Photography as Meditation

What IS meditation, anyway? It’s a term bandied about, applied to many areas of endeavor, but, aside from specific forms, such as Transcendental Meditation (TM) it’s a term that has a way of floating around and lighting on seemingly unrelated things like a wilting helium balloon.

I’ve practiced a couple formally-taught types of meditation myself. Such formal practices don’t pin down all the mental processes to which the term might be applied. Upon contemplating the idea, I think a good blanket way of defining meditation is simply that it’s a process of mindfully paying attention. By mindful, I mean learning to consciously note where your mind is going. The Buddhists speak of “monkey mind,” which refers to the way that the mind has a way of drifting off in all directions, hardly controllable at all. Some forms of meditation involve noticing when the mind has drifted off, then pulling it back to focus on one thing, which can be an internally-repeated sound (mantra), on body sensations, or on something in the visual field, such as a candle flame. 

For many years I’ve enjoyed the practice of photography. I refer to it here both as practice, in the sense of simply doing it, but also in the sense of meditative practice, which is doing photography while paying conscious attention to where it takes me and where I take it.

There was a time when I considered the possibility of a career as a professional photographer. From present perspective, I feel very fortunate not to have taken that path, because it’s left me free to photograph whatever I want or not to photograph at all if I’m not moved to do so. It’s been interesting to notice where photography has taken me over the nearly sixty years that I’ve been shooting photos.

Having just written that phrase “shooting photos” brings me to an area of photographic awareness that only came to consciousness for me within the last two years. Somewhere on the web I encountered an essay about photography in which the writer pointed out that we use many terms of aggression when we describe the process of recording photos. We take, shoot, capture, grab, catch, snap, or steal, photos, to name a few examples. Ads in photo magazines often picture photographers using cameras with long, phallic-looking telephoto lenses, or they represent photographic subject matter with images that emphasize the giant staring-eye quality of a camera lens.

The essay set me to thinking about my own relationship to photography. Never having been forced by professional necessity to photograph anything in particular, or to photograph at all, I realized that most of the time photos actually capture me. I’ll be walking along and the subject of a photo kinda clicks into view, which sends me reaching for my camera. At times I’ll actively stalk photos, but even in that case, it involves walking around with camera in hand and no specific ideas, waiting to be grabbed by something.

Part of what makes photography a meditative pursuit for me is that it encourages me to pay attention to what grabs me.

Approaching the meditative aspect of photography from another direction, I believe it’s useful to discuss what I view as the most important aspects of shooting arresting images. Or maybe it would be better to say, the most important qualities of mind and vision to cultivate in order to be arrested by scenes that capture attention.

Years ago I took a couple quarters of photography courses at the University of Colorado. My teacher, Charles Roitz used to talk about photos with a quality of “otherness.” It took me years before I began to understand what that meant.

In practicing meditative photography I gradually learned two important and mutually allied skills, which extend to many other areas of life beside photography. One is learning to see the whole frame at once, and the second is learning to stop naming things.

Conventionally, when we “shoot” photos, the tendency is to take a picture of something, some named object: “Here’s a picture of my car, my mother, my house, the rose in the garden,” etc. We frame things, i.e. pick a named thing, put a frame around it, and call it a rose. The truth is, a photo is a pattern of color, light, and dark on a piece of paper. In a picture of a rose, there’s a rose, then there’s all the things around the rose, including the things that are outside the frame. If you stop naming the rose, see it as a blob of color and pattern, and let it fit into all the color and pattern around it, the subject of the image may become something other and quite possibly more interesting than what you expect. You might not even be able to name it because it’s a feeling quality or something completely inexpressible, except as its own expression.

Similarly, in ordinary life we often trip ourselves up by naming something, stuffing it into a box, mentally speaking, then not noticing how it fits the big picture of all the things going on around it. To give an example, which happens to be uppermost in my mind in these times of economic disaster, a tendency in our culture has been to focus on the “bottom line” to the exclusion of all else. We’ve generally come to judge transactions by whether or not they make a profit for someone, with no consideration as to the effect the transaction has on the people involved or anyone else in proximity. It’s a destructive and limiting way of living.

Hence, I assert that photography, practiced mindfully, can teach us many important lessons about ourselves and life, perhaps one of the most important being to become more sensitive to where our own feelings and interests carry us, rather than allowing ourselves to be seduced by ideas of what may currently be “cool” or acceptable.

Suggested reading: The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing  by Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro
For more photos see my Flickr site

Kevin Jones