Meditation and Photography

We all face difficult times in life. It can be a sudden tragic event disrupting our daily routine, or for years we lead a life that just seems wrong and unsatisfying, yet we don’t find ways to break out, to shake off our lethargy and live the life that reflects our self. Photography is an excellent medium to slow down, find peace of mind and balance things in life. Photography is a fantastic way to meditate even, and that not by isolating oneself from the outer world, but by becoming fully conscious and aware of what is going on around us.

Photography as Meditation: Tap Into the Source of Your Creativity by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann
Photography as Meditation: Tap Into the Source of Your Creativity by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann
Meditation, to me, is not about going to a monastery or temple and sit down cross-legged for hours in order to abdicate life. It’s to fully embrace life in all its colors, tastes and splendor, and, as a photographer, to make the camera again an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.

As inserts in this article you find references to books on meditation and photography. They might or might not be to everyone’s liking, but sure they provide food for thought to get started in case you want to spend some more time on the topic.

You might loathe this topic, yet I think it’s if not the most important written on THEME. To many, without being fully aware of it, photography already serves as a form of meditation; as a way to separate oneself from a stressful life.

In fact, Henri Cartier-Bresson defined photography as an ongoing meditative relationship to the world:

To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality (…) It is putting one’s head, one’s eyes and one’s heart on the same axis (…) It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s originality. It is a way of life.

Meditation, the “traditional” form of it, is something I did a lot in younger days. Lived in India for some time, and somehow my former girlfriends were very much into yoga and techniques to quiet down and balance the mind. Yet, meditation is also strange in a way, as you are supposed to isolate yourself from what’s going on around you. Sit down quietly, close your eyes, breath calmly and separate yourself from the world, only to reenter the daily mayhem again and get distracted anew. Not sustainable, at least in my book.

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes by Andy Karr and Michael Wood
The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World With Fresh Eyes by Andy Karr and Michael Wood
So I made a decision: to continue meditating, but integrating meditation into my daily routine, without the isolating separation from work, eating, meeting friends. Such “open” meditation makes curious and opens up the mind. Let’s make an example. Let’s say I’m sitting here writing this, how to “meditate” while writing?

Easy — and not easy. Takes some practice. Most importantly I try to be fully aware of breathing. Everyone has to find his or her own rhythm, but inhaling for seven seconds, pausing one second, exhaling for seven seconds, pausing again one second, and so forth, this deep and conscious way of breathing has so many advantages, whole books could be written on it. Not only is proper breathing an incredible source of energy, it also enhances overall well-being and peace of mind.

The brain and body need oxygen, but mostly we’re not aware how we breathe. We’re not making full use of our lungs, we breath superficially, and as a consequence find it hard to concentrate or focus on something, or we literally run out of breath easily. Proper breathing is a miracle cure for so many things. For the photographer, it helps him or her to develop the right eye and patience.

Chased by the Light -- A Photographic Journey by Jim Brandenburg
Chased by the Light — A Photographic Journey by Jim Brandenburg
Doesn’t mean we only have to shoot spherical, aloof visuals and perfectly content faces when practicing meditative photography. This contemplative approach must not be limiting. Meditation is simply mindfulness. The meditating photographer is fully aware of the subject/object, of the surroundings and shooting conditions. Or how often has it happened that you forgot to adjust a camera setting, that you didn’t adjust to changes in light and shadows, that you screwed up a whole series because of the wrong aperture or whatever.

As practices, both meditation and photography demand commitment, discipline and technical skill. Now slow down… Take National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg who experimented with the idea of taking only one photo a day for 90 days. When a world-class photographer who is used to snapping thousands of shots a day limits himself in that way, you can imagine how mindfulness comes into play.

Mindfulness is preemptive. Being mindful prevents mishaps. And mindfulness connects. No separation between photographer, subject and object. No gaps and difficulties when approaching a task. Even when facing difficulties, those become part of the natural flow.

Meditation on Both Sides of the Camera: A Spiritual Journey in Photography by Valarie K. Isenhower
Meditation on Both Sides of the Camera: A Spiritual Journey in Photography by Valarie K. Isenhower
Meditation and photography? It’s about non-attachment. One has nothing to lose and nothing to gain. It’s about clear seeing.

We mostly see things distorted. We don’t see things clearly or who we are. We have a lot of distortions in our seeing. Instead of seeing things as they are at the very moment, we’re projecting past memories and experiences onto them. The notion of clear seeing however is important in photography, and it is important in life.

The practice of contemplative, meditative photography helps to just remember how much distortion we bring in, because we mix seeing with our thinking and preconceptions, instead of just seeing things the way they are.

Freeing up one’s mind to see freshly and clearly is just one part of meditation and photography. Being more focused and feeling more alive and alert are other pretty nice side effects of constant awareness.

Not easy, yet why should it be easy. Take some deep, long breaths. Inhale, pause, exhale, pause, step out of your comfort zone and welcome to a new world.

Don’t have to sit cross-legged, close your eyes and keep silent. Living life to the fullest while meditating go hand in hand. As goes photography.

  • Really wonderful article about mindfulness, clarity in seeing and creativity. Funny, I was just thinking about the Jim Brandenburg project a few days ago and how transformative it was for him.

  • Well appreciated, Elizabeth!

  • PJM

    I’ve had a formal, daily meditation practice for 24 years. Rather than isolate my consciousness from the world there has been the opposite result. More fully integrated, more present, more love and more joy in doing. As far as my photography (which has been a part of my life since I was in my early teens), it is a way to express the “no self”, the spirit that now animates. 30-40 minutes a day is all that is required to transform your life and your perpective permanently and profoundly.