Are your Photographs Alive?

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The forest is alive.

The word “alive” keeps coming up for me lately. According to Merriam-Webster, being alive is about having life, breath, energy, and alertness; being animate.

The quote below came in an email from Lauren Bacon (who asks great questions, by the way, via her curiosity experiments).

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman

She then asked us to consider three important questions.

What makes you come alive? Where are you going? And, who will go with you?

Important questions at any time. We can also ask ourselves what makes us come alive when we’re photographing.

Photographs are a two dimensional depiction of a slice of life – a moment of aliveness, so what we felt in that moment should come across in the image.

According to Ansel Adams, everything is alive.

“The whole world is, to me, very much “alive” – all the little growing things, even the rocks. I can’t look at a swell bit of grass and earth, for instance, without feeling the essential life – the things going on – within them. The same goes for a mountain, or a bit of the ocean, or a magnificent piece of old wood.” ― Ansel Adams via Goodreads

When we talk about getting to essence in our photographs, or making photographs that have impact or soul, we’re really talking about whether our photographs feel alive.

Sean Kernan, in his book, Looking into the Light, advises that, when looking at one of your own images, don’t ask whether it’s good, but whether it’s alive (Chapter 4).

Does it resonate with you?

Does it have energy?

Does it have meaning beyond what it is?

Does it make you feel something?

Is there an element of surprise?

Does it tell a story or invite questions?

Kernan suggests creating a folder of photographs that feel alive to you (Chapter 7). I’ve started an album for myself on Flickr.

In recent workshops, I’ve talked about the moment when we click the shutter on our cameras as being a type of “photographic namaste” – when the essence or soul or aliveness in you meets the essence or soul or aliveness of what you see.

It’s a moment of pure connection.

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The Merton Influence

Bethany Spring

Bethany Spring

Last weekend, I returned from my third trip to Bethany Spring in Kentucky, where I facilitated a workshop. It is one of my favourite places to visit because one of my contemplative mentors, the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, lived just down the road at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

About Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, photographer and writer, and arguably the most influential Catholic author of the 20th century. His writings in the fields of contemplative and eastern spirituality still resonate forty years after his death.

I relate to Merton in so many ways – as a photographer, lover of nature and solitude, and through his interest in contemplative spirituality. He writes about his conversion to Catholicism in his famous book, The Seven Storey Mountain.

The Thomas Merton Center (located at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky) is the official repository of Merton’s artistic estate which includes over thirteen hundred photographs and nine hundred drawings in addition to his writing.

We felt Merton’s energy at Bethany Spring and spoke his words. We practiced pausing, focusing, and connecting through our photography. Here’s what he had to say about each.

The Power of the Pause

 

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Feeling Happy/Sad

The first evening we discussed the power of the pause – stopping or slowing down and checking in with ourselves, noticing sensations, thoughts, and feelings. The image above stopped me in my tracks. The brilliant colours made me feel happy, while the fallen petals suggested the tenderness of time passing.

“We’re so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, people are valued not for what they are, but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness. ~ Thomas Merton”

Pausing is necessary for seeing what’s really here; what’s really happening.

Focusing our Attention

 

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The pond at Gethsemane

Merton was the master of attention and Robert Waldron wrote a fabulous book about Merton with that name. We practiced widening our awareness of our surroundings, while still having focused attention. This way, we see how everything is in relationship.

“Life is this simple; we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine (or sacred or essence) is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable; it is true.” ~ Thomas Merton

I spent some focused attention at the pond where Merton use to walk and have conversations with friends.

Staying in one place for a time allowed me to see how the sun and wind interacted with the water. Every once in awhile, the sun would peak through the clouds, and a gust of wind would ripple the water, causing sun streaks to move around the pond. It was fascinating to watch.

Making the Connection

 

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Reflecting

Merton said that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our relationships – with Source, nature, ourselves, and others. A photograph is the connection or relationship between photographer and subject.

“We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And, what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we already are. ~ Thomas Merton”

I highly recommend spending time in this area of Kentucky. Bethany Spring is a small retreat center (for individuals or groups), hosted by Rick and Val Furman. The hospitality, home-cooked food, and scenery makes for a very pleasant stay.

Read about previous trips to Bethany Spring here and here. I also recommend reading Merton. Here are my Thomas Merton picks.

Below is a short video created by our group this past weekend.

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Keeping It Simple

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” ~ Frederic Chopin (via 30 Awesome Quotes on Simplicity)

SimplicityAhhh, simplicity! So simple, yet so elusive, in photography and life.

I often hear from participants in my workshops that they want to simplify their photographs. They feel that their images often look cluttered.

Sometimes, we’re drawn to two different things in a scene, and think that we have to include them both to make the image “interesting,” when all that does it make it confusing as to which is the subject.

Efficiency is not necessary in photography. We can take two separate images. We can trust that what attracted us is good enough as it is. It’s important to know what our subject is and then choose elements that support that subject.

In life too, we have to choose what to take in, what to experience – often among equally compelling things. I understand this all too well as a multi-passionate and curious person.

It all comes down to choosing what’s most important – what’s utterly essential.

Please join me and others in a 4-week exploration of simplicity – in photography and life. We had so much fun in the last workshop. Here’s what Linda had to say.

“I think the single most important thing I learned from this workshop is the discovery that I fear making a photo that is “boring” and so to avoid this I have tried to jazz things up by trying too hard to make something “interesting.” Pretty pictures are easy. Images with substance are hard. I felt that I made a few images with substance this time around.” ~ Linda Shapiro

Keeping It Simple begins next Monday, October 6th.

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How to Know if you’re Contemplative

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I recently read a book about the Enneagram (personality typing) called Enneagram Spirituality: From Compulsion to Contemplation by Suzanne Zuercher.

The simplified gist of the Enneagram is that we all come into life and/or are formed to have an instinctive view or outlook. This way of being can become a compulsion. Our path to contemplation means being aware of this compulsion and knowing that we have choices.

“The Enneagram can move us toward that contemplative life which is the destiny of the human person. To become a full human being we need to become contemplative, alert, and aware of inner and outer reality as it becomes known to us moment by moment.” ~ Suzanne Zuercher

The Enneagram is one of my favourite subjects, one that I’m not going to get into here, but if you’re interested in learning more, there are links for you to explore at the bottom of this post.

What I want to address here is the author’s description of a contemplative person. Below is a summary of the qualities described in the book.

P1130023* Confronts and accepts the world just as it is, neither avoiding the dark nor lingering in the light.

* Lives life with real zest.

* Knows that life cannot be controlled.

* Is open to surprise and goes with the flow.

* Does not bemoan what is or try to make it better.

* Loves truth and acts confidently.

* Even their bodies seem to flow with life.

* All of their senses are activated. They take everything in.

* They’re curious, not judgmental.

* Their emotions are real and immediate.

* Their insights are clear.

* They seem grounded and intimate with their intuition.

* They are truly graceful people.

Can you think of someone in your life who has some (or all) of these qualities? Which qualities do you have and which could you use more of?

 

As a 5 on the Enneagram (the observer), I’ve become more aware of my need to hide and withdraw into the safe world of knowledge and perception. I practice being more aware of sensations and emotions in my body.

I notice what energizes me and moves me out into the world (photography and connection).

I know that it’s important for me to share what I learn and not wait until I have all the facts.

I know that I need to risk making mistakes and letting them go when I do. At the same time, I embrace my need for solitude, reading, and research and realize that not everyone will “get it.”

Which one (or more) of these qualities struck a chord with you, in terms of “I could use more of that?”

Make that your intention for the next week or so.

For example, if you’re not feeling much zest for life, think about what does make you come alive, and work some of that into your schedule this week.

“If we use the Enneagram as just another personality theory, it yields much valuable information for assisting self-appraisal and coming to self-awareness. At another and deeper level, however, the Enneagram can assist conversion and transformation by radically confronting deception.” ~ Suzanne Zuercher

More on contemplative living – The 9 Habits of Contemplative Living, Are you a Contemplative? Take the Quiz.

Another good book on the Enneagram – From Fixation to Freedom by Eli Jaxson-Baer

Online Enneagram Resources – Enneagram in the Narrative Tradition and The Enneagram Institute

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On Setting Intentions in Photography

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“You are what your deepest desire is. As your desire is, so is your intention. As your intention is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.” ~ The Upanishads

Tara Brach is one of my favourite writers and speakers. And, she freely offers a weekly talk and meditation through the Insight Meditation Community she founded in Washington, D.C.

In a recent talk called “Nourishing a Liberating Intention,” Brach began by quoting Richard Baker Roshi, who said that the keys to healing and being awake are “intention” and “attention.”

I talk a lot about attention on this blog. And I did write about The Power of Intention awhile back. In this post, I’d like to focus more on the application of intention to photography.

Brach explains that there are egoic intentions (based on fear or surface desires) and nourishing, liberating intentions (based on our deepest desires).
 

We want our intentions to be nourishing and liberating.

 
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Illustration by Kelly Ort

 

How do we know our deepest intentions?

 

Via Tara Brach

1. The content is in line with who we are innately.

2. We feel a big yes in our body.

3. There is a sincere, innocent quality to it.

4. It is about the present moment, not a future goal.


 

Intentions in Photography

 
We can apply these same principles to our photography. Intention precedes attention.

Egoic intentions in photography are based on fear – wanting to be good, noticed, approved of. Our choice of subject is based on what others will like. We have to have all the latest gear. Our photographs are staged to achieve a certain aesthetic or to win a prize or to be sold.

Note: There’s nothing wrong with wanting any of these things, but it’s important to be clear on what type of intention it is.

Photographs that come from a nourishing, liberating intention feed our soul, reflect who we are at our deepest level, express the essence of the moment, and often come by surprise.

A nourishing, liberating intention in photography comes from a deep desire to know ourselves and how we connect with the environment around us.

It tends to be broad, for example, an intention to opening and awareness of the senses. It can also be more specific, for example, being open to colour. But, once we set it, everything that comes afterwards is up for grabs. 

Not being attached to outcome is an important aspect of a nourishing, liberating intention.
 

There is no looking for, only seeing (and receiving) what is.

 
Here’s one example that I wrote about recently on this blog.

I noticed that I had taken a few photographs of store window reflections and wanted to explore this subject further. I set an intention to go out for my photo walk and only photograph store window reflections. I did this because seeing window reflections as they are requires a different way of seeing and I wanted to be in that mindset. Yet, I had no preconceived ideas about what I would find.

When I went to Star Island to facilitate a workshop, I had an outline and experiences I wanted to share. My intention was that each person have the experience of contemplation on this island. Of course, I had no control over whether that would happen for them. I could only set the stage.

One part of my outline was that we would meet and discuss the essence of place at 1:30 on Sunday. In the meantime, I found out that the winter caretaker of Star Island, who had published a photography book about winters on the island, would be speaking and showing her photographs at 1:30 on Sunday. How serendipitous was that? We changed the plan to take in her talk, which was on the essence of Star Island.
 

How do you set intentions?

 
Watch the video of Tara Brach’s talk here. Access all of her talks here.

Read: The Power of Intention

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Cultivate Seeing

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Illustration by Jaykayort

A recent post from Improvised Life used the wonderful phrase, “Practice Looking. Cultivate seeing.” Their example was of looking down and seeing the word “Triumph” etched in the pavement. A jolt, for sure.

I practice looking and seeing with my camera. Here are a few examples I’ve found recently while looking up, looking down or just sitting.

I pass by this wall many times per week, yet have never seen the words etched here. One day, I stopped and sat on a bench across from it, planning to photograph people walking by. Only when I stopped and looked, did I see the words, “Live Free.”

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Looking Up

Blue skies, storm clouds, birds, tree tops, wires, rainbows. There’s always something new to see when we look up.

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Looking Down

Accidental art, fallen blossoms, textures, and chalk messages are just some of the things you’ll find when you look down.

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I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes about looking and seeing.

“Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.” ― Freeman Patterson

 

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