“It is estimated that one trillion photographs will be taken this year,” says photographer and Zen practitioner, David Ulrich. With high-quality cameras on our phones, digital photography and the advent of platforms such as Flickr and Instagram, we have all become photographers – perhaps taking dozens of photos over a week.
But what kind of photographer are we? If cameras in any form are merely an extension of the eye and the mind, what do our images reveal about us and the world we perceive? And what would happen if we brought more intention to the process of taking a shot? How might that impact not only the photographs we take but also deepen our understanding of who we are?
Ulrich poses these challenges in his book Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography. Leaving aside traditional teachings of photography that tend to focus on composition, rules of thirds and leading lines, Ulrich instead offers a deeper look at creating and capturing images — by sharing practices that can help us bring a level of presence to both the process and resulting image. Each moment we reach for our phone to take a shot, therefore, becomes transformed into a practice of presence, inquiry and meditation.
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“Every photograph is, in some measure, a self-portrait,” says Ulrich. Just like with symbols and metaphors, the images we are choosing to capture, tell us something about what’s going on consciously or unconsciously in our minds. If we can put this knowledge aside for one moment and just allow ourselves to take images of all the things we are drawn to — be those beautiful, disturbing, or mundane — we will begin to build a body of images that we can later reflect upon. What kind of shapes or themes run through them? Are there some images we can’t take our eyes off? What if we collected those images and opened ourselves up to any insights they may offer us?
Beyond the image itself, Ulrich highlights the very process of taking a photograph as one that can bring us in touch with deeper parts of ourselves as well as with the objects in front of us. Before we hit “click,” what is it that we see? Are we connecting with the objects in front of us? Do we sense the essence of the person we are photographing? Can we put ourselves in the shoes of that person or the sky or tree?
This practice develops in us a curiosity and empathy and compassion that can bring a different dimension to our photographs. It can foster a deep appreciation for what is, and also enable us to wait for the perfect moment to capture that essence with our “click.” At the same time, cultivating this kind of attention behind the camera can help us be more attentive and present to those around us. It is a healing practice, points out Ulrich.
Ulrich offers wisdom throughout his book and many unique practices that can bring us into the more heartfelt aspects of photography. But here a few condensed tips to whet the appetite for a deeper dive:
1) Begin a daily practice of taking tens of photos – and treat these as separate to the shots of friends, pets, your dinner and yourself.
2) Don’t worry about taking “good” photographs and don’t limit them to things that please you.
3) Commit to being genuine rather than trying to replicate images you have seen.
4) Consider meditating before taking a photograph.
5) Be patient. Spend time observing the object or scene you want to shoot.
6) Notice if the mind is judging the shot or has expectations of pleasing others. Let those thoughts go.
7) Mix it up. Be spontaneous and shoot at hip level or upside down. Try to get out of the habit of having habits.
8) Immerse yourself in the object or scene. What are all your senses telling you beyond your eyes?
9) Be creative. Take selfies that capture your own essence without you being in them.
10) Keep a beginner’s mind. Stay humble, open and learn from your experiences, and other photographers.
Photo Credit: Mario Guti/iStock