It’s long been a mystery to me as to where I fitted in the photographic world, something we were expected to think about in my OCA (Open College of the Arts) course. It was clear to me that I certainly wasn’t a good fit with the kind of intellectually-based, conceptual practice the courses encouraged, but I wasn’t comfortable with or interested in the traditional approach either, with its emphasis on a particular kind of technical and aesthetic perfection.
I knew there was something in the way that I went about photography that felt right to me, but it was hard to pinpoint what that was exactly. It rarely involved much planning, and my best results would usually happen when I went out with an open mind and allowed things to present themselves to me. These might later be formed into some kind of project or series, but they started out as a pure reaction to something I saw. If I tried to do the kind of planning and conceptualising that I felt I should be doing, the results were always disappointing, and I’ve always been more interested in the freshness or emotion of the image than in its technical perfection.
I came across the practice of contemplative photography a while ago but for some reason it’s taken till now for me to recognise that this is my niche. So what is it? Like many things, it’s hard to put into words, so here are just a few of the things that characterise it:
-it encourages you to see in fresh ways, unhampered by expectations and ideas about what makes good and bad subject matter
-it places as much emphasis (more, really) on the process of photographing as it does on the end result
-it regards technology as a useful tool, but something to learn and absorb so that it becomes unconscious and never gets in the way of making the picture
-it doesn’t stop to consider the reactions of potential viewers, only the fulfilment got from creating the images
–it doesn’t plan, but makes itself open to whatever presents itself
-it allows images to come to it, rather than regarding them as something to be hunted or captured; it’s receptive rather than forceful
-it aims for a ‘flow’ state while photographing, so that the photographer is totally engrossed in seeing and recording what they see
-it tends to result in images that are ambiguous, abstract, graphic, or dreamy rather than straightforwardly representational
What does this mean in a practical sense? It means heading out without any preconceived ideas about what to photograph, and being open to whatever comes your way. It means not classifying what you see into beautiful and ugly, or desirable and undesirable, or regarding one kind of light as better than another. It relies on what’s come to be called a ‘flash of perception’ where you suddenly see something in a way you never have before and then get so swept up in it that you lose all track of time and place. It’s unplanned and spontaneous. It’s what I’ve always done, naturally – I just didn’t know it.
The images in this post came about this way. We were wandering around Rye Harbour and I was enjoying taking the shots I was taking, but then suddenly I noticed something I hadn’t seen before even though I’d been walking past it for quite some time – the top of every piling on the pier had colourful paint splashes and metal brackets on them that combined to make up wonderful abstracts. Suddenly I was away – I spent the next forty minutes taking these shots and you couldn’t have got me away from there for a champagne supper with George Clooney. I was oblivious to anything except creating these images, totally swept up in the moment. I’m quite sure that many people would prefer the other images I shot that day, but these are the ones that gave me huge pleasure to make and to look at afterwards.
This is where I see my future, photographically. I’m working on developing a series of workshops that introduce people to the practice of contemplative photography,and I can see two different but overlapping approaches. The first would be aimed at photographers who want to develop a fresher, more spontaneous way of seeing, and the second would be to use photography therapeutically. The contemplative approach is really photography as the practice of mindfulness, and like mindfulness that’s practised in other ways and contexts, it can help with all sorts of emotional and stress-related problems. Both would be about learning to stop over-thinking and start responding on an intuitive level.
I’ve been in touch with someone in Leicester who’s experienced in both these fields, and she’s given me invaluable help and advice. My first move forward will be to set up a non-profit group where I can gain experience with some of the exercises I have in mind and see how they work out in practice. I hope to get that started very soon. It scares me a bit – can I do this? am I the right person to do this? – but they do say that if a new venture doesn’t scare you just a little, then it isn’t challenging enough.