Mindful Photography: Finding Presence Through the Lens

By David Becker

Thanks to modern technology, taking photos is such a simple task that we rarely put much thought into it. All we need to do is pull out our phones, point them at something, and quickly snap a photo just by tapping on the screen. And we don’t even have to worry about wasting film, so there’s no need to put a lot of careful thought into making sure we get the photo just right.

Long before digital cameras and smartphones made photography so effortless and convenient, Ansel Adams commented on how easy it is to just go “snap, snap, snap” and take a bunch of photos to quickly capture a memory. However, he advocated a more thoughtful and creative approach. A legendary innovator in artistic photography, Adams pioneered the concept of visualization, which entails seeing your photo in your mind’s eye and “feeling it” before you actually click the shutter. The goal is to capture not just an external event, but also the internal event that occurs in the photographer’s mind as he or she takes the photo. Quoting fellow artistic photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Adams said, “I give [the photograph] to you as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.” His approach resulted in phenomenally beautiful images that continue to evoke strong emotional reactions from their viewers to this day.

Adams’s visualization technique can be seen as a precursor to mindful photography, a meditative exercise developed by psychiatrist and photographer M. Lee Freedman. In her book A Practical Guide to Cultivating Therapeutic Presence, clinical psychologist Shari Geller (2017) offers this exercise as a way to cultivate a greater sense of presence in our daily lives. By presence, Geller means “(a) being grounded and centered in yourself, while (b) feeling deeply immersed in the moment, with (c) a larger sense of expansion or spaciousness” (p. 4). Mindful photography in particular teaches us how to shift from an immersive experience, in which we become cognizant of fine details, to a more expansive awareness of the big picture. It means seeing both the forest and the trees—perhaps even each individual leaf as well.

Black and white image of a lake with snow capped mountains in the background.

In her book, Geller lays out each step of the mindful photography exercise, which can be done with any sort of camera, whether a digital SLR or a mobile phone:

  1. Pause and take three full breaths, feeling your feet on the ground.
  2. Go for a walk, or look around your current space, to find three objects or images: one that you are attracted to, one you have an aversion to, and one you feel neutral about.
  3. Beginning with the first object or image of something you are attracted to, look through your camera’s viewfinder and notice what you see. Be curious about this object. Allow yourself to receive the image rather than looking out at it.
  4. Now either zoom in or move your body physically closer to the object, focusing on one aspect. Notice what is calling your attention to the subject as you zoom in closer.
  5. Now zoom your lens out, or move your body further away from the image. Look and feel, with curiosity, your relationship with this image.
  6. Walk further away and then pause to look at the image with your eyes or the viewfinder.
  7. Now move closer to the image with your body and/or the viewfinder of your camera. How does this image look or feel different or the same? What do you feel in your body as you use the camera or your body movements to see this object from different vantage points?
  8. Repeat this practice with an image of something you feel averse to and something you feel neutral about. Notice how your perspective, feeling, or relationship with the object may change as you see what is present before you from different perspectives. (pp. 187–188)

Like Ansel Adams, the mindful photographer develops a deep connection with his or her subject. This creates a powerful, mind-opening experience for the photographer that is translated into a beautiful image for others to enjoy as well. In capturing the photographer’s internal event, the resulting photo can also cultivate presence in its viewers, especially those who view it mindfully and take the time to really internalize the image.

References

Geller, S. (with Siegel, D. J.). (2017). A practical guide to cultivating therapeutic presencehttps://doi.org/10.1037/0000025-000