Photography as Worry Therapy

rain, green, Kim Manley Ort

Nearly 1 in 7 Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. ~ Scott Stossel, Atlantic Magazine

Scott Stossel reports this statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health in his book, The Age of Anxiety, as well as the article in Atlantic Magazine. Treatment for anxiety accounts for 31% of expenditures on mental healthcare in the U.S. (with similar percentages in Canada).

Stossel should know. He’s suffered from generalized anxiety and many phobias since he was a kid. He’s tried every therapy and drug imaginable. In his book, he shares meticulous research on the history of anxiety, as well as stories from his own experience.

Of course, acute anxiety or depression should be taken seriously. There are no one size fits all answers. If this is something you struggle with, I hope that you’re getting professional help.

While I’ve never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I have experienced some social anxiety and, beneath my calm exterior, am a worrier (a milder form of anxiety). My mind naturally goes to worst case scenarios.

I believe that I gravitated towards photography, and especially contemplative photography, as a form of worry therapy.

Photography is one way to train our attention in the moment and away from worrying about a future that hasn’t happened.

* Contemplative photography helps us see what’s right in front of us without judging it as good or bad.

* By taking a longer look, we see perspectives and possibilities we might not have considered.

* We might even experience a moment of awe or wonder at what we see, just as we did when we were kids.

Martin Seligman, in his book, Flourish, writes,

We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well. ~ via Brain Pickings

The truth is we need some time every day where we’re just “being” and not focused on the future and our to-do lists – whether it’s meditating, photographing, dancing, or just staring out the window.

It just makes the whole day better.

Here are some more articles on this topic to consider.

Brain Pickings on Stossel’s Book – The Culture and Costs of Anxiety

Photography as a Balm for Mental Illness – NY Times (thanks to a couple of readers for pointing out this article to me)

The Broken Light Collective - an online place for photographers living with or affected by mental illness.

Art as Therapy – by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong OR see the exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Relationship between Creativity and Mental Illness – via Brain Pickings

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Playing with Window Reflections


Woman in Space

I’m often drawn to reflections in any surface. They hint at another world, a somewhat dreamy, surreal mirror of the real thing.

Window reflections are another subject altogether. Most photography articles teach how to avoid window reflections. This past weekend, I went out in search of them.

With an effective window reflection, we get a picture of everything – the window, the inside, the outside, and often the photographer too. All of life is blended together into one image, creating something rather other-worldly.

Normally, when we look in a store window we see what’s inside and don’t even notice the reflection. Going out in search of reflections requires a different way of seeing – a more playful one.

It’s a fun photographic exercise in seeing.

When I went out this past weekend, I set an intention to just photograph window reflections and nothing else. This way I trained my eyes to see this way and not be distracted (by regular subjects).

It felt like play and I knew that many of the images would not work out. But, there are always surprises. The images here in this post are some of my favourites.

Green Jeans

To see more images from my photo walk, check out my Window Reflections Album on Flickr.

And here’s an e-book that I highly recommend if you’re interested in this type of photography, Chasing Reflections by Eli Reinholdtsen – available through Craft & Vision ($5 download).

See some of Eli Reinholdtsen’s reflection images on Flickr and read an interview with her here.

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Sailing Away


“Sailing a boat calls for quick action, a blending of feeling with the wind and water as well as with the very heart and soul of the boat itself. Sailing teaches alertness and courage, and gives in return a joyousness and peace that but few sports afford.” ~ George Matthew Adams via Brainy Quotes

Living a contemplative life is not all about slowing down or doing nothing. Far from it. Some of the most contemplative people I know are “do-ers” and very curious people. They’re interested in everything.

Last night, I finished my beginner sailing lessons. I’ve never been a boater, but I do love the water. I live in a town where sailing lessons are available close by. And, I was curious to learn more.

My goal wasn’t to complete the beginner class, the intermediate class, the advanced class, and then buy the boat. That’s what several others in the class had planned.

My goal was to try something new, learn a little about sailing, and experience life from a different perspective – from the water.

It was a very contemplative experience.

I was open to learning something new. I accepted that there would be some hard work and a steep learning curve and it was humbling at times.

Now, I can say that I do know the very basics of sailing; at least some of the terminology. I experienced some beautiful evenings and sunsets out on the water. And, I have great respect for sailors.
I don’t plan to continue on to the intermediate and advanced classes – kayaking is more my style – but trying something new added some adventure, exercise, and beauty to my summer.

The quote above says it well, and this song, Sail Away, sung by David Gray, describes the metaphor of sailing as an adventure into the unknown.


Have you tried something new recently?


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Art Wolfe on Abstractions

Yellow Abstract


Note: All images are by me, not Art Wolfe.

Recently, in my weekly newsletter, I shared a video of photographer Art Wolfe giving a talk at Google. This video struck a chord with many.

“The trick and the challenge is to constantly come up with perspectives, points of view, that haven’t quite been done before. That’s what gets me out of bed, that’s what motivates me.”

Art Wolfe is a world-renowned travel and wildlife photographer, as well as art educator. Even so, he tells us that he’s not very technical. As a matter of fact, he may only know 4% of what his camera can do.

His point is that his strengths lie more in the composition and seeing aspects of photography.

“The hardest thing for a photographer is to find a compelling image in that 360 degree world we live in. What I try to teach is how to find your subject as you’re walking down the street in any location on the planet and pull out something that 99% of the rest of the population would never see.”

The entire video covers a wide range of subjects and is well worth watching. However, I was particularly drawn to his abstract work. Art Wolfe has a background in painting and he goes on to say that his greatest influences in photography have been painters.

He was first influenced by the Impressionists of the late 1800’s, particularly Georges Seurat, who painted everyday life in Paris in the pointillist style.

Wolfe goes on to show many examples he’s found in nature that reflect this style. The example, above right, is one of my images of this style. By the way, all images in this post are mine. You can see Art Wolfe’s wonderful examples in the video.

Another example he cites is Monet, a very well known impressionist, who used imprecise brush strokes. Wolfe began experimenting with longer shutter speeds or taking advantage of wind blowing or snow falling to create impressionistic images – something near and dear to my heart.



Van Gogh is another example of an impressionist painter, although his paintings are completely unique and surrealistic. Wolfe describes how reflections that distort reality can often look like a Van Gogh painting, something I find as well.



Wolfe goes on to show how he finds Picasso’s cubist-style in overturned boats and Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers in icebergs in the Antarctic.



At first, he didn’t understand the chaotic abstracts of Jackson Pollock, until “he saw a Jackson Pollock in a mud-spattered vehicle in southern China.”

In his early years, Wolfe became known as a wildlife photographer. Today he says,

“I’m shooting rusting cans in a gutter, to the grand landscapes and everything in-between. As an artist, and having a background in painting, and illustration, and graphic design, I shoot without prejudice. And, it just opens up the world. I never run out of ideas.”

I love that saying – to shoot without prejudice. It opens up so many possibilities.

Wolfe goes on in the conversation to explore composition (something he teaches), the value of leading lines and different lenses, as well as showing some of his newest work.

One project, called Migrations, is about animal migrations, but is really about patterns. In another, he photographs cultures from above, creating abstract views of people.

More Reading

Post: What do Abstract Expressionism and Graffiti have in common?

Post: The Fun of Abstract Photography

Urban Decay Series – Part 1 (Rust), Part 2 (Wabi-sabi and Wood), Part 3 (Walls and Roads)

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The Value of Humility


Tara Brach begins her Podcast on Humility with a story about a prisoner in his cell. The prisoner sees an ant and spends some time watching it, engaging with it, giving it crumbs, etc. After some time doing this, he wonders why “it took him 10 long years of solitary confinement to open his eyes to the loveliness of ant.”

What enabled this man to value the ant was not only his attention, but the quality of humility. Once he decided the ant was worthy of his attention, he was not putting himself above or separate. The ant was sharing the cell with him and he was able to appreciate the ant’s qualities.

Humility is one of the nine contemplative habits and one we are discussing this week in the Adventures in Seeing workshop.

Tara Brach’s one hour podcast on the subject is full of wisdom and I highly recommend listening to it. Here is a summary of her words, along with some of the quotes she mentions.

“Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars.” ~ Serbian Proverb

The word humility comes from the Latin “humus,” meaning earth or ground. There’s a sense of common ground and equality with all of life.

What Humility is Not

debasement, false modesty, self-importance, arrogance, superiority, judgment

“It’s important that we learn humility. Modesty is a learned affectation. It’s no good. Humility is great because it says there was someone before me. I’m following in someone’s footsteps. There will be someone after me. We belong to each other. We’re inter-influencing each other all the time. Humility gets that we’re part of something larger.” ~ Maya Angelou

What Humility Is

honouring our particular talents, recognizing our limitations (the places where we’re conditioned or reactive); lack of self-importance or self-fixation; able to see the good in ourselves and others; surrendering the small, egoic identity (importance, pride) to realize our sacred connection

“But those talents and limitations are like ripples or waves on the ocean. We know the depth of who we really are. It arises out of this wise view – a deep wisdom understanding of interdependence. Everything we do, perceive, experience is related to everything else in the world. You cannot take yourself apart from things.” ~ Tara Brach

Brach says that, according to the Talmud, the words of the Torah (or spiritual wisdom) only survive in those whose minds are humble. Humility is essential for spiritual progress or the attainment of wisdom.

“Wisdom is knowing I am nothing, Love is knowing I am everything, and between the two my life moves.” ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj

Deflation and Inflation

It’s quite natural as we evolve that we feel a sense of separateness and that this leads to deflation and inflation (of our ego). We all bounce back and forth.

But, self-importance (or self-fixation or separateness) blocks seeing the world as it is; it blocks wisdom and goodness.

Deflation (feeling bad about ourselves) – comes from a strand of truth. We want to feel a sense of belonging, which makes us vulnerable. We’re conditioned, we have fears, we get angry and reactive, we can cause harm. We’re far from perfect.

Brach describes deflation (and inflation) as delusions – owning the experience. This is a form of separateness, making us feel shame, that there is something wrong with us, or that we’re undeserving.

Inflation (feeling we’re special) – also has a strand of truth. We come from the stars. We’re consciously aware. We sense our radiance and luminosity and feel very special and awesome.

Again, the delusion is owning the experience, because this radiance comes from the earth, through us. It doesn’t belong to us.

Inflation makes us feel superior to others (and all of nature). It’s expression is arrogance, entitlement, pride, and we cling to this too, because it protects us from feeling empty.

Inflation is present when there is stereotyping, labelling, judging – as good/bad, better/worse, smart/dumb, right/wrong, etc.

With our continued evolution, however, we move towards a sense of belonging and oneness and interdependence.

Humility is shedding any feeling of superiority or inferiority. 

Humility is about moving towards that place of belonging, not separateness – a place where everyone and everything has a part to play, where nothing is better or worse than anything else.

Noticing our own episodes of deflation and inflation starts to recondition the patterns.

Seeing is freeing. ~ Tara Brach

Similarly, in photography Art Wolfe says that he “shoots without prejudice,” meaning that everything is a possible (and worthy) subject for his lens.

I can totally relate to this. Seeing everything as worthy has greatly expanded my photography repertoire. I see much more beauty than I used to.

What does humility mean to you?

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Dealing with Rain


The RAIN Process

Buddhist teacher Tara Brach describes a process called RAIN* for dealing with difficult situations and emotions. It breaks down as follows.

Recognize what is happening. Notice what is happening and how it feels in your body.

Allow life to be just as it is. Let whatever arises be, even if you feel resistance. This is a part of the healing process. Feel the feelings.

Investigate inner experience with kindness. Be gentle and kind with yourself.

Non-Identification. This is a resting in present awareness and not identifying (or attaching) to the emotions, knowing that they will pass in time.

* Learn more about RAIN from Tara Brach – Working with Difficulties 

Getting Caught in the Rain

The image above was taken a few days ago (with my iPhone) when my husband and I were caught in a sudden downpour, without an umbrella. Now, I don’t mind getting a little wet, and sometimes it’s even fun to get drenched.

We had a decision to make.

1. Ignore it, keep walking and get drenched.

2. Run to a nearby store or restaurant (still a block away) and get drenched.

3. Stay under a building ledge, and wait it out.

I’m sure there were numerous other options too, but we chose #3 and spent the next 15 minutes watching the world go by and the people who chose to do the other two options.

We didn’t moan and complain. We didn’t berate the other for not bringing an umbrella.

An unexpected pause in our day turned out to be peaceful and intimate.


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