Updated: Dec 17, 2019
I recently read of a psychologist who advises clients suffering from depression to take up photography. This got me thinking – what is it about photography that would help someone who suffers from depression? I may not be able to answer that question in a scientific way but I would agree, from my own experience, that there is a connection between photography and well-being. In the simplest terms, photography forces us out of ourselves into the world in search of photo opportunities, therefore helping us to take the focus off ourselves and our worries. It encourages us to become more attentive to what is happening around us and to pay attention to the little things that exist in the world. It enables us to appreciate the beauty which is in our midst or to find beauty in the ordinary or mundane. There is no such thing as failure in photography, just learning opportunities. It can become a great motivator and a pathway to a new creativity.
Becoming more observant is one of the key skills which a budding photographer needs to practise. A spin-off is that becoming more observant is also a great life skill, and in a world where we seem to be constantly rushing from a to b, and where we increasingly pass our spare time lost in our own thoughts or (worse!) checking our phones, becoming more attentive to the world around us is a life skill that is very much required, and one which is also conducive to increased well-being.
But are claims for a link between photography and well-being backed up by research? Interestingly, some research has been done by Dr Liz Brewster of Lancaster University and Dr Andrew Cox of the University of Sheffield who concluded that taking a photo each day and posting it online supports improved well-being. They reported that, ‘taking a moment to be mindful, and looking for something different or unusual in the day were seen as positive well-being benefits of the practice.’ (www.sciencedaily.com) Some additional benefits were that it ‘led to more exercise and gave a sense of purpose, competence and achievement.’ After interviews with a number of participants in the study, who valued things such as communication within the online community, having a reason for getting out and getting some exercise and memory making, the researchers made the claim that the practice of photography is "an active process of meaning making, in which a new conceptualisation of well-being emerges." This may be very theoretical but I think it does show how the practice of photography can benefit our well-being.
In our photography practice we are encouraged to slow down, to appreciate the environment around us, to make the most of any situation and to strive to present our vision to others. We aim to show others the world in ways they haven’t seen before, in ways that are unique to us as photographers. In our photography practice we are given opportunities to experiment, to try new approaches and to become more creative in our lives. Photographer Megan Kennedy, writing a blog on the therapeutic qualities of photography for www.digital-photography-school.com, makes the point very well:
“Photography opens an inexhaustible amount of doors, providing opportunities to explore, travel, experiment and grow experience. It also helps form relationships with different places and subjects, leading to tangible locations that are a haven for low days. A valuable self-care technique”.
My own photography journey has taken me to new and unexpected locations, and often invited conversations with the people I have met. I have spent many happy hours wandering around new places, camera at the ready, observing, admiring and, at times, coming away with a few photos. Even if those photos are not so good, I come away with memories and new experiences, both of which I consider to be invaluable gifts.
Photography and Mindfulness
Becoming quiet in ourselves, being more attentive to sights, sounds and feelings, to the moment that is, are attributes associated with mindfulness and they are also attributes associated with photography. Photography helps us to slow down, take time, be patient, be present in the moment, look at life from a new perspective, and can make lasting changes to our outlook. In some sense, both the photographer and the person practising mindfulness receive the moment as it is, without trying to change it. While many photographers try to capture extraordinary beauty, and these subjects in turn make for beautiful images, there is also value in celebrating the ordinary, finding beauty in the mundane and translating this into our images.
This shot focused on a single flower, its beauty and delicate nature, the exquisite details so often not seen. Photography can help us appreciate the true beauty of nature and bring that beauty to others.
Winter can be a time when it becomes more difficult to get outside and many people suffer from seasonal effective disorder, where they find their mood dips during the darker days of winter. It is important for our physical and mental well-being to get outside as much as possible during the winter and to take advantage of whatever sunshine is available. This can be hard to do without a specific purpose, but heading out to capture some photographs can provide that purpose. I love to go for a walk on a crisp winter day and see the bare trees silhouetted against a clear sky or catch a raindrop glistening in the early morning sun. There is nothing so awe-inspiring as a stroll through a frost covered landscape and to feel the crunch of the frosty ground underfoot. Appreciation of these aspects of winter, as well as actual walks in the early morning sunshine on those frosty winter mornings, help to raise serotonin levels and chase away the winter blues. The addition of a camera to capture those magic winter moments is an extra bonus.
Photography as an aid to reflection
Many aids to reflection and meditation use photography as their basis. Beautiful photography of stunning scenes helps to calm our minds and heighten our awareness and appreciation of the beauty we see. On the other hand, there is an argument that taking out a camera to capture a stunning vista actually spoils the meditative moment, and to some degree this is true, particularly if we are constantly pulling out a phone camera to grab ‘that great shot'. Yet I find that building a constant practice of photography does help me to stand and stare more often and resist the urge to take a picture every time.
I recently came across the term meditative photography, which sounds like a contradiction in terms since photography is very much an outward pursuit while meditation is a journey inwards. Yet these two concepts do have something in common. I have often found myself being in awe of the beauty of a scene before I even try to capture that beauty. Who could fail to appreciate the amazing colours of the sky at sunrise or sunset even while knowing that a photograph can never do them justice? Who is not in awe of the power of the sea as it crashes on the rocks, an image that can never be accurately captured in camera even though we might try to do just that?
I was walking along just before sunset on a crisp winter evening, admiring the changing colours of the sky. My first impulse was not to grab a photo but to stop and stare. I did take out my phone before leaving to capture the moment and the memory, and the sharing of these pictures adds to the sense of awe I feel at the beauty of nature.
Being in the moment
Photography encourages us to be in the moment- to give our full attention to what is happening right now. It is the only moment we have, and in photography, if we miss the moment it is gone forever. That’s not to say that another equally good moment won’t come along, but we do have to become attentive if we want to capture the interplay of subject, composition and light that makes a good photograph. For Anthony Epes, photographer and teacher, the biggest gift of photography is that it gives us the opportunity, in every single moment, to be awake to life.
Because, you can’t see and capture good photos unless you're connected to what's happening around you, in the present moment. And what a gift photography is in the pursuit of presence. It gives us the excuse to be paying attention to the world around us. It gives us an excuse to reject a life of incessant doing. To sit, wander, walk, explore - and just look. And when you are looking - you are looking with full engagement with what you are looking at.
Master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson also talked about photography being something that happens in the present:
“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time.”
In photography and in life, we need to seize the moment!
The sharing community
Often, the culmination of our photography process is sharing our images with others. Nowadays, with the myriad of social media sites on which to share our photographs, it is easy to present our photographs not just to those who know us, but much further afield. Whether we share on Instagram or other social media platform, or have our own website or online gallery, we want to display our best images, appreciate our own work in progress and strive for improvement. An ‘audience’ for our work, though often not seen, can help us to think outside of ourselves, be aware of the preferences of others while staying true to our own vision and accept comment and suggestion when given in a supportive environment. Displaying and presenting our photography work online can help us develop and improve as photographers and gain a better sense of our own work. Selecting images for display can be a powerful act in itself as it forces us to evaluate and critique our own work, which can be a great learning experience. Having said that, I do believe that we need to choose our online communities carefully as we don’t want to belong to communities who offer overly harsh criticism or whose work is way above the level of our own work. I like sites that use the 1-2-3 Rule, where participants are encouraged, for every photo they upload, to comment on at least two other photos and like at least three photos. Comments in these communities are usually positive and supportive and often offer valuable insights to others.
Photography as an art form has much to teach us and many gifts to give. It can be a great boost to our self-esteem when we achieve what we set out to achieve but it can also help us to be kind to ourselves when we don’t reach the mark. Often our ‘failures’ are the best teachers and I often look again at the images that I initially rejected to see what I do like about them and how they can be used to improve my future pictures. But without doubt it is our achievements that give us our greatest rewards; the photographs that meet our expectations, the images that capture exactly the look we were after, the compositions that are pleasing to the eye and that we are proud to share. These images reward our tenacity, our determination to keep going despite our failures, the hard work and long hours we put in to perfecting our craft. But despite the end result, it is the actual act of taking the picture that gives me the greatest pleasure, that moment when I have chosen my subject, framed that subject in the best way I can and then I click that shutter button. A magic moment!
“You just have to live and life will give you pictures.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson