and use these techniques regularly.
When you compose your images well, shoot from different perspectives, pay attention, and generally put into practice what you learn in terms of photography skills, you will support your photography, no matter what type you practise. Practising mindful photography gives you more opportunities to make images that you love.
I like to use the composition techniques which I have learned, such as using leading lines, having my subject generally adhering to the rule of thirds, changing my perspective so that not every shot is taken from the viewpoint of a standing adult
Having a mindful approach to photography will encourage you to become open to all the possibilities for your image and this will help even when the image itself is the goal rather than the mindful experience. When I travel to visit family, I regularly stop at the same lakeside location. I have often stopped just to sit by the water or stroll along the lake shore, but on many occasions I have taken photographs. I am drawn back to this place because of its beauty and tranquility but it has also offered many opportunities to experiment and improve my photography.
Taking a mindful photography trip can help us to notice how we may limit ourselves when it comes to being creative. In our general photography practice, we may not want to be too experimental, or maybe our thoughts are focused only on wanting to take ‘good’ pictures. These things can block our natural curiosity and creativity from flowing freely and stunt our growth as photographers, but when we notice these blocks, we can consciously start to let them go. Mindful photography helps to release our curiosity and let our creativity flow, which in turn gives a boost of energy to our general photography practice.
#2 Mindful photography can enhance the practice of mindfulness in other areas of our lives
Often called the Father of Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been credited with introducing mindfulness to Europe and North America, defined mindfulness as “paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and without judgement.”
Mindful photography has been described as mindfulness meditation in action. It is about paying attention to what is around us, it is about letting go of expectations and stress and rush. It is about slowing down, taking time, being in the moment. In mindful photography there are no judgements of ourselves as photographers or comparisons with others. There is no bad light or bad weather, there is no wrong location or poor subject. There is no focus on the past, or on future concerns; the focus is literally on what we see before us, in the present moment. There is just this place, this subject, in these conditions; a scene that draws us and asks us to make an image.
It is true that if we practice mindful photography on a regular basis, we find that just having a camera in our hand can transport us into that mindful zone, attentive to what is around us, able to notice the little moments of beauty that occur every day. We will allow images to come to us, allow ourselves to be drawn to our subject.
Even without a camera our mindful photography practice helps us to live more mindfully as we begin to view everything with wonder and awe, becoming aware of what makes us pause and take in the moment, tuning out the noise of the world and spending moments in silence, attentive to what the world has to reveal to us. (Paul Sanders, Mindful Photography, 2020)
Minor White, American Photographer, 1908-1976
#3 Mindful photography can enhance our lives
Minor White was an American photographer whose interest in Zen philosophy and mysticism influenced his photography. He urged us to, “Be still with yourself until the object of attention reveals its presence to you.” This is at the heart of mindful photography, this sense of stillness, of being patient, of not rushing the moment, not forcing the image. The more we invite stillness into our lives, the greater will be the benefit to our mental health and wellbeing.
Professional photographer Paul Sanders was Picture Editor at The Times from 2004 until 2011. He often looked through 20,000 images a day before realising he had had enough, and he became a landscape photographer ‘to reconnect with the world’. He set up Still to help people harness the power of photography to overcome anxiety, become more positive and to find a way to express themselves in the world. Sanders says that the very essence of mindful photography is, “to ‘see’ the world through your own eyes, noticing what makes you pause to take in the moment. This involves slowing down, making time for yourself, tuning out the random noise from the rest of the world and tuning in to what the world has to reveal to you.”
Mindful photography encourages a more thoughtful relationship with the world around us. It does this by encouraging a mindful relationship with our subject; with the landscape or seascape, with the woodland or busy street, wherever it is we find our inspiration. And because we have a more mindful relationship with the world around us, we begin to have a more mindful relationship with ourselves.
When we are engaged in mindful photography we will find much to photograph where we live, without the need to endlessly travel to capture a better image. We will visit the same place repeatedly, getting to know every aspect of our surroundings, allowing the place to reveal its own special beauty. We will begin to convey a sense of place in our photographs, a sense that comes from being a part of the experience we are capturing, of knowing what it feels like to be in this place at this time.
We don’t just take snapshots of the place we are in, we become intimately connected with the place. When you give your viewer a sense of how you felt personally when you were in the place your photographs will have soul.
As I attempt to make my regular photography practice a more mindful practice, I reap the benefits in my life. As I have outlined in a previous post, when I go out with my camera I take in my surroundings and I begin to become more observant, noticing things that I hadn’t noticed before, more appreciative of all that I see. I become more aware of people immediately around me, activities that are going on, how light is playing on objects in my field of vision, the ever-changing sky. I notice the first spring buds appearing or the way trees are silhouetted against the sky. I visualise what I want to capture with my camera, how I will compose a picture, how I will use light to enhance an image. I am using my eye before I use my camera. When I decide on what images I want to shoot I begin to experiment with angles and perspectives, getting down low or shooting high to get a better point of view. This to me constitutes more mindful, purposeful photography, and it helps me to feel connected to my subjects and to feel invested in the images I shoot.
I constantly strive to connect with people and place through my images. It is an ongoing journey, a journey of increasing self-awareness and personal development. And it is this continual effort to reach others, to connect with life and nature and beauty through making images, which in turn enriches our lives and supports positive mental health.
“At first glance a photograph can inform us. At second glance it can reach us,” Minor White
In this post I looked at 3 powerful reasons to embrace mindful photography. I hope I have shown how mindful photography enhances our general photography, enhances our mindfulness practice and enhances our lives.
This is one in a series of blog posts relating to mindful photography. In my next post I will look at the power of gratitude and how we can harness this power through photography.
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