I am reading a little of Thich Nhat Hanh on someone's advice, by way of learning better to deal with some stress I am having in my life, which is neither here nor there. This fellow is a Vietnamese monk known, apparently, for writing masses of books which render some facets and ideas in Buddhism accessible to westerners. I'm not going to become a Buddhist, but I do need to learn better how to relax.
The constant theme in this little volume Peace is Every Step is mindfulness, being aware of the present moment, and of being at peace with it, being connected to whatever is here. Being, if you will, a little in love with whatever is present in this moment.
Wow, I said to myself, that's photography.
If photography is anything, it is about now and here this very moment, this very place. That's kind of the point. No other medium is like this (well, video, something something, let's move on)
The connection between photography and Buddhism seems to me two-fold. First, to take a picture that's much of anything, you do need to be present in that mindful way. You can't be dwelling on the past, thinking about the future, lost in the far-away. You have to be here, right now. You have to be fully aware. Nhat Hanh's idea of presence is a little different, in that it's in all directions and all senses all at once. It's a full-body experience. The photographer typically refines it down to a little rectangle, and mostly sight alone. We might, though, do well to open up and consider the other senses, and other directions even as we shoot in this one.
The second point of connection is the notion that you are part of the world, that you are one with what surrounds you, that you naturally love it, if only you open yourself.
I had an interesting experience recently on this front. I am working on a thing for another venue, about inspiration and eureka moments. I decided to do a "worked example" and write about it. My subject was an empty beer bottle, and I wrestled my way through a concept and some photographs and came up with a perfectly reasonably, if somewhat Artsy, series of photographs.
But I didn't much like the pictures, after a while. Couldn't put my finger on it.
Finally I realized that I had no particular love for the empty (fill it, now, and we have a different story!) and so the pictures were kind of dead, to me at any rate.
I went and found an equally mundane object in the house, one that I do have an emotional connection to, one that I love, and re-did the exercise. Lo, the pictures were much better.
Now, I am not convinced by Nhat Hanh entirely. I'm not sure that it's actually a worthwhile goal to be at all times filled with peace (although we could all surely use a bit more of it), and I am likewise not convinced that love is the only emotion that will make your pictures good.
What is true is that love is the easiest one to use. If you love something, or someone, it's easy to look at them, you want to be near them, the whole process of taking the pictures is eased and pleasant. If you hate something, you don't even want to be there, you don't want to forge the necessary connection -- and the connection must be forged.
This is something to ponder, I think. Perhaps even experiment with. To shoot something I hate, must I find something in it to love? Or can I find a way to the picture by some other path?
The one thing I know is that if you don't care much either way, the pictures aren't going to be worth anything.