It got me thinking about how buddhist teachings have shaped my life in general, and specifically how they’ve had played a role in my journey as a photographer.
Although I’m no expert, I know first hand that these four Buddhist concepts have the power to improve your photography.
1. Shoshin | beginner’s mind
Have you ever looked at a child and marvelled at the excitement, enthusiasm and openness with which they interact with their world? Since children are often interacting with things for the first time, they do so with a sense of curiosity.
Their lack of preconceptions allows them to see things from a completely different perspective and could be called a “beginner’s mind” – everything is new. In Zen Buddhism, this concept of “beginner’s mind” is Shoshin.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki
The practice of Shoshin is keeping the mindset of a beginner even in fields where you have knowledge or are an expert. This is achieved be having a sense of openness, eagerness and a lack of preconceptions.
Applying Shoshin to photography
If we think we have everything figured out, we get stuck in creative ruts. We arrive at a location and determine there aren’t any “photographic possibilities.” We look at our portfolio and feel that the images look too similar. We shut down creative ideas from others.
These creative blocks can be avoided by bringing the practice of Shoshin into your photography. Whether you have years of experience or you’re just starting out, keeping an open mind in your technical and artistic approaches will lead you to new results.
If you access your “beginners mind” you can be approach every situation with an attitude of curiosity and discovery.
Shoshin and my photography
When I started out in photography, I was trying anything and everything that I could. As I’ve become a more seasoned photographer, the “lessons” I’ve learned have both improved my work and become blinders.
Through my experiences as landscape photographer and by doing most of my learning online, golden hour is touted to have the best light – I’m sure you’ve probably heard something similar.
That assumption was turned on it’s head when I took Peter Coulson’s Natural Light Koukei workshop. Heading into it, I was surprised that the workshop took place between 10am and 2pm. I soon found out why.
As a fashion photographer, Peter actually prefers shooting during the middle of the day and said he never shoots during the golden hour. He knows how to use and find the light that he wants to create the look he’s going for at any time of day.
I’ve also been lucky enough to get to work with an amazing art director over the past few years; Morgan Wardropa. Working together has helped me realise that I don’t have all the answers.
Allowing myself to be open and eager to try her suggestions and be in inquiry when I’m not sure if I’m matching her vision has helped to elevate my photography.
2. Anitya | impermanence
Everything is in a constant state of flux; nothing is permanent. That’s the gist of the first of the three marks of existence according to Buddhism; Anitya.
Nothing has happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now. – Eckhart Tolle
There’s two sides of impermanence that I feel are very important.
- The Bad | When things aren’t going your way, knowing that things will change and both the situation and how you’re feeling about it are impermanent allows us to see that things will get better. That which pains us will pass.
- The Good | To some it can be sad to think that the good will pass just like the bad. A more powerful outlook would be to realise, truly appreciate and enjoy the good times when they do occur. If you waste your energy worrying about when the good will leave you, it’ll already be gone.
Anitya and the idea of impermanence means that all we ever have is the present moment.
Applying Anitya to photography
Being present and in the moment is an important practice for any photographer.
No matter how much planning you do before a shoot, once you’re there, you need to let go of what should be happening and work with what is happening. You need to be present with your subject and the conditions to make your vision a reality while staying open to those serendipitous moments.
Anitya and my photography
When I was traveling along the Great Ocean Road, I knew I wanted to have a photograph of the famous 12 apostles. Ideally it would be a photo that stands out from the plethora of photos already taken here.
I was only in the area for one night, so I only had one chance.
The whole day had been cloudy and it appeared that the sun wouldn’t show. I stayed patient and chose to stay in the hope that things would change – they did.
Of course that doesn’t mean that every time I wait I get the light I want. What it does mean is that with patience and perseverance, you can and will get a great photo.
The art of photography is so intertwined with the concept of Anitya, as it captures a moment in time from the point of view of the photographer who pressed the shutter. In that sense every photo is unique; some more than others.
The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box. – Henri Cartier Bresson
It’s this aspect of photography that I’m drawn to. The infinite forms of clouds is just one example of moments that cannot be re-created.
3. Duhkha | life is suffering
This noble truth of Buddhism isn’t meant to make you feed sad or depressed. Its aim is to remind us all that we will inevitably faced with unpleasant emotions.
Our sorrows provide us with the lessons we most need to learn. – Lama Surya Das
The attachment to specific results can be the source of aggravation. The attachment to temporary things (which is all things) that leads to dissatisfaction.
By accepting these emotions as they occur and not fighting them, they may pass quicker. Suffering is a part of life.
Applying Duhkha to photography
If you’re pursuing photography because you think it’ll make you happy all the time, you’re going to be disappointed.
Part of the artistic process is making mistakes. In my experience, that’s not fun.
I was amazed to read (in his book 50 Portraits), that even incredible photographer Gregory Heisler has similar feelings to me about the selection process:
The first edit of the whole shoot is usually disheartening, because I’m seeing all of the off moments and mistakes. By the second round, things are looking up […] and by the time [final selects] are completed, my optimism has been restored and I can live on to photograph another day. – Gregory Heisler
This isn’t the only suffering you may feel in your photographic journey. Other sources of Duhkha include:
- Things going wrong on set
- Weather not cooperating
- Camera gear failing or malfunctioning
- You not being on your game
- No connection with the subject
The list goes on; I’m sure you could add your own items to that list.
Duhkha and my photography
When we showed up to this shoot, there were a lot of things that weren’t working my way:
- It was very dark when we started shooting making it difficult to capture run
- The waterfall we were expecting to see nearby was only a trickle
- I wasn’t finding the angles and compositions I was happy with
I kept at it and through the process worked towards this shot:
Duhkha also applies to the artistic and business sides of photography. If you’re like me, you probably struggle with where you assess your work to be artistically and where your business stands in terms of success.
There are times that I hate my photographs. There are times when I feel unsuccessful in building the body of work and supporting business and just want to give up.
That’s when the concept of Antiya can be helpful; the knowledge that the negative feelings I’m having will pass.
4. Anatman | you’re always changing
Although it may appear that we don’t change, the truth is that we’re changing all the time; that’s Anatman. The cells in our bodies our being constantly replaced and the thoughts and beliefs in our mind evolve.
We are […] transforming and continuing in a different form at every moment. – Thich Nhat Hanh
No matter how we define ourselves, that definition will change over time; sometimes quickly and sometimes so slowly that it may be imperceptible.
Applying Anatman to photography
Finding your style is a common conversation among photographers. It can be hard to define your style because you don’t always see how your thoughts and ideas about the world shape your own photography.
The other reason that style is hard to define is because it is constantly evolving just like the rest of you. It’s a moving target that you may get close to, but could stay elusively out of reach.
Anatman and my photography
I still feel like the same person, because I’m me. However if I look at my outlook on life, beliefs and even my photography it is clear that I’m different.
Looking at the work that I’ve created over the past few years of working for lululemon athletica, it obvious that I’m a different photographer. When I first started shooting the local product notification images for the store in Banff I was working for, I was still shooting jpeg only!
I’ve learned so much from my readings into Buddhism that help me deal with the up and downs of daily life that I never stopped to think about how it impacts my photography as well.
Here’s a quote from the Dalai Lama that helps me stay present on shoots:
If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever. – Dalai Lama
I hope this post gave you some new things to consider. What teachings help you to be successful in your photography?