Photography as Mindfulness Practice

Stop where you are! Can you take a great picture, right here and now, with only your cell?

I took Photography through high school and spent countless hours of my adolescence in the darkroom, then rarely took a photo for 15 years after graduating. Little has stuck with me, but this: The school had 3-4 SLR cameras which could be signed out, but exclusively for use on school property; they couldn’t be taken home. When students would complain about this to the instructor, citing the lack of inspirational scenery in the parking lot outside the classroom, he would inevitably reply, “I could walk out there right now and find a great picture in 5 seconds.”

My photography teacher was a short, enormous man with a kindly smile and a mild temperament. I took him at his word: I believe he really he could have stepped outside and found a great picture in 5 seconds. And I know that I lack that ability: I didn’t have it then and I don’t have it now. The temptation is to think, Well, but my camera doesn’t have enough megapixels or The lighting is poor or There’s nothing interesting to shoot.

More often than not, excuses of this sort are failures of imagination. Remember that creativity is born of constraint. If you can’t do anything with what you have here and now, then it wouldn’t really matter if you had the finest Leica camera at golden hour on the Serengeti; you would be equally ineffectual.

What I enjoy about photography, as a particularly amateurish amateur, is that it helps to cultivate mindfulness. You must get out of your head and pay attention to the details and possibilities that surround you. What are you seeing? What is the camera seeing? What does this moment feel like? To make the most out of the constraints you face, you must first see them as they are, not as you fear them to be.

A photographer, then, is at once both a prisoner and a prison guard. A photograph both captures and frees.