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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The Generosity of Trees


Profusion of pink
Stops me at once in my tracks
What a love is that?

I photograph trees – a lot – in all seasons. We can learn a lot from trees – about generosity, strength, perseverance, and even abandon. They’re a vital part of the ecosystem.

In our interconnected world, what we do to our trees affects our water, air, other species and us. Trees breathe in carbon dioxide to keep us safe, and breathe out life-giving oxygen.

Trees are generous.

It would probably be enough if they provided beauty (which they do), but they do so much more.

* Provide shade and protection for hundreds of species.

* Help clean our air and stabilize temperature.

* Act as a noise barrier.

* Their roots keep the ground stable and prevent soil and water runoff.

* Some provide nutritious food such as fruit, nuts, seeds, or oils.

* A decaying tree still provides essential nutrients for other species. Nothing from a tree goes to waste.

In this post, I share what William McDonough says about how cherry trees inspired cradle-to-cradle design.

Amazing, isn’t it? We simply cannot live without trees.

Humans and other species have a relationship with trees of mutualism – a relationship between two species of organisms in which both benefit from the association.

We are each reflected in the other. But, are we keeping our end of the bargain?

Deforestation has become a major issue in many parts of the world.

Locally, deforestation can lead to flooding and then drought due to water runoff. Soil erosion affects the quality of agriculture. Another impact of deforestation is species loss, since trees provide habitat for hundreds of species.

And, of course, deforestation leads to a huge release of carbon, affecting our climate.

The release of so much carbon can lead to climate change and rising sea levels, resulting in the loss of coral reefs and fish, loss of livelihoods and an increase in tropical diseases, resulting in environmental refugees. Conflicts over wildlife and water are possible.

Source: This in-depth article on Local and National Consequences of deforestation.

What Can We Do?



* Spend time outside amongst the trees. Fall in love with them. Photograph them.

* Learn more about the impacts of deforestation (at the links below).

* Support restoration of damaged ecosystems.

* Plant trees.

* Support the establishment of parks to protect forests and wildlife.

* Support companies that operate in ways that minimize damage to the environment.

* Learn more about what trees symbolize; what they have to teach us.

I photographed this tree (actually two trees that look like one) for an entire year. Sadly, they no longer exist.


Learn More about Trees

* ACT (Alliance for Community Trees) is a U.S. organization solely focused on the needs of nonprofit and community organizations engaged in urban forest protection. Together, ACT’s national network of members have planted and cared for 7.8 million trees with help from 450,000 volunteers. We can combat global warming and clean our air with every tree we plant.

* The Green World Campaign has a bold agenda: Turn degraded lands green again. Raise the living standards of the rural poor. Combat climate change. Create holistic ways to work for the health of our shared biosphere and the harmony of our global village.

* Taking Root is a film that tells the story of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai whose simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy -a movement for which this charismatic woman became an iconic inspiration.

Wangari Maathai is founder of The Greenbelt Movement. She was the 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

Books on Trees to Share With Children

* The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

This children’s book is a controversial classic for all ages. Why controversial? Well, there are two ways of looking at the book.

1. It is a story of unconditional love between a boy and a tree. The tree is always there for the boy even when it is cut down.

2. The tree is always there for the boy, always giving of itself while the boy takes and does not give back.

I believe that it offers a powerful lesson. Why is the boy often sad and in trouble? The tree is just there doing its thing and available to the boy. I know trees are not happy or sad but, in this case, the tree accepts its fate without judgment while the boy never seems to figure that out.

No matter which way you look at it, it will spark a conversation.

* The Lorax (book and movie) by Dr. Seuss was published in 1971 and still rings true today. Another classic for all ages to spark a conversation. Here’s an excerpt:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I’ve come here to celebrate Earth Day, so please
Come join me and help spread the message I bring.
Be a friend to the trees and to each living thing.

The Once-ler, now remorseful, tells the story of his greedy past. He cuts down trees and uses up resources to sell products. The Lorax is the character who speaks up for the trees (“for the trees have no tongues”) but it does not help. Finally, there is almost nothing left but all hope is not lost.

This book was published in 1971 and still rings true today. Another classic for all ages to spark a conversation.

What do trees mean to you?


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Why do you photograph?


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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10 Quotes for Living a Creative, Contemplative Life



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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Niagara-on-the-Lake Abstracts – Sailboats in Winter

One of my current projects is to create abstract photographs of my hometown of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada.

With abstract photographs, we try to reflect the mood or emotions or qualities of a place. Each Tuesday, I’ll present a new image from the project.


Sailboats in Winter

Lake Ontario is a magnet for all who live, work and visit the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Last year, I took sailing lessons for the very first time and discovered a brand new (for me) culture – where kids and families spend much of their summer on the water.

However, the sailing season is short as winters are long and cold in this area. The sailboats are grounded for a good part of the year, nestled together; their masts in stillness reaching into the sky, always a reminder on the horizon that summer will come again.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a tourist town. It’s surrounded by water – Lake Ontario on one side and the Niagara River on the other. The world famous Niagara Falls are only twenty miles down the road.

It has a world class theatre 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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The Healing Effects of Awe and Wonder


Bottlebrush Blossom

A U.C. Berkeley study, recently published in the journal, Emotion, is making news through several outlets cited below. It posits that the experience of positive emotions, particularly awe and wonder, lowers inflammation.

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study.

What is wonder and how is it different from awe?

If you’ve been reading this site for awhile, you know that wonder is a contemplative habit that can be cultivated through photography. Awe and wonder are often used interchangeably, although there is a subtle difference between the two.

Here are the dictionary definitions, adapted from Merriam-Webster.

Wonder: a feeling of astonishment or admiration caused by something that is surprising, beautiful, or amazing.

“Wonder is the beginning of all wisdom. Wonder is the first of all passions. Wonder is the beginning of all writing. Wisdom, emotions, and creativity – all borne from wonder.” ~ Jeffrey Davis, Tracking Wonder

Awe: an emotion that combines dread, veneration, and wonder. It is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.

“In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear is a little studied emotion – awe. Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. Awe is central to the experience of religion, politics, nature, and art. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.” ~ Keltner and Haidt, 2003 Caltech Study

The study cited above details the differences between the two. Wonder results in admiration, but awe adds the element of fear or submission, the sense of being in the presence of something larger than oneself. It can be frightening at times.

Other benefits from experiencing Awe

IMG_6803* Perception of time expands

* More patient

* More willing to volunteer time or help others

* Prefer experiences over material things

* Greater life satisfaction

via a 2012 Stanford Study on Time and Awe
We can experience wonder in several ways, but being out in nature is one of the best. So, if our cameras can get us out in nature, where we’re likely to experience awe and wonder, then let’s do it.

I was recently in Florida, where the flora and fauna are completely different from what I’m used to at home. This led to many moments of wonder as I noticed new forms of bark and blossoms – like the bottlebrush blossom at the top of this post and the basket-weave type bark on this palm tree.

Nature Deficit Disorder

On the flip side, not experiencing nature is epidemic, especially in our western culture, resulting in what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined as “nature deficit disorder.” He is particularly concerned about children, and believes that the lack of connection to nature can lead to behavioural problems.

Louv, the author of the bestsellers Last Child in the Woods (2005) and The Nature Principle (2011), coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the loss of connection children increasingly feel with the natural world. Nature-deficit disorder is not a clinically recognized condition, he explains, but rather a term to evoke a loss of communion with other living things. Nevertheless, he argues, nature-deficit disorder affects “health, spiritual well-being, and many other areas, including [people’s] ability to feel ultimately alive.” ~ Interview with Richard Louv at National Geographic

Carol Albers introduced me to a new social media campaign begun by videographer Louis Schwartzberg aimed to beat nature deficit disorder (#BeatNDD). I hope you’ll join me and Carol in spreading the word.

Download my PDF on Wonder, which includes exercises to cultivate this contemplative habit.

When did you last experience awe or wonder?


Experiences of Art, Nature and Spirituality May Help Prevent Disease – Huff Post Live

How Feelings of Awe Lower Inflammation – Traci Pedersen, Spirituality & Health

Turning to Wonder with Contemplative Photography – Center for Courage and Renewal

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