I like the early days of January; they seem to suggest change, newness, getting rid of ideas or habits that are not working for us and taking on new ones. Whether it’s getting better at taking exercise, eating more healthily or getting out in the fresh air more, January, with its traditional time for resolutions, seems the perfect month in which to at least get started.
I recently took early retirement from my lifetime career. I enjoyed my work and could have happily continued for another few years so I had to do a lot of soul-searching before I made my decision. My chief concern was whether I would have enough to keep myself occupied with all this newfound leisure time after a lifetime of meaningful work. On the other hand there was a pull towards leading a simpler life, savouring the moments, learning to be a ‘human being’ rather than a ‘human doing’. I believe that we all need to withdraw from the rat race at times and make space for ourselves. I think it’s the reason mindfulness and meditation practices have become so popular. Yet it’s hard to create that space in the midst of the 'hurly burly' of life. For me, the practice of photography, a passion which I am now able to re-kindle, has given me that space apart and allowed me to become more fully present in life.
“Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second”.
Marc Riboud, French photojournalist.
In many ways photography can be considered to be a spiritual pursuit. It encourages patience, appreciation, wonder, being in the moment, marveling at the unexpected and surrendering to the inevitability of lost opportunities with good grace. Photography is a celebration of the visual beauty in our midst. It is about pausing to notice what is around us, seeing colour, shape, lines, light and shadow, texture. It is about responding to what draws our attention, to its sense of mystery, its possibilities, and realising that our view is only one view, not the only view. Photography has taught me to see, even without a camera. I believe that photography has heightened my awareness of the little things in life, that it has helped me to pay more attention in life. To quote Dorothea Lange, documentary photographer and photo journalist who was known for her empathetic photographs of the lives of others:
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera”.
While I don’t make New Year Resolutions as such, I do like the idea of re-thinking my life, of making small adjustments for the better with the hope that these will continue beyond the first few days of the New Year. Essentially, photography has taught me three main life lessons which I would like to incorporate into my daily routine.
Lesson 1: Pay More Attention
It’s all about becoming more mindful. Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzz word in recent years but there is no denying its effectiveness in terms of improving mental well-being. It is so easy to rush along from one thing to another without stopping to notice what is around us. Taking time to slow down and pay attention to the present moment can help relieve stress and increase our enjoyment of life. It has other benefits too – mindful driving is much safer driving; mindful eating keeps us from gulping down food and causing digestive problems; mindful walking allows us to stop and stare, to savour life’s precious moments. Mindful photography can be seen as ‘mindfulness applied to the process of creating a photograph’ but it can also refer to the development of mindfulness through photography, to being more present to what is around us as we capture our scenes, to immersing ourselves more fully into the experience of seeing what the world is offering us. Some proponents of mindful photography will say that it is in these moments, when we let go of expectations and are fully open to the unexpected, that the photograph finds us.
Recently I sat with friends in a coffee shop as the evening sky changed dramatically outside the window. My first thought was, “shame I don’t have my camera”, but that was quickly followed by a real appreciation of the changing canopy unfolding before my eyes. Not being a professional photographer I don’t always have a camera with me, and I have consciously begun to leave my phone in my bag so that I can appreciate moments without having to ‘do’ something with them or to them. It is important not to become obsessed with shooting that amazing scene but to at times travel without a camera and just be, all the time using the teachings of photography to enhance the moments.
So whether I have a camera or not, I am learning to see in a new way, to appreciate moments and beauty and life as it comes along on a daily basis.
Lesson 2: Accept Imperfection
I have taken many photos, most of which I have considered to be a disappointment. It is a humbling experience to realise that my efforts are not perfect and that I need to be content with gradual small improvements. I will probably never hold a photographic exhibition or sell any of my images, but that’s okay. Yet every time I go out to take photographs I can make small adjustments to my craft. Sometimes I can stop trying to shoot something interesting and look for beauty in the simple. I can forget about the perfect composition and concentrate on the simple experiences of colour and texture and the different effects of light. I can take photographs regularly and come to know my creations and how to improve them. By accepting my imperfect creations I can channel my energy into appreciating those images that do work, rather than lamenting those that don’t, and into valuing the creative journey. That journey can be as long or as short as I want it to be, yet it is a journey that has the potential to go on indefinitely. I will never reach perfection; there will always be more to learn.
In the words of Vincent Van Gogh,
Great things are not done by impulse, but a series of small things brought together.
Which leads me to my third lesson…
Lesson 3: Enjoy the Journey
Improvement in photography is about becoming more creative, developing our own style, adding our unique view of the world to the already large bank of photography work that exists. Creativity is a very personal thing and we each pursue it in our own way. For some it is writing a story or poem, for others it is creating a picture or movie or dance. In photography, creativity is about more than developing skills or mastering camera controls. It is about using these tools to more effectively say something about the world, to tell a story, to express a feeling or share a moment. It is an act of creation which adds to life’s meaning. To capture a truthful image there has to be a relationship with the subject; it has to mean something to the photographer, to speak to the photographer in some way. A photographer’s subject is something which is valued, which caught the imagination and feeling and which begs to be shared. It is in that relationship between photographer and subject that creativity is born, and the creative journey is there to be enjoyed.
Over the last few years I have been contributing to a work blog and my aim has always been to publish my own blog site. Thankfully, during 2018 I was able to realise that ambition and www.wildwillowways.com was born. During the year I charted my progress as a 'newbie' photographer, from learning basic techniques to achieving some degree of satisfaction with my work, all the time knowing that there is still a long road to travel. The site is still very much in its infancy but I intend to update my blog regularly with relevant posts as I pick up new ideas, find inspirations and generally improve in this exciting craft. My hope for 2019 is to get away from the basics and more into the 'meat' of photography, to establish my own style and to get involved in projects and photography challenges that I can share in the hope that they will have relevance to someone else who may be on a similar path.
Obviously the difficulty with a blog post is how to keep it relevant and of interest to others. My approach has been to respond to what comes naturally to me, to do further research into areas of particular interest and to share these findings, insights and new learnings in the hope that someone will be interested enough to stop and read. To those who do, my hope is that 2019 will be the year in which at least one of your dreams is realised.
Happy New Year.