The Art of Mindful Photography

I often find myself acting out a similar pattern: As soon as I see an especially poignant scene, I reach for my iPhone to capture it.

Photos can be a wonderful way of sharing meaningful experiences with others, but I worry that my attempts to document the moment make being present in it a challenge. Does photography support awareness of my immediate experience, or detract from it?

I thought immediately of my friend and teacher Jonathan Foust, a world-renowned meditation instructor and the former president of North America’s largest yoga center, Kripalu. A few decades ago, before his career as a meditation and yoga teacher, Jonathan worked as a freelance photographer for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois.

Who better to address the question of mindfulness when it comes to photography? Here’s what I learned from Jonathan’s unique perspective on the relationship between two of the great passions of his life.

> Awareness of Seeing and Attitudes of the Mind

For Jonathan, the most obvious way that photography encourages mindfulness is by heightening our awareness of seeing.

National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenberg has been an inspiration for Jonathan ever since Brandenberg 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.

About four years ago, Jonathan took his Canon G12 with him on a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center with the intention of imitating the experiment–with a slight amendment; he would allow himself to take three photos a day.

And though Jonathan’s hope was to bring more consciousness to how he sees things, he found that the practice also offered powerful insight into the habits of his mind.

“I’d look out over a beautiful sunset and my mind would say, Nah, I got a better one yesterday. Or I would take a shot from a far distance of someone doing qigong with the fog behind them and think, Damn it, if they were only 20 feet higher on that hill they’d be better silhouetted,” he said. “[I’d] just be noticing–noticing the aversion, noticing the clinging, noticing the judgment.”

Meeting each of these states of mind with interest and acceptance allowed Jonathan to assess his experience with lightness and humor. “The magic of paying attention is [that] we get to see not only what’s there but how we’re holding it,” he remarked.

The results of the experiment? “It turned me into a magnet for incredible images, because I wasn’t quite so caught in the ‘I need more this,’ or ‘Oh, rats, it’s lousy weather today.’ It really got me into a space of being the silent witness, and as a result, I saw more.” 

  • Practical Tip: Try limiting yourself to three photos a day for 30 days. Remember to be mindful of each shot and to welcome whatever states of mind arise. See how much it’s possible to hold the whole of your experience with non-judgment and care.

> The Necessity of Imperfection

When you’re taking only a few photographs a day it can be easy to start pursuing perfection, but Jonathan learned at an early age that taking pictures is a sort of perpetual training in the art of accepting imperfection.

Jonathan’s formative insight about the necessity of imperfection came when he was a teenager. He took two rolls of film with his first camera, an old Minolta. From the scores of shots he had taken, there were five or six he was pleased with. He shared them with others who delighted in the images with him.

Then he showed them to his mother. “Oh, but you took so many,” she said, looking down at the handful of photos in front of her. Her words could have been taken as a deflating criticism, but teenage Jonathan told his mother, “You have to take a lot of shots to get a few that work.” That insight still holds true for him today.

Perhaps the only thing worth perfecting is our acceptance of imperfection.

  • Practical Tip: When looking through photos after a trip or event, see how much it’s possible to bring your attention to discerning and appreciating the photos that worked, rather than lamenting the ones that didn’t.

> The Art of the Self(less)ie

Back when photography was Jonathan’s way of earning a living, in the days of expensive film, Jonathan learned that one way to maximize his success rate was by being clear about the intention of each shot. He said the biggest lesson he learned from his days as a newspaper photographer was that “the image should tell a story.”

Jonathan described how a photography practice in pursuit of “ecstatic appreciation”–recognition of a state of being, from the beautiful and profound to the silly or absurd–can help move us out of a grim or anxious outlook.

“[Photography] takes me out of myself,” he said. “It helps me move from a sense of self-absorption to relating to the world around me.” His perspective offers a refreshing antidote to the craze of our age: the selfie.

During our discussion, Jonathan coined the term “self(less)ie,” something he defined as “a moment of ecstatic appreciation and a desire to share that moment.”

  • Practical Tip: Take a few moments to reflect on why you take pictures. What are the stories that you’re trying to tell? Are you successful using this measure?

> Of Impermanence and Grace

I’ve found that the greatest inhibitor to experiencing ecstatic appreciation in photography, or any creative work, is trying to capture a lasting record of a fleeting moment.

I’ve twice talked with Jonathan about this, and both times he’s spoken about serendipity. “For every moment I miss,” he said, “there are unexpected grace moments that I’m not expecting that occur as well.”

He described to me the exquisite joy of a kayak trip with his wife, meditation teacher Tara Brach. They were paddling down the Potomac in Virginia’s Riverbend Park at sunset when they encountered ten white egrets standing on the branch of a dead tree. With only moments of sunlight left and no time to check his camera’s settings, Jonathan snapped as many photos as he could with his big DSLR.

Later, he found the photos were better than he could have imagined or even tried for. If he had waited even a few minutes, the opportunity would have been lost. If he had snapped them a few moments earlier, the outcome would have been entirely different. There were so many factors out of Jonathan’s control, yet he ended up as happy as possible with the photographs he managed to capture. When I asked how he would describe the experience, he replied, “Grace is the word I come up with.”

  • Practical Tip: The next time you take a photograph that you’re especially happy with, try following the advice of Kurt Vonnegut and say aloud, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
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> Keep Going

Talking to Jonathan it’s obvious that photography as a spiritual practice is an exploration conducted over a lifetime.

And while he’s been grateful to have his camera with him in order to capture moments of grace in the endless stream of experience, he admits there are occasions when the best thing to do is put the camera down. “A number of times I travel without a camera, and it’s so ecstatic to not have that onus on myself to capture something worthwhile, to tell a story,” he said.

But it’s Jonathan’s commitment to mindfulness that returns him to a place of equanimity, or, in his words, brings him “back to that middle way that’s not too tight and not too loose.”

Through it all, the simple phrase that energizes Jonathan in his visual exploration has remained the same: “Keep going.” Even if he’s on a hike he’s made many times before, Jonathan asks himself, “Can I experience it [a]fresh? Can I see something I’ve never seen before?”

These are questions that we can happily spend a lifetime asking as we appreciate the grace of the moments when we have a camera to help us share the answers we find along the way.

  • Practical Tip: Whether you’re traveling or at home, challenge yourself to see in a different way. Enjoy the practice whether or not you have a camera to document it.

Jared Gottlieb is a storyteller and meditation teacher who happens to work in the Standards & Practices department at National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter: @JaredGottlieb.

Do you have tips for how to be mindful and present when you’re exploring the world? Share them with the Intelligent Travel community by leaving a comment below.

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