Monday, September 19, 2016

Buddhism and Photography

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.


  1. Replace "love" ("Liebe") with "compassion" ("Mitgefühl") - then the opposition between "love" and "hate" is resolved.

    That being said, this is a very interesting essay. As you probably know, I'm into portraying places and landscapes. What you described here is what I call "getting into the zone". For me, this means to become totally immersed into the environment and the moment. When something strikes me, I'll just take the picture without giving a second thought; I also try to take it easy on "composition" and avoid to "work the scene". It doesn't happen on each outing - I don't know what makes it happen, and I don't want to know. I've had it more than once that I was so wet and frozen through after an outing that I had difficulty driving home safely - I didn't notice this while in the field.

    I think you're spot on about the emotional connection. For this reason, I wouldn't want to "go pro". I can't imagine to photograph a wedding of some people unfamiliar to me, or to take a portrait of someone I don't like.

    Best, Thomas

  2. I like what Thomas Rink has to say about love vs. compassion. That's precisely the word that sums up how I feel about the people that I photograph, whether it's for professional or personal projects. It's a much smaller gap to bridge than love. And passion for what I do, and of doing it to the best of my ability covers the rest of the equation.

    I read that book about 20 years ago, and it resonated with me. It's hard to do day to day, but when I make photographs I fall right into the groove each and every time. Even when it's a subject that I don't necessarily love, but as a pro who has to deliver on each and every assignment, the passion is about making the very best image or set of them that I can possibly produce no matter what the situation is.

    Going pro, being a pro, is an exercise in daily mindfulness. You have to care, deeply, about what you're doing and even find a way to care about each and every subject. Otherwise you'll be a hack who delivers perfunctory and charmless images with a proficient technique. Passion helps one transcend situations that might otherwise be dull, makes me work harder, and relieves me of the need for inspiration.

    Compassion allows me to connect with my subjects on a basic human level. I may not even interact with them, but the act of noticing people and acknowledging their existence by making an honest photograph of them is an act of compassion.

    However, I mostly care about people. I don't give much of a hoot about landscapes or pretty flowers. I used to work as a photographer at Tiffany's in NYC shooting all of their fancy stuff. I didn't care a lick about any of it, and the thought of spending my life photographing stuff that was irrelevant to my life seemed absurd. So I quit a perfectly good job after six months, even though I was good at it, and they wanted me to stay. I'm glad I left and have been able to spend my life photographing people instead.

  3. It is during the taking of a portrait of someone you don't like where an understanding of Buddhism might come in most valuable...

  4. I'm a photographer since 1988, and a buddhist since 1998, and you got it right :)

  5. After months or years, if you need life inspiration, watch a video by Ellen Langer, it's mindfulness from the psychologist's perspective, it's 3 small sentences.
    One to deal with things you don't want to do:
    Make it new in subtle ways only you would know

    One to handle mistakes (don't call them that):
    Ask yourself, in what context is the thing you created a success?
    It's a different way of expressing the concept of Kintsugi, I believe.

    One to always carry with you:
    Notice new things