June 18, 2012

Contemplative Photography Without a Camera

My husband and I live a ten-minute drive from our town's botanical gardens. I've wanted to visit the gardens since we moved into our house two years ago. Sometimes I'm slow to act unless the universe puts something is put right in front of me.

Which is what happened yesterday. A few classmates from a photography class I took this spring suggested we spend an hour at the gardens with our cameras. The universe was putting something in front of me, and I said 'yes.'

When the six of us arrived we spent a few minutes talking about what we hoped to get from the outing. Two of the women had just read a book about the practice of contemplative photography.* They talked a little about the concepts outlined in the book, many of them based on mindfulness practices. These included stepping back from the urge to frame a photo until you've taken the subject in fully through your own unfiltered senses.

The guidelines don't apply in all circumstances, of course. Contemplative photography, as the phrase suggests, is meant for places that offer opportunities for reflection. We'd picked the perfect spot for experimenting. Each of us set off in a different direction and agreed to meet back in an hour.

The gardens are a lush sheltered oasis at the center of one of the town's liveliest areas. After only a few minutes, I noticed that what I'd heard at first as traffic noise was no longer noise, just sound. I'd settled quickly into my surroundings.

After ten minutes of looking and ambling, I raised my camera to focus on a greying wooden bridge spanning a small stream. I pressed the shutter once, paused, then pressed again for a backup shot. The "low battery" light next to the viewfinder started to blink, and my "smart" camera shut itself down.

"Damn!," I thought. "Why didn't I remember to charge the battery last night? Or the day before? I've known about this visit for a week!"  "Everybody will think I'm an idiot," I went on. "My first time in the gardens and THIS happens!" I continued like this for another minute or two. At least.

If this approach is foreign to you because your mind doesn't construct such unhelpful, self-scolding chatter, I bow to your wisdom and maturity. For me, unfortunately, these monologues are all too familiar.

Thankfully, the earlier conversation about mindfulness came to my rescue. After some more (virtual) foot stomping, my next thought surprised me: not being able to use my camera was o.k.--not only o.k., it was a good thing.

The universe was speaking, and I listened.

It told me that on this, my first visit to this wondrous place, I didn't have to do anything but enjoy its treasures. I put away my camera, stopped berating myself for what I hadn't done (charged the battery) and what I couldn't do (shoot pictures), and wandered the trails for the next 45 minutes without an agenda. I was being contemplative without a camera.

There was much to learn and see.  I savored the names of the plants I came across: Turk's Cap Lily, Eastern Shooting Star, Sweet Cecily, even Paw Paw. I liked the images the plants evoked: the thick mop of thin, curving leaves of the Hairgrass reminded me of a vigorous orchestra conductor's bobbing head. And who knew that the Paw Paw tree is a member of the custard-apple family?

Back at our meeting spot, the experience I shared wasn't about my initial irritation at having to give up my plan, but about my delight in what I'd encountered. "This was a wonderful introduction to the gardens," I said, and meant it.

Sometimes life takes things out of our hands. If you're anything like me, the thought of this gives you the emotional equivalent of hives. 

And yet, when it happens, when we're faced with a situation that frustrates us or something that interferes with our plans, we can choose how we respond and what happens next. We can decide to stay with the our negative feelings or move beyond them.

I don't always make the wise choice, but I feel better and lighter when I consciously shift gears than when I revert to auto-pilot and stay stuck in my anger or annoyance. How about you? What do you do to get un-stuck when things don't go your way?

*The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes
Image by Clara Boza, for use under a Creative Commons License.


  1. Clara, love this post! Good for you! I would have gone off the deep end.

    A few years ago, I signed up for a photography retreat with my friend and artist Catherine Anderson. As I took the Black Mountain exit, almost to the retreat center, I realized that I had not brought my battery charger and hadn't charged my battery in a while. I panicked, drove around looking for a Walmart, but also thinking Walmart will not have my specific Canon charger, and generally driving myself nuts. I prayed that one of the retreat participants would have a charger that would be the right brand/make for my camera. What idiot goes to a photography RETREAT without a battery charger??? I called myself every terrible name in the book. Totally stressed out just in time to start a retreat. Best photography advice I've ever gotten was to buy a camera grip that holds two batteries, plus back up AA's.

    Camera advice aside, I love how you made lemons out of lemonade in this experience. If we can remember to just stop and BE where we are, things can look different. Last week at the beach, when it was cloudy and rainy, I practiced "going with the flow." I went to an art gallery I had been wanting to visit; I stopped by the road and took a picture of a dock over the sound, I went back home and read a book. At each moment I said to myself, What can I do at this moment to enjoy the place I am in right now? And it worked, it was such a pleasure.

  2. One more thought - have you read "God is at Eye Level- Photography as a Healing Art?

    One of my favorite quotes: "...I realize it was not only the power of the images themselves, but the very act of focusing, of being totally attentive, that comforted me. When I look through my lens now, focused only on what is before me, I am grounded and healed in that same wonderful way. My vision is clear, and I am one with whatever I am looking at....not alone, not apart from, not afraid. Full of joy, as we all can be, when we look with the eyes of a child, in rapt attention."

    No camera required for any of that.

  3. What a wonderful quote, Jeri! There is indeed great healing when we let go of what we think "should be" and welcome "what is."