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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The Third Act – Creativity, Flexibility, and Perseverance

third act, retirement
This is the third post in a series on The Third Act, that final third of life often called retirement.

In the first post we talked about the word retirement, and cultural expectations around this time of life. I introduced Dr. Mario Martinez, author of the The MindBody Code, who has done research with centenarians (people who have lived over the age of 100) and found that these people weren’t just lucky or had good genes. They shared certain characteristics – resilience, creativity, flexibility, and perseverance.

Centenarians consistently defy cultural expectations around aging.

In the second post, I looked at the importance of practicing resilience in our later years, being able to bounce back from the inevitable challenges and to bounce forward in such a way that we continue to grow. I believe that the three remaining characteristics – creativity, flexibility, and perseverance – can help us maintain resilience.

Creativity – is being able to reframe a potentially negative situation in a brand new way.

Sara Eisenberg (A Life of Practice) calls it “creative inquiry.”

Creativity is (among other things) a way to self-express our unique contribution in this world, a gateway to making meaning, a form of play, a sensual engagement. I stake out creativity as a question, a way of inquiring into the self. Who am I? How do I see myself? What are my yearnings? ~ Sara Eisenberg, A Life of Practice

Creativity can also be cultivated by pursuing artistic forms of expression like writing, painting, or photography. I find that people in their third act often choose to bounce forward in this way.

Oliver Sacks, a neurologist called “the poet laureate of medicine,” died last year at the age of 82 after being diagnosed with cancer. He wrote his last book, On the Move, while being treated for this disease. He inspired me by the way he lived his entire life with creativity – living as a gay man in a time when this was not accepted, writing in an accessible way about his medical experiences, and finding love late in life.

Oliver was interested not just in studying what deficits and impairments his patients had, but also in what gave them joy, resilience and a sense of purpose. He would then ally himself with these sources of strength so they could learn to use their potentially devastating conditions as opportunities for adaptation, renewal, reinvention and growth. ~ Steve Silberton

Sacks reframed everything, even his cancer diagnosis. In this inspiring article from the New York Times about learning he has cancer, Sacks clearly shows how he reframed this news, moving from fear to gratitude.

Flexibility – is considering multiple options when dealing with situations.

In this interview with Maria Shriver, poet Mary Oliver (who is in her 80’s) speaks of the loneliness she felt after the death of her long-time partner. Oliver has always been a very private person, considered a recluse by some. Yet, deep inside she seemed to know that a different response was in order.

I had decided I would do one of two things when she died. I would buy a little cabin in the woods, and go inside with all my books and shut the door. Or I would unlock all the doors—we had always kept them locked; Molly liked that sense of safety—and see who I could meet in the world. And that’s what I did. I haven’t locked the door for five years. I have wonderful new friends. And I have more time to be by myself. It was a very steadfast, loving relationship, but often there is a dominant partner, and I was very quiet for 40 years, just happy doing my work. I’m different now.

Instead of becoming even more reclusive, she reached out to others and is happier than she’s ever been, is becoming more herself, and creating more personal poetry.

Perseverance – is being able to endure the turbulence that inevitably comes, riding it like a wave.

David Suzuki, considered to be Canada’s #1 environmentalist recently turned 80 years old. He still hosts the TV Show, The Nature of Things, now in its 55th season. His story is certainly one of perseverance in advocating for environmental issues his entire life.

Suzuki doesn’t necessarily think that anything’s gotten better over that time, either, yet he has no plans to quit speaking out. While his roles as host of a TV show and in his foundation may change, and he spends more time with his grandchildren, his willingness to speak out, no holds barred will not.

I have a certain sense of urgency. I still have ideas and I still wanna get these messages out. I feel this is a really good time — I don’t really give a shit about getting a job or a raise or a promotion. So I’m really free to speak up. I urge other elders: This is the time. This is your time. You gotta talk to young people. ~ David Suzuki, The Vancouver Sun

The Third Act can be a time of opportunity and continued growth, no matter the challenges we face. How will you continue to grow in your third act?


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Picturing Wonder

pacific sunset
While I’m lucky to live near the Great Lake of Ontario, I have a pact with myself to visit the ocean at least once a year. The sand between my toes, the ebb and flow of the tide, and the sunsets fill me with wonder – one of the nine contemplative habits that I focus on cultivating in my life.

Last month, I visited the Pacific Ocean and it didn’t disappoint. I experienced the sunset above with hundreds of others at Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Jeffrey Davis tracks wonder and in this blog series at Psychology Today – here and here, he describes three faces of this habit – wide-eyed, vertigo, and quiet. Below I picture examples of each.


purple sand
When we think of wonder, it’s mostly the wide-eyed kind, that child-like, naive form, full of innocence, awe, or astonishment. It tends to be a rare event, often startling. It stops us short and begs us to notice and appreciate.

I experienced this type of wonder in California when I saw the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach in the Big Sur area. It filled me with excitement and I photographed it in all of its abstract wonder. It also aroused my curiosity and I discovered that the colour of the sand was caused by manganese garnet in the hills being eroded and washed down the creek to the beach.

Many photographs are created with the goal of capturing just these types of awe-filled moments; beautiful scenes that tend to come along once in a blue moon and when we’re in exotic places. We all love these moments. They create a sense of meaning, a feeling of being alive.


This is a face of wonder that emerges from a crisis or disruption or challenge, or even a block in the creative process. It’s a time of “fertile confusion,” as Davis calls it, sometimes unwelcome and often uncomfortable, like when an accident, job loss, or diagnosis catches us short.

Or, it could arise in a more subtle way, a general malaise that says I can’t go on living this way or I just don’t know where to go with this or what to do next. It feels like we’re out of balance and can’t see clearly. We might feel fearful or we might feel a sense of something new and exciting on the horizon. It’s a time of wondering and pausing and questioning, of living in uncertainty.

In that disorientation, we can feel delight and confusion, joy and fear, exhilaration and anxiety simultaneously. Who am I? Where am I? Who might I become? Where might I go? How will I get through this? ~ Jeffrey Davis

This time of vertigo invites us to wonder about possibilities not apparent before – to reframe our world in a brand new way. We might write, create a piece of art, or take a trip to gain perspective. We might take time to grieve a loss or do nothing but patiently wait for answers to emerge.

To me, the image above reflects this feeling of vertigo, as well as seeing in new ways. I noticed the way the sheer curtain at a friend’s place reflected and merged with the greenery outside.

Sometimes, writing about our photographs can help us uncover those possibilities. What we photograph often reflects what we’re thinking and feeling and may provide clues as to the next steps to take. It can help us to see themes or patterns or threads in our photography. This is the premise behind the visual journaling workshop, Once Upon a Time: Our Photographs have Stories to Tell.


This is the contemplative face of wonder, where we see the beauty in ourselves, others or our everyday life exactly as they are, without judgment. It’s when we notice the subtle, everyday moments that make life meaningful, like the way the blue sky reflects in these glasses and the sunlight creates intermingled shadows.

It’s noticing and appreciating simple moments, the touch of another’s hand or the lifelines on your partner’s face. Quiet wonder feels satisfying. In these moments, life is enough just as it is.

This is the face of wonder that is often not acknowledged, yet it’s available to us every single day. By tapping into it, we can greatly increase our satisfaction in life. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says that we don’t stay with our positive experiences long enough, but if we do we can rewire our brains for greater happiness.

People don’t recognize the hidden power of everyday experiences. We’re surrounded by opportunities — 10 seconds here or 20 seconds there — to just register useful experiences and learn from them. People don’t do that when they could. ~ Rick Hanson

Photography is one way to do just that. We notice, stay, and appreciate an experience of quiet wonder, decide how to frame it, and then click the shutter. Neurons are firing! It’s not absolutely necessary to take the picture, but I see that click as a way of cementing the experience, honouring the moment. It’s a way of cultivating quiet wonder every day.

Which face of wonder have you experienced lately?

If you are not yet a subscriber, I invite you to sign up for my bimonthly letter where, in addition to my latest posts, I provide photographic examples of quiet, contemplative wonder, an exercise, and what’s inspired me lately.

Discover the “surprising science behind the remarkable effects of water on our health and well-being” in this book, Blue Mind, by marine biologist Wallace J Nichols, one of my favourites from 2015.

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The Power of Gratitude

Gratitude is a word that has become something of a cliche. It can seem pious in the face of some of the many tragedies happening on a daily basis or the difficulties we face in life. Yet, the practice of this one word has incredible power to reframe and even overcome difficulties.

Brother David Steindl-Rast is a monk known for his teachings and writings on the subject. In this On Being podcast episode, he speaks of gratitude as a choice, an action that we can take in every moment. We don’t need to be grateful for everything. That doesn’t make sense and is impossible. However, we can still practice in every moment. And, it starts with beholding.

It arises from attention.

Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, it arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. ~ David Whyte, Consolations

David Steindl-Rast uses the phrase “Stop. Look. Go.”

This is similar to my advice to pause, focus, and connect in photography.

First, we stop. Then, we look. We behold. We pay attention. What’s happening? It’s at this point that we discern the opportunity in the moment. How can we respond to the moment, rather than react to the circumstance? It’s at this point that we go – act on the opportunity. If the experience is a difficult one, the opportunity lies in what we have to learn, or how we can grow, or whether we need to take a stand.

We feel grateful when we feel we belong.

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing. ~ David Whyte, Consolations

Anxiety and judgments stifle gratitude.

Difficult circumstances make us feel anxious and we often get stuck in negative thoughts. However, if we recognize and feel the anxiety, knowing that this feeling means we are on the cusp of something new, and that we have choices in how we respond, then gratefulness will follow.

Judgments about our circumstances – this is good, this is bad – also stifles gratitude. In this thought-provoking article, David of Raptitude offers a practice of radical acceptance to try when you find yourself judging your experience.

Gratefulness leads to joy, not the other way around.

Steindl-Rast says that being grateful as a conscious choice almost always sparks joy.

It is not joy that makes us grateful, it’s gratitude that makes us joyful. ~ Brother David Steindl-Rast

Consciously embody this thankfulness and then feel the joy that comes up. Remember that feeling and you’ll experience it more often.

Practicing Gratitude through Photography

* Notice and pay attention to what is most meaningful in your life.

* Practice reframing by learning to see subjects we normally find ordinary or uninteresting or not worthy, in brand new ways.

I encourage you to listen to this entire podcast. And then, practice by stopping, looking, and going, as a conscious choice. Stay with the joy. How does it feel?

David Steindl-Rast – TED talk and On Being Podcast

Photography – A Cause of Health (and Gratitude)

Dotti on Focusing on Gratitude through Photography

12 Exercises to Master Gratitude via Louis Schwartzberg

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