Why do you photograph?

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All of my creation is an effort to weave a web of connection with the world. I am always weaving it because it was once broken. ~ Anais Nin, Winter 1942 via Lisa Congdon and Brain Pickings

In our visual journaling workshop, Sally Drew (my co-facilitator) posed the following questions to the group, which I’m going to try to answer for myself in this post.

I believe that these questions are important and should be revisited regularly. Why? Because life is too short to waste. There are so many choices in every moment. If we want to make the most of our time here, then it’s important to understand the motivations behind what we choose to do.

As someone with a passion for photography, I take a lot of pictures. My camera is my constant companion. Why?
 

Why do I take photographs?

 
It turns out that I asked myself this question back in 2012 and tried to answer it in this post. At that time, I said,

“When I experience a connection with something just as it is, it becomes more than a subject. It reveals something universal that resonates deep inside. It is magical. It changes me and the way I see. It opens me up just a little bit more to the world and how everything (including me) belongs.”

The main reason I photograph is to connect or to fully experience the connection that is already there. That connection transforms me. And then, I want to share it with others so that they can see it and be transformed too.

This connection gets lost sometimes when I’m in my head, thinking about the past or future. Anais Nin’s quote above describes this well for me.

I’m a visual person. Images are how I remember. When I did my first 365 day project in 2007, I found that I remembered so much more than usual from that year. I was thinking in pictures so I even remembered more clearly events that I’d not photographed.

Photography brings me into the moment. It helps me to distill the essence of that moment within the frame. I experience it with all of my senses, not just my sight.

Photography helps me to identify what’s most important in the moment – what exactly is resonating and how can I express that in a photograph?
 

Why am I drawn to my camera as a companion?

 
My mission in life is to fully experience and embrace life with my whole self – mind, body, and heart. I’ve found that my camera helps me to do this.

While sometimes the camera can serve to distance ourselves from the world (and it’s important to know when this is happening), it can also help us to be more courageous (visit new places, meet new people) and connect in new ways.

When I have my camera with me, it’s a constant reminder to be here now. When a moment arises where I feel that connection, the photograph becomes a way to honour the moment.
 

Why do I feel that I don’t know enough to love the photographs I’m taking?

 
Over the past few years, I’ve learned to love most of my own photographs, and to share them, without worrying about how they’ll be received (okay, maybe not all the time, but I’m getting better). I know that what resonates with me will not resonate with everyone, or even anyone.

Sometimes we don’t know enough and it shows in our photographs. When that happens, many of us get down on ourselves and look to external sources. We think that more knowledge or better tools will fill the gap.

Learning how to use our camera and learning the elements of composition and design are important skills to have. What we need most of all, though, is practice (lots of it), self-compassion, and self-awareness.

We need to examine those photographs that we don’t love and reflect on what drew us to them in the first place. We need to ask ourselves what works and what doesn’t and how we could have better expressed what we saw.

By slowing down (pause, focus) and taking the time to connect to ourselves and express what’s inside, we will quite naturally love our photographs, even when they’re not perfect.
 

I hope you’ll take the time to answer these questions for yourself.

 

p.s. My workshops, ironically, are an external source. However, the main purpose of these workshops is to provide the structure and the space for you to learn to trust yourself, discover what you have to share, and then put that out in the world.

The onine visual journaling workshop is now in session, but we’ll be offering a one day in-person workshop on this subject in Burlington, Ontario on Saturday, July 18th. Burlington is a half hour drive west of Toronto.

If you’re interested and live in the area (or will be in the area), please learn more here.


 

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Writing about Photographs through the Senses

* Inspired by the post, How to Unlock all Five Senses in your Writing from The Write Practice.
 
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On one of the first spring-like days of 2015, I went to a park downtown, sat at a picnic table and wrote from the perspective of all my senses before taking the photograph above, which I called Magnificent Tree Shadow.

“The key to unlocking the five senses is the question behind it. The question of why you are seeing, hearing, tasting, hearing, or feeling something. Once you’ve established the sense, ask the question, What does this mean?”

Sight – What did I see? What did I not see? Describe the details.

Brand new picnic tables, puddle remnants from the rain in the previous days, bright sunshine, this magnificent tree shadow, grass still brown and yellow but starting to green, cemetery in the distance, people walking along Queen Street and in the park, children playing, the bandshell, St. Mark’s Church, parked cars, blue sky, no clouds, muddy spots, the Moffatt Inn, a white house, little wind.

Taste – Use metaphor that unlocks emotions and memories.

It was a taste of spring, bringing back memories of ice cream and iced coffee from Balzac’s, two of my favourite things.

Smell – All of them, good and bad.

Fresh air, car fumes, lake water.

Sound – Use onomatopoeia. Describe all sounds, external and internal.

Motorcycles revving, car horns honking, people talking, kids squealing with delight, motors humming, swings squeaking, slight breeze, stillness within, mind and heart taking it all in.

Touch – Use temperature and texture.

Warmth on the skin, coolness in the breeze, smooth wood on the new table, soft earth beneath my feet, hair  blowing like feathers on my face.

How did this exercise affect my experience and the taking of the photograph?

I wouldn’t have seen the shadow as I did unless I sat down where I did. Working with my senses helped me to experience and inhabit the moment completely.

It was a taste of spring
Bright sunshine, puddle remnants, warm breeze
Children shrieking, people walking and talking,
Motorcycles revving, swings swaying,
I stopped and sat,
Felt the soft ground beneath my feet
And that’s when I saw
The magnificent shadow

 

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How Habits are Related to Expectations

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Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, has come out with a new book called Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives.

On this website, I talk a lot about developing contemplative habits, especially through photography. I’ve written about the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Habits like curiosity, openness, and humility are much more abstract than losing ten pounds.

Rubin’s book intrigues me because she discovered that how we develop a habit depends on how we handle expectations in general. She examined the existing books on habits and came up with four very different ways (or tendencies) that people respond to expectations. Knowing which of the four tendencies you lean towards determines how you should go about creating a habit.
 

The four tendencies: upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels.

 
insta_Upholder* Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations. They don’t need deadlines or supervision; they keep themselves on track.

* Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if it’s justified, so that it becomes an inner expectation. Questioners want to know why a task should be done this way—and whether it should be done at all.

* Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. They need deadlines, late fees, supervision, and accountability partners.

* Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do a task their own way.

Via Habits Downloads. You can take the quiz here to determine which tendency you lean towards.

I am without doubt an upholder. I work best if guided by inner expectations. I don’t really like outer expectations at all, but if I agree to do something, then I will follow through.

What intrigues me is how we can apply this kind of knowledge to developing contemplative habits. For example, if we want to be more curious, how do we do it?
 

In my online workshop, Adventures in Seeing, I suggest the following.

 
1. Ask questions.

Remember your school days – who, what, when, where, why? Look at a person, thing, situation happening now in your life and ask those questions. Did you uncover anything new by looking at it from different angles? Act like a 3 year old again and drive someone crazy with your questions. They just might be flattered by your interest.

2. Don’t make assumptions.

This is one of The Four Agreements from Don Miguel Ruiz’s famous book and it has saved me on many occasions. When you notice an assumption, clarify it by asking questions. Dig deeper and uncover details you might have missed.

3. Notice your motives and reactions.

Get curious about yourself. You will get to know yourself better and not deny the parts of you that don’t always do the right thing. On the flip side, you’ll see your positive qualities as well. One of the greatest things I’ve learned is that I can’t label myself as kind, generous, peaceful, etc. I am kind (but sometimes I’m not). I am generous (but sometimes I’m not).

4. Notice your judgments and replace them with curiosity.

Take note of your judgments. How are they limiting your world? Notice especially when you are labeling something as good, bad, boring, ugly, uninteresting. Ask yourself why you consider it that way. Chances are there is no good reason.
 

How would upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels work best with these practices?

 
For me, an upholder, I could set myself a goal of asking one good question a day, or learn one new subject or skill every week. I could write down my judgments as I notice them, and then write about how they are limiting me. As an upholder, setting an internal goal works best.

Questioners are already curious. So, maybe they don’t need to work on this habit as much as others or perhaps they could notice when their questions are actually judgments.

Obligers prefer to have external expectations so they might sign up for a course, like Adventures in Seeing, where there are structured assignments for developing curiosity. Or, they could have an accountability partner, with whom they could share what they’ve learned by being curious, or what their judgments are.

Rebels will question why curiosity even needs to be developed. They could read a book on curiosity or take a look at scientific research on curiosity and then decide for themselves.

If you take the quiz (or know immediately which type you are), please tell us in the comments which tendency you lean towards and how you best develop the curiosity habit.

I’ll be looking at the other habits as well with regard to these tendencies in future posts.
 
My Favourite Curiosity Links

* Lauren Bacon teaches how to ask the right questions.
* Todd Kashdan’s TED Talk on Becoming a Mad Scientist with your Life.
* The Ecstasy of Curiosity from Jason Silva at Shots of Awe

Also, my book recommendations on contemplative habits.

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10 Quotes for Living a Creative, Contemplative Life

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Flow

Recently, I finished another wonderful book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called Creativity: The Psychology of Discover and Invention, in which he reports on a study of several highly creative individuals.

I was struck by the parallels between being creative and contemplative. Both lead to more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Below are ten quotes on creativity from the book and how they are related to contemplation.
 
1. “Creativity is a process by which a symbolic domain (culture) is changed. To achieve creativity in an existing domain, there must be a surplus of attention available.” (p. 8)

Contemplation helps us simplify and focus our attention where it’s needed most.
 
2. “Centers of creativity tend to be at the intersection of different cultures, where beliefs, lifestyles, or knowledge mingle and allow individuals to see new combinations of ideas with greater ease.” (p. 8)

Openness to other ideas leads to possibilities.
 
3. “The most important message we can learn from creative people is how to find purpose and enjoyment in the chaos of existence.” (p. 20)

Through the process of simplifying, we discover what’s most important.
 
4. “Without a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and in how they work, it is difficult to recognize an interesting problem. Openness to experience, a fluid attention that constantly processes events in the environment is a great advantage for recognizing potential novelty.” (p. 53)

Openness and attention are fundamental.
 
5. “People who keep themselves busy all of the time are generally not creative. Mental meandering (walking/driving/gardening, etc.) is an essential process.” (p. 99)

A contemplative photo walk works wonders as a problem solving or creative practice.
 
6. “What keeps people motivated is the quality of experience they feel when they’re involved with the activity. This is called being in a flow state. The secret to a happy life is to learn to get flow from as many of the things we have to do as possible.” (p. 110-113)

Flow states happen when action and awareness merge. We are totally present. Contemplation brings us into presence.
 
7. “Like the beauties of nature, life-threatening conditions push the mind to think about what is essential. Occasionally, a single experience of awe provides the fuel for a lifetime of creative work.” (p. 139)

Experiencing awe or wonder doesn’t have to be a once in a blue moon event. We can have daily experiences through contemplation.
 
8. “We need to consciously organize our environment, not let either change or routine automatically dictate what we will do. What counts is to be a master of one’s own time.” (p. 144-145)

Only we can decide what’s most important for us – what makes us come alive. And, what’s most important for us is probably most important for the world. Joseph Campbell said, “A vital person vitalizes.” (The Power of Myth)
 
9. John Gardner (one of the creatives studied in the book) on human potential: “We all have much deeper reserves than we know we have and that generally it takes an outside challenge or opportunity to make us aware of what we can actually do. A lot of our potential is buried, hidden, imprisoned by fears, low self-esteem and the hold of convention.” (p. 313)

Contemplation can help us look deeper inside, listen to ourselves, see where we hold back, and face our fears.
 
10. “Futurist/ecologist Hazel Henderson(one of the creatives studied in the book) re-evaluated her priorities and decided it wasn’t important to get credit for what she’d been doing, it wasn’t important for her to get anywhere. What mattered was to do the best she could and enjoy it while it lasted without getting all ego-involved with success. This has given her peace of mind and she is busier than ever without feeling any stress or pain. What sustains her is a fundamental feeling for the order and beauty of nature, a calling for creating orderly and beautiful environments around her.” (p. 304)

This is humility and acceptance.

Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What can you do to build up habits that will make it possible to control attention so that it can be open and receptive, or focused and directive, depending on what your overall goals require?”

My answer? Take a contemplative photography workshop.

He ends the book by saying “If you learn to be creative in everyday life, you may not change how future generations will see the world, but you will change the way you experience it.” (p. 364)
 

More on Creativity and Flow

 
Being in Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on Flow

The Flow Genome Project

Take the Flow Profiler
 

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What Types of Stories do your Photographs Tell?

Ansel Adams famously said that there’s nothing worse than a sharp image with a fuzzy concept. But, what is a concept?

A concept has no visual characteristics, and the role of the creative photographer is to find a way of expressing it through a composition of visual elements—line, form, color, tone, etc. What the concept does have is significance, something the photographer cares about enough to want to capture and share it, a message, a feeling, a statement, a metaphor or a story.” ~ Guy Tal, The Concept via Outdoor Photographer

I wondered if I could find examples of these types of significance – message, feeling, statement, metaphor, story – in my own photographs. Here’s what I found.
 

Message

 

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Humility

From a distance this person looked to be bowing towards the majesty and power of the sea – a reminder to be humble.
 

Feeling

 
Yellow

I seem to have a love for taking abstract photographs in the car wash. Actually, any picture through drops of water attracts me. One of my favourite feelings I call happy/sad, when you’re experiencing pure joy yet know that it’s fleeting. This image depicts that feeling for me.
 

Statement

 

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This is who we are.

I took this photo during a visit to Dillon’s Distillery, a small batch distillery of ryes, vodkas, and gins in Beamsville, Ontario.

Their “story” page says that they are perfectionists. Their focus is on quality. They say they want to create something special, something to be proud of. This story was evident in the care taken in the design of their tasting room, of which this photograph is a glimpse.
 

Metaphor

 

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Standing Guard

These trees at the ocean on Palm Beach Island do seem to be “standing guard.” Their trunks look like torsos and their leaves look like heads. They seem to be sentinels keeping watch for who knows what. The metaphor was pretty clear.

Choosing metaphorical titles is a great way to say what your image is about (the title or opening line of your story) rather than what it is.
 

Story / Narrative

 

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Incoming Tide

A story implies that something has happened, is happening, or is about to happen. The photograph is just one moment in the story. The story could be clear (as in documentary photography) or ambiguous (we can imagine the story, but may never know the truth).

Most stories involve people, but not always. In the photograph above, some type of sand creation was previously made, by who we don’t know. We also don’t know what body of water this is, but it’s probably at the ocean. The tide is coming in and starting to envelop the sand creation. Soon, it will be gone – a message of impermanence.

As you can see, I was able to find examples of all of the different types. However, my inclination is probably for photographs that evoke some kind of emotion or metaphor.
 

I hope you try this exercise yourself.

 

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The Rhythm of Life

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Pink Landscape

“Rhythm – a harmonious pattern characterized by the regular occurrence of strong and weak elements, usually lines and shapes.” ~ Freeman Patterson, Photographing the World Around You

Last week I was working on a presentation on abstract photography that I’ll be giving at a camera club. Over the same timeframe, we’d started the new workshop on visual journaling, where we’re exploring themes and patterns in our photography and what they say about us.

As I was searching for abstract photographs to use in the presentation, I noticed a theme appearing in recent photographs that I wasn’t aware of – the theme of rhythm.

Here is a brief slideshow of some of the photographs I found, all taken over the last month.
 


 
When I see something like this, it’s time to do some journaling.

First, I check in with myself on what the theme means to me. Below are some notes on the image at the top of this post, Pink Landscape.
 

What does rhythm feel like?

 

Pink – feminine, light, soft, gentle

Landscape – like mountains or waves, gently undulating; alternating dark and light areas; no sharp edges; ebb and flow

Transparency – gauzy; a way in and a way out, open

Rhythm – music; when someone has rhythm they’re in the flow, at one with the music, they’re feeling it! There’s a sense of harmony and balance with life; connected to the whole; surfing the ups and downs.

Rhythm feels good.


 
Once I’ve finished my own journaling, I then look at outside sources for further clarification. The order is very important – always consult your “inner teacher” first.
 

What do we know about rhythm?

 
The word “rhythm” means: a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound.

Rhythm in Photography

Freeman Patterson goes on to say in Photographing the World Around You,

“As in music, rhythmic arrangements are both orderly and dynamic, providing overall structure on the one hand, and a feeling of movement on the other.”

Patterson says that the order comes from the recurring shapes or lines (no one stands out) and the sense of movement from the fact that no one line or shape stops the eye. The eye keeps moving. In Pink Landscape above, the eye moves from left to right (for me).
 

Overall structure (being centered) within movement (change).

 
This is a way of being that feels good to me. Maybe I was feeling this rhythm as I travelled on my own during February – a joyful mix of feminine and masculine energy. I certainly felt quite blissful.

Rhythm in Music

“Rhythm in music is the pulse at which the notes move over time. Music always has rhythm because it is a time based medium. Notes or sounds move along with a pulse. These sounds can be of equal distance in time from one another for simple rhythms or they can play against the symmetry of being equal to create interest. Syncopation occurs when the rhythm is set up to work against itself – you hear this in jazz, rock, or African music.” ~ CompositionStudy.com

Rhythm in Poetry

Rhythm in poetry is characterized by a repetition of stressed and unstressed syllables.

“Rhythm, by any definition, is essential to poetry. The presence of rhythmic patterns heightens emotional response and often affords the reader a sense of balance.” ~ Encyclopedia Britannica

How do we experience rhythm in life?

“Rhythm is everywhere. In the heartbeats of our chest. In the language we speak. In the footsteps of our stride. In the bump-bump of cars over uneven asphalt. I remember a professor of mine recounting the day he got hip-hop; he’d been in Brooklyn, listening to the city pulse. Much of what fills our ears has a meter, whether we’re conscious of it or not.” ~ Finding Rhythm in Everyday Life, Boston Globe

Rhythm is about finding that balance of structure and movement. There is a rhythm at the center of all of our lives. Can you hear it? Can you feel it?
 
More on Rhythm

Mastering Photo – Shooting with Visual Rhythm

4 Types of Visual Rhythm

Finding Rhythm in Everyday Life – Boston Globe
 

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