Once Upon a Time

visual journaling
Once Upon a Time … Sally Drew and I imagined co-facilitating a workshop in visual journalling. In March of this year, our dream came true.

We ventured forth with 25 kindred souls to spend three months exploring what stories our photographs had to tell. It was an intense experience, to say the least.

Last week, Sally and I got together to talk about what it was like for each of us and to review the feedback from participants.

A workshop is always an evolving entity and we learn from each and every one. It’s success hinges on the community gathered, for they bring the materials to life.

We had an incredible community.

Here’s what I learned.

* Our photographs always say something about us.

* Writing about our photographs helps us to learn what they have to say.

* Writing can be enjoyable. Many discovered their hidden talents in writing.

Having never written at all before this course, I learned that I can write words that explain or enhance my photos. I found that I have many ways to write these words – essays, poems, just words, explanations or even using someone else’s words if they are what I want to say. But I have also learned to SHARE my words with my photos. ~ Mary Rawl

* Writing about our photographs teaches us to be more conscious before we click the shutter.

* Our photographs will be perceived differently by every single viewer.

* Writing about our photographs can help us gain confidence in photography and in life.

I feel a profound shift has occurred. I’m engaging with, and embracing, the world, but I’m also reflecting on it. In short, Visual journalling has empowered me: to honour who I am. That’s not a throwaway comment. My confidence has been enhanced: I am taking better photographs and I’m writing about them. I had hoped to learn how to do the latter, but I had not nursed expectations that the former would be true, also. ~ Sophia Roberts

* Sharing our photographs and our writing helps us, but also helps others.

* The practice of writing makes us better writers, just as the practice of photography makes us better photographers.

* Communities are important. We need to support each other’s efforts and uniqueness. We learn more by doing it together.

Sally wrote the following to the participants at the end of the workshop.


“These past 12 weeks have been an emotional maelstrom for me. Aspects of myself that had lain dormant over time started to agitate and rise to the surface. In the safety and support of this community, I learned new channels of creative expression and was consistently inspired beyond words.

At the end, I came out with the knowing that I have the courage and strength to transform my life and am fuelled by the restorative powers of solitude, beauty, presence and reflection.

I extend to you the invitation to defy description.

Remain open to your experiences and explorations.

Feel what you feel, do what you do, express how you express, and glory in the all of it.

Defy the limiting powers of description; for you, your art, your potential – all are limitless.

Walk with your heart open, your camera ready, your connection to all that inspires you and the journaling method that best leads you to deeper understanding and fulfillment.

Defy description, and know – you are significant and your presence and contributions matter.

She does have a way with words, doesn’t she?

I hope you’ll join us for the next session of Once Upon a Time: Your Photographs have Stories to Tell, which will be held in January 2016.

Not sure about writing about your photographs? Why not start with just one word?

Announcing a new project, and it’s free.

As a way of continuing my own practice of writing about my photographs, I’m starting a project based on David Whyte’s book, Consolations. This book includes short essays on each of 52 words. I’ll be reading the reflections for one word each week and then opening to what I see that week around that word. Then, I’ll write about the photograph in terms of that word.

Here’s how you can participate. I’ve created a free community on Google+ called Adventures in Seeing that is open to anyone. You are invited to join the community and post one photograph and your reflection on the word for that week. Tag your photograph with the word. I’ll post a new word each Friday, beginning this week (Heads up: first word is “alone”).

I do hope you’ll join me.

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Letting Resonance Guide your Photography


Resonation can arise within us when we are resting in the space of openness and simple appreciation. This happens when we receive our perceptions and connect with them deeply. Resonance occurs when our being responds to what we have seen in a deep way, so that our body and mind are fully engaged; we have physical sensations, and our hearts open and we feel joy in the act of connecting. Resonation is an expression of our innate wisdom as it connects to our world. ~ Julie duBose

Julie describes the experience of resonance very well. We notice resonance when we are fully present and engaged, aware of what we’re feeling in our bodies.

Resonance is felt.

The dictionary says that resonance is produced by sympathetic vibration, or frequencies that are close. Resonance invokes an association or strong emotion. It feels significant.

In physics, resonance is a phenomenon where a given system is affected by another vibrating system or by external forces and oscillates with greater amplitude at certain preferential frequencies. ~ Wikipedia

To see this in action, watch this fascinating video of salt affected by different sound vibrations. Make sure your sound is turned down low, as the frequencies may hurt your ears.

With regard to photography, we all respond to images or visual cues in the environment in different ways – depending on our own associated memories and experiences. Some images resonate more than others.

It’s a good exercise in self-awareness to notice what resonates with you. Pay attention to how it feels. And then, follow up with a dose of curiosity.

With the image above, I first noticed the red tree. It’s an unusual colour to find in springtime. Red stands out. It’s felt as passion. I did photograph what stopped me – the red colour.

As I moved closer, I also noticed and appreciated how the red blended with the spring green and the blue sky. Intentional camera movement places the emphasis on the colours (rather than form) and the composition gives them each equal treatment. Even the movement suggests the resonant vibration between the three.

In the book, The Zen of Creativity, author John Daido Loori shares his teacher’s (Minor White) instructions for photography. I’ve adapted them below.

* Venture into the landscape without expectations.

* Let your subject find you.

* Notice when you feel resonance, a sense of recognition. If, when you move away the resonance fades, or if it gets stronger as you approach, you’ll know you’ve found your subject.

* Sit with your subject and see if the resonance continues.

* Don’t try to make a photograph, but let your intuition indicate the right moment to release the shutter.

* If, after you’ve made an exposure, you feel a sense of completion, bow and let go of the subject and your connection to it.

* Otherwise, continue photographing until you feel the process is complete.


Notice the emphasis on what you feel.

What does resonance feel like for you?


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France in Abstract


“I like The Eiffel Tower because it looks like steel and lace.”
― Natalie Lloyd via Goodreads

I recently visited France for the very first time – a short stint in Paris (and Freiburg, Germany), and the rest of the time in the Alsace region. Paris felt like an old friend, so entrenched were the images I’d seen throughout my life. Being there in person was priceless.

While it was not a photography trip (I had to keep up with five others), many photographs were taken. My favourites were, of course, abstract. I find that focusing on the details makes a trip even more memorable.


Window Views


Colmar in Motion


Circle Interrupted


Louvre Triangles


Paris Bark


Stained Glass


Window Shopping

See the entire France Album here.

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Imagining the Story Behind a Photograph

The best photographs often tell a story, whether real or imagined. In our online visual journaling workshop, we practiced telling three types of stories – ambiguous, personal, and documentary (as described in this article from Digital Photography School).

I found the ambiguous (or imagined) story to be quite fun to do. With the photograph below, called Secret Garden, I started to think about who planted the beautiful garden seen beyond the white picket fence. The story evolved from there and I was quite surprised by the ending.


Secret Garden


Once Belonged

There was a time when I was allowed inside. I cared for this secret garden. As a matter of fact, I planted most of what is still here.

But, that was many, many years ago. Back then, I felt a part of the family. They saw me every day in the garden and stopped to say hello and have a conversation. Sometimes, they would even invite me to take a break and have a cup of tea or cold lemonade with them.

There was lots of laughter and I felt like I belonged. I thought they truly cared for me.

Then, I grew older and couldn’t do the manual labour as well anymore. One day, they gently suggested that it was time for a new gardener. They thanked me for my many years of service.

The new gardener seems to be keeping up well. I only know because I can peep through the fence every once in awhile.

I hope you’ll give this a try with one of your own photographs.


p.s. If writing about your photographs is intriguing to you (and you’re in Ontario this summer), please consider joining Sally Gentle Drew and me for a one-day workshop in visual journaling – Saturday, July 18th in Burlington, Ontario. Learn more here.


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Niagara-on-the-Lake Abstracts – Looking Down

One of my current projects is to create abstract photographs of my hometown of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. With abstract photography, we try to reflect the mood or emotions or qualities of a place. Each Tuesday, I’ll present a new image from the project.

This week’s post was inspired by an article I read about the sculptor, Charles Ray (via Improvised Life and the New Yorker). A teacher once said this about one of his sculptures.

It shows me you want to make something, instead of discovering something. Don’t ever do that in my class again.

Writing and wonder mentor, Jeffrey Davis, advised me this week to “draft to discover.”

This is an important part of the process of writing and photography for me. I do both to discover what’s already there.

Below are three photographs I discovered last week – abstract views of fallen blossoms.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a tourist town, stepped in history. It’s surrounded on two sides by water – Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. The world famous Niagara Falls are twenty miles down the road.

It has a world class theatre series called the Shaw Festival, which draws thousands from April through November.

This town was the first capital of Canada and one of the major battlegrounds for the War of 1812. You can see re-enactments at Fort George. The U.S. counterpart, Fort Niagara, can be seen across the river.

This is one of the best agricultural areas in all of Canada, known for its fruit – grapes especially, and is now home to more than 100 wineries.


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Photography – a Cause of Health

I’m reading and working with a fascinating book by Dr. Mario Martinez, The MindBody Code, on how cultural beliefs shape our perceptions and affect our biological processes, including our immune system.

These cultural beliefs can result in what he calls primitive emotions which grow from fear – anger, hatred, jealousy, resentment, envy, greed, shame. While these emotions are valid – they provide important information – they can also keep us from being our best and affect our health.

On the other hand, what he calls exalted emotions, based on love – empathy, compassion, gratitude, awe, inspirations, etc. – are the causes of health.

The way to a healthier body and mind is through a mind/body approach – confront (fears), release (dysfunction), and replace (unworthiness) with these exalted emotions.

Through his studies of healthy centenarians (over the age of 100), Martinez found that they defy cultural perceptions around aging. Their bodies may be aging, yet they embrace complexity and new learning. They are creative, flexible, persevering, and resilient.

How do they do it?

They’ve learned to shift their mindset from passing time to engaging space; from things happen to us to how we can be mindful in our space. ~ The MindBody Code

Our cameras can teach us how to do this.

When we approach photography from a contemplative mindset, we cultivate the qualities or habits of contemplative living – openness, attention, acceptance, humility, wonder, simplicity, curiosity, possibilities, and connection. These habits are closely related to the exalted emotions mentioned above – the causes of a happier, healthier life.

For example, in the visual journaling workshop, Once Upon a Time, we discussed why we take photographs. Many answered that the process of photography makes them feel gratitude. Martinez says that gratitude – an exalted emotion – promotes receptiveness or openness (a contemplative habit).

Through photography, we embody the experience of gratitude.

I know that photography has helped me to incorporate these exalted emotions on a more regular basis. And, I know I want to continue to grow and learn, despite my aging body. How about you?

Listen: Dr. Mario Martinez on the Sounds True podcast, Insights at the Edge

Book: The MindBody Code

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