Bowing to Life through a Photograph

bowing to life
During the meditation and writing retreat at Upaya Zen Center, we spent much of the day in silence. We could speak at dinner if we chose to, but breakfast and lunch were always in silence. During this time, we acknowledged others and the spaces we inhabited with a deep bow, palms touching as if in prayer.

There is something very respectful about this type of bow. It’s not done in deference to someone superior or someone in power. Instead, it’s a way of pausing and honouring a person, place, or thing; a way of acknowledging and showing appreciation. Yet, even the bow can sometimes come across as rote.

One must bow with their whole being – heart, mind, and body.

Respect for all beings is a core principle in Zen. It’s an expression of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” But it goes beyond that: we even bow to our cushion. We are grateful for, respect, and help maintain the inanimate world as well. Since everything in the universe is connected, everything is necessary for our own small individual existence. We show gratitude and respect for our cushion, the ground that supports us, the walls that protect us, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth, moon, and stars. ~ Why do Buddhists Bow?

Since arriving home, I’ve noticed that I miss the bow. In this podcast, True Prosperity: Nothing but the Bow, Genzen Kennell, one of the Zen priests at Upaya, says that once you start bowing, you can’t stop. He quotes Zen master Katagiri Roshi, who said, “Bowing is like a rock in your heart. You cannot remove it.”

Bowing is a form of humility, one of the nine contemplative habits.

In this post, The Value of Humility, I shared that the word humility comes from the Latin, “humus,” meaning ground. With humility, we place ourselves on common ground with everything, no less and no better.

We can bring this mindset of humility to our photography. In this way, the click of the shutter becomes a bow towards what’s right in front of us; towards life. It’s a form of reverence. A photograph becomes a connection borne from respectful relationship.

During the retreat, Natalie Goldberg advised us to be open, to receive and respond to the world in each moment. Every encounter is a chance to transform and be transformed. Every photograph that we receive in this way changes us.

Being open to receiving the world with humility expands our range of subject matter exponentially. Everything becomes worthy before the camera lens. Photographer Art Wolfe says it beautifully.

As an artist, I shoot without prejudice. And, it just opens up the world. I never run out of ideas.

Next time you click the shutter, think of it as a bow towards life.

Watch: Art Wolfe’s talk at Google

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Stop and Listen before you Photograph


Writing is 90% listening. ~ Natalie Goldberg

Last week, I participated in a meditation and writing workshop with author Natalie Goldberg. We spent much of the week in silence, listening to the world around us and to ourselves. The writing emerged from this place.

I believe that for photography or any other art, listening is essential. It’s something that I’ve talked about before on this blog. Below are three ways to let listening inform your photography, with links to learn more.

1. Use your ears.

Through awakening and developing all of our senses, we become better see-ers. I often focus on two senses while out walking as a way of keeping me present, for example, the feel of my feet hitting the ground and listening to the sounds around me.

As a visual person, it’s important for me to develop my sense of hearing, especially in places that we think of as silent. When you stop to really listen, you will hear all kinds of things – the wind blowing, paper rustling, doors closing, water splashing, birds singing, etc.

While at Balls Falls in Vineland, Ontario a few weeks ago, I listened to the rushing sound of the waterfalls. I saw the deeply grooved layers in the rock wall, and was in awe of how the power of that waterfall had worn away at the rock surface for thousands of years, revealing its layered history.

Practice: An Exercise in Deep Listening

Read: The Power of Listening

2. Listen to your heart.

When we use our ears, we’re listening outwards. It’s also important to listen inwards, to hear and trust what your heart is saying, to feel the emotional undercurrent of the moment.

While in Santa Fe last week, my heart was pulled towards the sensual, softly curving adobe walls and how light and shadow played with them. I pay attention to these resonances, because they show what’s important to me. This is where our best photography emerges.

Read: Listen to your Inner Teacher and Letting Resonance Guide Your Photography.

3. Open and Receive.

Active listening requires a sense of openness, a willingness to receive and respond to what’s right in front of us. There are no goals, expectations, or planned outcomes. When we’re photographing, we focus on what’s there in that moment. We welcome surprises.

At the writing workshop, we practiced slow walking – I mean very slow – where we focused on our feet touching the ground from heel to toe and what was right in front of us. This is a form of grounding in the moment.

Read: Welcome the Unexpected

Let the world come to you. ~ Natalie Goldberg

When we were practicing writing at the workshop, we were supposed to keep our pens moving and let the words emerge without thinking. This is really hard for someone like me, trained in thinking. It wasn’t until the fourth day that I began to feel like I might be writing from this place.

The aha moment for me was that writing in this way was effortless. I let it come through without worrying about whether it was good or not.

What if we were to approach photography in the same way?


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I Wonder as I Wander

A wander is a special kind of walk. One where we meander, this way or that, walking slower than normal. There is no predetermined destination. There are no time limitations, thus no sense of hurry. We follow our nose, open to what we might find.

This mindset allows us to see more and leaves our minds free to wonder. Here’s a report from one of my recent wanders.

This creek runs about a block behind my house and I cross it almost every day when I walk into town. It makes me wonder where it begins. And, how about this tiny garden around a tree on town property. I imagine the owner of the house here created it. Who is this person and how did they become so generous?

The local elementary school closed down last June. I realized that I’d never walked through the schoolyard, only around it, so I decided to wander through. In less than a year, it’s already showing signs of abandonment – the painted metal benches outside that kids would sit on were rusted out and the basketball hoop had no net. The painted on hopscotch was still in good shape and I wondered how many games had been played on this particular one. I hopped through it myself.

This sign stopped me, because it seemed very odd. But, it didn’t take long to realize that it makes perfect sense in a tourist town.

I wondered what was behind this ivy-covered window at the Prince of Wales Hotel and about the story behind local legend, Chris Smythe, the chef of their restaurant, Escabeche.

One mystery became apparent as I wandered. Grafitti is suddenly popping up all over town, very unusual for this area. I wondered, is it a protest of some sort or just some kids with nothing better to do? There are a couple of symbols I’ve seen repeated, such as this one, found at an abandoned house in the process of redevelopment, the closed school, and a new commercial building on the main street.

I wondered who owned this cool, touring bike. Probably someone local.

The tourists are back, now that the Shaw Festival Theatre has reopened for the season. I wondered whether these people with their dog were local or not. I sat on a bench and watched people go by and listened to the many different languages being spoken.

Then, I checked out the books at the Little Free Library around the corner. Nothing interested me but I left an offering, a pocket version of The Art of Idleness by Stephen Graham.

I wondered about these peonies, that were barely breaking ground only a week ago. What was it about this past week, still a bit chilly in my opinion, that let them know it was time to shoot up?

I wondered if this tree enjoyed being a bench for tourists now and what would entice golfers to play on such a crisp day. The outcroppings on this tree were interesting, like a growth rather than a fungus.

I wondered why I like yellow doors so much. Who was the doctor that lived in this house almost two hundred years ago? I was thankful for this tree that is so perfect in every season.

It was a very good wander.

In her newest book, The Wander Society, Keri Smith describes wandering as a state of mind. When we wander, we are present, our senses are awake, and we leave the complications of life behind. We are completely immersed in our surroundings, open to what we might find, knowing that anything is possible. We’re outside of time, feeling no need to be productive, letting the experience guide us.

She says that you can identify a wanderer by their curiosity. They are generally non-conformist, even rebellious and daring. They tend to be solitary and self-sufficient. They know who they are.


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Visual Stories and Poems with David duChemin

In my last post, I shared some highlights from an all-day seminar (through the Latow Photography Guild) with world and humanitarian photographer David duChemin, on the topic of voice. Today, I’ll share with you what he had to say about story.

One of the workshops I offer (along with Sally Drew) is Once Upon a Time: Photographs have Stories to Tell. I truly believe that our photographs are one step ahead of our conscious minds. They hold clues to what we’re thinking and feeling, to what we truly love, to our voice.

Photographs also tell stories, using visual language rather than written language. This visual language is expressed through how we compose elements – light, lines, shapes, texture, patterns, etc. – and through symbols, metaphor, contrasts and perspective. Stories are expressed by the decisions we make about what we leave in and what we leave out.

In the seminar with duChemin, I appreciated his delineation between visual stories and visual poems.

Visual Stories – evoke meaning, hope, empathy, curiosity

These images tell a story similar to a written story. They have some or all of the elements of story – theme, setting, character, action, conflict, change, empathy, mystery.

Conflict (or tension) is the heart of story, In a visual story, conflict is visualized through contrast – of ideas (light and dark, men and women, work and play, etc.). It is expressed through relationships and other differences – tonal, colour, texture, lines, light, etc.

In the image above, the strongest contrast is between the surfers going one way and the non-surfers a different way. And then, there is the group standing along the shoreline. It tells a story about this day, that there is something happening.

Visual Poems – evoke mood or emotion

blue water
These images don’t necessarily tell a story. Instead, they are evocative. This is a different way to connect that is similar to music and poetry. They go straight to the heart.

Mood and emotion can be expressed visually in many ways – through light, colour, gesture, facial expression, mystery, etc. I’ve found that abstract photography is a form of visual poetry that bypasses story and goes straight to the emotion.

In the image above, the colour blue and the swirling waters draw me in to the mood of swirling, complicated emotions.

I find that my photographs tend to be visual poems rather than stories, as I’m attempting to tap into the emotion of the moment. Sometimes, a visual poem can be a story too. How the image is perceived, as a story or a poem, depends on what the photographer is trying to communicate.

If you’re interested in learning more about visual stories, I recommend this Craft & Vision e-book – The Visual Storyteller by Oded Wagenstein and to read David duChemin’s post, Tell Me a Story.

And, do consider joining me and Sally at some time for Once Upon a Time: Photographs have Stories to Tell. We’re just finishing our second session of this workshop with a stellar group. The experience has been powerful. Sign up for my email list (above right) for bimonthly inspiration and notification of the workshop schedule.


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On Vision with David duChemin

As many of you already know, David duChemin is one of my favourite photographer/writers. I found out just last week that he would be presenting all weekend at the Art Gallery of Burlington (courtesy of the Latow Photography Guild), less than an hour from where I live. As luck would have it, I was able to get one of the last tickets to the all-day seminar on Saturday.

I first became aware of David’s work a few years ago through his company, Craft & Vision, which publishes e-books on photography, as well as Photograph Magazine.

I really liked his equal emphasis on vision and craft, something you don’t always see in the photography world. I also liked his tagline, world and humanitarian photographer. He spends a lot of time on the road as a humanitarian photographer, conservation photographer, workshop leader, and for his own personal projects, like spending several months driving across Canada.

He lives intentionally.

At the seminar, duChemin was introduced as someone who frees minds, lights fires, and builds community. These are all qualities that I strive for in teaching my workshops.

Five years ago, while teaching in Italy, duChemin fell off a wall and shattered both his feet – not a fortunate circumstance for anyone, let alone a world and humanitarian photographer. Yet, he began his talk by saying that the last five years have been the best of his life and that this accident re-calibrated his vision.

I’m going to focus on two areas that David addressed – vision (today) and story (next post). He helped me to see more clearly the differences between vision, voice, and style and how they relate.


Personal Vision is who you are and how you see the world.

We all have a personal vision, whether we’re aware of it or not. And, duChemin believes, as do I, that it’s important to bring introspection into our lives and become more self-aware. Life is too short to spend our time (and that includes what we photograph) on what doesn’t matter to us.

Realize what you love and focus on that.

This personal vision does change so we must keep observing and questioning. What are we drawn to? What do we love? By answering these questions, we will know what we want to make photographs of.

Photography is not my life but it touches every aspect of my life. ~ David DuChemin

Photographic vision has to do with how and why we make this particular photograph. What is the intent? What is the theme? What do we want to say? How do we want it to feel? We can only know how to make this photograph beautiful, powerful, compelling, or evocative once we can answer these questions.

Recently, I updated my personal statement or vision and chose five photographs to reflect the words. You can find it here – A Contemplative View.


Voice is the expression of your vision. It is the how – the techniques you use and the composition you decide on. duChemin said that “art is a decision.” This is where craft comes in. We need to know how our camera works and how to use use it effectively to express our vision. The art comes from the decisions we make and we can’t make those decisions if we don’t know what we want to say.


duChemin said that style is irrelevant; it’s not that your style is not there or that it isn’t important, just that it’s not something we need to focus on. Style develops organically from the way we express our vision. The more we know how to express who we are and how we see the world, the more consistent style we will have.

How do we do this?

duChemin suggests a daily pursuit of introspection – writing about our frustrations, becoming more observant (taking visual inventories), and asking questions. Always look back at your photographs and notice which ones light you up. What is it about them that expresses what you have to say? This is something we’ve been doing in the final weeks of the visual journaling workshop.

Photography is about exploration as much as expression. ~ David DuChemin

At the end of every month, I choose a favourite photograph for that month and put it in an album called Faves for that year (here’s 2015). This helps me keep track of my personal vision.

How aware are you of your vision?

I highly recommend this e-book by David duChemin at Craft & Vision – The Vision-Driven Photographer, which one of his seminars was based upon.

Also see, My Visual CV, one way of revealing your vision.

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The Contemplative Experience from a Psychology Lens

The word contemplation means to consider with attention and compassion what’s happening in the moment. I’ve always been a contemplative type and drawn to others who exemplify these qualities, people like Thomas Merton, John O’Donohue, and Mary Oliver.

Of course, I love photography too, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered contemplative photography, something I’d already been doing but didn’t have a name for.

I’m also a student of psychology, and in the book, The MindBody Code, Dr. Mario Martinez introduces the field of contemplative psychology.

Contemplative psychology, or the science of mind-in-the-world is inquiring with the mind embodied in experience.

In my last post, I gave an example of gaining self-knowledge through a photograph. Our contemplative photographs hold clues to our potential or the hidden parts of our mind. And, the methods of inquiry derived from contemplative psychology can help us in discovering those clues.

Martinez learned about contemplative psychology from Father Jack Finnegan, who he says coined term. Finnegan taught that there were three tools, derived from the Greek, to help us inquire into the contemplative experience.

Stage 1. Apophasis – to say no.

This is where we notice what blocks our contemplative experience, whether it be the language we use, limiting beliefs, judgments, or opinions. This is the step where we take off all of the labels we tend to put on things (and people). We just say no, going to beginner’s mind, where it’s as if we’re seeing something for the very first time.

For a simple example, I have judgments around winter – it’s too long, it’s too cold. Truth be told, where I live it is not too long or too cold. It just is. First step for me is to notice that I have those limiting judgments and say no to them.

Stage 2. Aphaeresis – to let go.

This is where we release the blocks that we noticed in the previous step.

I notice my reaction to another day of below freezing temperatures and let it go. Instead I ask myself how I will engage with today no matter the temperature. Maybe I’ll take the opportunity to curl up with a good book in front of a fire or maybe I’ll dress in warm layers and go out for a walk.

Stage 3. Aporia – without way or passage.

This is the contemplative experience itself which is beyond words, a state of “suspended knowing.” Martinez says that this state has been described as: “profound peace, boundless love, oneness, infinite compassion, etc. It can only be described through poetics, paradox, or oxymoron.”

Mind blowing, isn’t it? The experience can only be felt or pointed to through evocative language or a photograph or a piece of art.

In terms of the wintry day, once I’ve let go of my judgments, I experience the day through all of my senses.

Contemplative inquiry, which is what we’re doing when we take contemplative photographs, is a way of life, not a means to an end. In some sense, it’s a road to not knowing. It is a path of complete and utter openness to the world as it is.

How do we get there? Try doing this before you go out to photograph (adapted from The MindBody Code).

1. Relax, slow your mind, breathe, and observe. Do not interpret.

2. Say no to distracting thoughts and sensations. Don’t try to banish them, just say no to them. Do this for several minutes.

3. Start noticing the space between the thoughts, the space after saying no. Inhale and exhale in that space.

4. Stay in that quiet space for as long as you wish. Then, go out and photograph.

This form of inquiry is similar to what we do in the Adventures in Seeing online workshop. Through photographic exercises, we notice our blocks and replace them with contemplative habits. We open up.

This year I’m offering a 6-week summer camp, which begins on June 20th. The exercises can be done wherever you are, in the midst of your busy day or while on vacation. I hope you’ll consider joining us. Registration is open.

Also Read: The Case for Contemplative Psychology by Han F. de Wit

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