Photography and Awareness
Contemplative photography, photography with awareness, is about the state of mind and the intention of the photographer when the photograph is being taken and in the lead up to the photograph being taken. It is about being receptive rather than actively seeking. It is about being still in mind and body. It is about the direct perception of seeing things just as they are and forming the equivalent of that moment of clear seeing in photographic form, without laying a veil of personal desire, cultural expectation or neurosis on top of that experience. With this clarity of mind the essence of the photographer’s experience, the sacredness of the moment will be available for the viewer.
The Mind is vast - Like the Sky Above
Like the mountain it is unmoved by the
Weather of ever-changing moods
That surround it.
Colin Tracy 2010
The Inherent nature of Mind
The inherent nature of the mind is expansive and clear, like the sky above; it is stable and strong, like the mountain. It is peaceful, wise, compassionate and loving.
This is our birthright; we have the innate capacity to be fully present in an effortless way and when we are, we find that we are naturally compassionate and wise, loving and kind. We think of the well-being others as well as ourselves.
Yet so often we are caught up in the maelstrom of our own needs, desires and speed of living, that our minds are a whirl of thoughts, fantasies, dreams, memories and feelings centred on ‘me’. What l want. Remaining focused and clear when the mind is like this is impossible as the mind is flitting from one thing to another at high speed and in an uncontrolled way.
Do you recall a time when you have been driving and suddenly you realise that 5 or 6 miles have gone by and you have no memory of where you have been?
The same thing can happen when taking photographs. Is the mind clear and focused or is there a flurry of thoughts like: “This is sure to win the nature competition at the club next month”, or “ I wonder if this would be better in black and white?”, or “ I’m hungry, perhaps l will stop at the pub on the way home – actually l haven’t had a beer for 2 days; that would be nice”, or “Tony’s shot of Colmers Hill was great, l will see if l can get something like that”, or “What was it they meant by depth of field, again”, or “making love last night was wonderful…….”? The possibility of distracting thoughts is endless. The possibility of being distracted is endless.
And so it goes on and on and on… the mind ceaselessly flitting from one subject to another and what is in front of us is clouded by this mental clutter. At best we see things clearly only momentarily.
The Mind Training of Meditation
The path of the Contemplative photographer is one of training the mind to be still and clear; to work with this torrent of thoughts and tame the mind so that it becomes an ally - rather than a wild dog of a mind that follows the newest scent.
In training the mind to be still, the practice of meditation is the vehicle for change. In meditation we clear some space in our lives to take some quiet time; free of phones, computers, cameras, and any other disturbances or distractions. The mind is so easily distracted that the more space we can clear to start with, the easier it is to settle the mind.
Then with a good posture and seat, we give the mind just one thing to focus on – the breath. We follow the breath in and out through the nostrils and allow the breath to soothe the mind and body. When the mind wanders we label the distracting thought, ‘Thinking’, silently in our own mind and return to the breath. And we do this over and over again. Eventually we develop some stability of mind as we become accustomed to staying with a single focus.
Uncovering the Inherent Nature of Mind
This training doesn’t create a new and fabricated state of mind because by letting go of the thoughts and distractions we are simply allowing our inherent stillness and our capacity to remain present in a peaceful and effortless way to be uncovered, to come to the surface. It is the nature of the mind beneath the clutter of thinking and conceptuality.
So with a still mind, when we go out to take a photo we are able to see things clearly, just as they are; free of our judgements, prejudices, photographic culture, conceptuality, desires and so on.
Henri Cartier-Bresson said the experience of seeing will only come by:
“putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis. …..
Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while
actually taking a photograph. Success depends on the extent of one’s
general culture, on one’s set of values, one’s clarity of mind and
vivacity. The thing to be feared most is the artificially contrived, the
contrary to life.” (Quoted in Andy Karr and Michael Wood. The Practice of
Contemplative Photography. Shambhala. 2011)
The Flash of Perception – Seeing Things Just as They Are.
By clearing and settling the mind we will be prepared to receive a photograph or allow a photograph to come to us. With a stable mind we are able to experience the ‘Flash of Perception’, that moment our attention makes a connection to something. The direct perception of uncluttered seeing, seeing things just as they are, is a non-conceptual, non-reactive, pure experience - of the colour or pattern or juxtaposition we have seen.
Forming the Equivalent
Then, maintaining our clear mind, we begin to form the ‘equivalent’ of what we have seen. With a contemplative mind rather than an analytic mind we use our intuition to best express our connection to our experience. We know our camera so well it is an extension of our own being and we know without having to think about it what settings to use to best express what we have seen. The subject matter is infinite and doesn’t conform to any category; the resulting image will be an expression of the essence of the flash of perception, the essence of what we have seen, with less emphasis on subject matter. With a still mind and body we remain in the sacred – experience beyond self.
We take the picture and we move on.
There can be a tendency to work and rework an image, believing we can make it better but doing this only leads us further from the essential truth and freshness of what first caught our attention. There is a danger in reworking an image that we lead ourselves back into self-centredness and thinking.
Photographic Language in Current Photographic Culture
I have been contemplating the language we use as photographers and how aggressive it can be. We talk of going on a ‘shoot’, or what a good ‘shot’ it is, of 'shooting in RAW or jpeg, of ‘image capture’, and at the very least of ‘taking’ an image.
Alternatives do not trip off the tongue readily, but now l see myself as making an image rather than taking one. Initially l receive an image; this way there is something of the first flash of perception that remains - which after all, is beyond my active control. It just happens. With a still mind we allow ourselves to be receptive. To open to experience, to let things be as they are, to allow it happen rather than make it happen. If l see myself accepting an image l feel there is a sense of generosity in the situation and consequently a sense of gratitude on my part - the whole situation becomes more heartfelt. Then experience and expression are from our inherent nature of mind – basic goodness.
Colin Tracy 28/3/2012 edited 14/7/2015