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Does Photography Support a Mindfulness Experience, Or Take From It?

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

In my last blog post I ended with the observation that there appears to be a tension between being an observer who looks and experiences fully each moment of life and a photographer whose main intent is on capturing a beautiful image of that moment.

It begs the question - does the photographer miss the moment? Or does he or she become so fully engrossed in observation of the scene - being acutely aware of light, beauty, emotion - that the moment of pressing the shutter becomes part of the overall experience?

Do our attempts to document the moment mean that we miss the experience of being in that moment, or does photography, by forcing us to observe more closely, to appreciate beauty and to notice little things, actively encourage us to live more fully in the moment?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who helped to introduce mindfulness practices to the western world, defined mindfulness as “paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and without judgement”.

You might say that it’s easy to see how this definition fits with photography.

Interestingly, however, Jared Gottlieb, in a National Geographic article entitled ‘The Art of Mindful Photography’, posed a very pertinent question when he said,

“Photos can be a wonderful way of sharing meaningful experiences with others, but I worry that my attempts to document the moment make being present in it a challenge. Does photography support awareness of my immediate experience, or detract from it?”

Professional photographer Andrew Paynter, who has shot photographs for a host of well-known clients such as Coca Cola, Adidas, Converse and Apple, makes a similar point when he says,

“We are here on this earth to experience, and that is number one. The camera can document our experiences, but there’s a risk of not being a part of what is happening.”

Like many others I have heard and read a lot about mindfulness and how its practice can support our mental health, and indeed for some time I have been trying to include aspects of mindfulness into my daily living.

The great thing about mindfulness is that it’s not just a practice that we use during specific times of our lives, such as during meditation, rather it can be used to enrich all aspects of our lives.

It wasn’t a difficult jump to become interested in the art of mindful photography and to consider it as a useful tool for looking after mental health.

Due to my interest in mindfulness and its benefits to mental health, it was easy to become interested in mindful photography

But can mindful photography really lead us to a more mindful way of living?

It is certainly true that we are currently taking more photos than ever before, and we are being inundated with images on various social media platforms.

If our aim is to document as many experiences as possible, or to compete with others for the best image, then we could safely assume that our aim is not to engage in mindful photography.

The important issue here is intent; what is my intent as I go out with my camera?

If my primary intent is to walk mindfully, be aware of my surroundings, pay attention to what is around me, take photos of those things to which I am drawn and not to be judgmental of my shots then I am engaging in mindful photography.

By setting aside time to go out and take photographs, with no rush and no expectations, we give ourselves time to be present in our surroundings and freedom to explore the world around us.

If the observations of Gottlieb and Paynter are accurate in today’s world, then maybe mindful photography is exactly what we need to practice. If we are at risk of documenting too many experiences with our cameras, posting too many images online, and not being part of or experiencing what we are documenting, then mindful photography may be what will draw us back, help us to slow down, notice what is around us, become aware of those things that make us pause for a moment.

If our photography practice is to become a mindful photography practice it will ask us to tune out the busy world, retreat into the silence, and to listen to what that silence reveals to us.

Perhaps Jeremy Sutton has struck a balance when he says:

“While we often snap photographs without thinking, a camera can hold the key for reconnecting with the present. But it must be used sparingly, with thought and engagement with the subject.”

When walking I simply capture images of subjects which catch my eye. They may not be big subjects of beautiful things, but to me they have their own unique beauty

In my next blog I will discuss why I tried mindful photography and how it has completely changed my photography practice.

You might also like to read my previous blog, How Photography Can Help Us To Appreciate Life's Precious Moments

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