Contemplative/mindful photography

12 x 12 Challenge 01

Bird with telephone wires

I’ve never been terribly on the ball when it comes to doing photo challenges or entering competitions, or otherwise making the effort to put myself out there.  Last year I got interested in the 52 x 52 photo challenge, but the photos had to be taken during the week of the challenge – no archived ones allowed – and I knew I’d never get my act together enough to get something sorted in a week.  I might have managed it once or twice, but I know myself well enough to know that I would never keep it up.  It was a shame, because the challenges were good – well thought out and interesting, rather than just asking for photos on a theme.

This year, however, it’s a 12 x 12 which means that you get a whole month to come up with something, process it, and upload it to the Flickr group.  Now, that I can do – there’s a much bigger chance of it happening, anyway.  You’re allowed to upload up to five images for each challenge, which I also like as I prefer to work in series rather than one-offs.  The challenge was this:

Take a route you’re familiar with but have never photographed along and photograph someone or something every 100 or so steps.
– Vanessa Winship

I’ve never photographed in the street where I lived, so I thought a simple walk round the block would be the way to go, especially as I’d just written a post on that theme a few days ago.  I’d had a few thoughts about what might work, but mostly I wanted to allow whatever presented itself to become my subject.  I also didn’t want to produce random shots, but a small collection that would hang together in some way.

I’m a little obsessed with skies at the moment – I think looking into the sky has become my substitute for gazing out to sea – so I found myself looking up a lot, and every time I did I saw telephone wires. After a while, the gracefulness of the lines began to speak to me.  Initially I took lots of images where the tops of the telephone poles were included, because I thought these looked interesting due to the complex arrangement of lines where they joined the pole, but somehow these didn’t work so well.  I began experimenting with the framing, and decided in the end that very simple arrangements of lines with the sky behind them had a minimalism that was quite effective.  And of course, I had to do one with a tree.

I’m not sure that any one of these images holds enough interest on its own, but I do feel they work well as a set.  I’ve posted them on Flickr, and if you go to the album page you can see them all at once on the page:  This was my final selection of five – I took loads more, and I spent longer narrowing them down than I did taking them.

I didn’t use up much time on this at all – I was out walking for maybe half an hour at most – and it was surprisingly enjoyable.  I’m looking forward to seeing what the second challenge is – with a little voice in the back of my head going ‘please don’t let it be portraits’!


Sky with converging telephone lines

Sky with telephone lines

Tree with telephone lines

Dramatic sky with telephone lines

The invisible gorilla experiment, and taking your camera for a walk

Have you heard of the Invisible Gorilla experiment? The video below shows six people passing a basketball around, three of them dressed in white shirts and three in black.  The experiment involves watching the video, and counting the number of throws the white-shirted players make.  At one point, a gorilla will walk through the middle of the players and out the other side – it appears on the screen for nine seconds in total.  Do you think you would see it?

I’d heard of this experiment on selective attention years ago, but never had the opportunity to try it.  I naturally thought – like most people do – that there would be no way that I’d miss something like that.  In practice, though, half the people in the experiment never noticed the gorilla at all.  I did, but I almost missed it, not noticing it till it was leaving, and that’s with knowing beforehand what was going to happen.  Had I not known I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen it at all.  It’s a great demonstration of the fact that, to a large extent, we only see what we look for.

I read Alexandra Horowitz’s book, On Looking: Eleven walks with expert eyes recently.  It’s a fascinating read.  She recruited a variety of experts in different fields – including her dog (expert in smells) and her toddler (expert on novelty and newness) – and went with them on a walk round the block.  Each of them experienced the block entirely differently, through the filter of whatever their expert area was.  A geologist saw fossils embedded in the stonework of the buildings; a naturalist saw traces left by the city’s wildlife; a typographer noticed font use on lettered signs; a physical therapist noticed how people walked; and so it went on.

On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

I’m a big fan of going back to the same place time and again to see and photograph whatever there is to see there.  I’d love to have someone point things out to me the way that Horowitz’s experts did, but even without the benefit of having an expert on hand, boredom can be used in a positive way to ensure that you see something different each time if you only open yourself up to looking.

It’s the opening yourself up that’s the difficult part.  It’s easy to dismiss somewhere familiar, or not obviously of interest, and switch off from it altogether, but by cultivating a curious open-mindedness, you’ll begin to see in ways that mean you’ll never find anywhere boring again.  This is the gift you receive if you’re willing to make the effort.  It’s the very opposite of the person who walks down the road, twiddling buttons on their mobile phone, oblivious to what’s around them.

However, it does prompt the question of how to cultivate this open looking, as it’s not so easy to achieve when you’re new to it.  The trick is to use little exercises that guide you in the right direction, and I have a few right here.  Some I’ve used on myself and on others, some I haven’t tried yet.

You can start by looking for a specific thing.  Windows are popular, as are doors, or you could look for a particular colour, but there are many other options.  Here’s a couple that might not occur to you:

Car lights – if you look at the brake lights or headlights of every car you walk past, you’ll see just how different they are from each other.  Some have amazing patterns and colours in them, and if you were to zoom in on them and crop them from the car, composing carefully, you can make wonderful abstracts.  Looked at closely, car lights are incredibly beautiful things!


Bricks – yes, that’s right.  Start looking at all the brickwork you pass and I guarantee you’ll begin to see extraordinary colours and amazing patterns and textures.  You can extend it to looking at bricks that have paint marks or graffiti or stains on them, or bricks with foliage growing on them, but really, bricks by themselves are surprisingly interesting and varied.

Coloured brickwork

Use your imagination to come up with other things to look for.  Sometimes it’s just a case of allowing things to catch your attention at random, and then waiting for a pattern to emerge, after which you start looking for them deliberately.  This is what launched my Fallen series.  Try looking at things above or below head height – we have a tendency not to do this and we miss huge amounts of interesting things.

But what else could you do with your walk round the block?

Take 50 steps and stop – find a photograph right where you are, without moving from the spot.  You’re allowed to twist, bend down, sit down, reach up, or swivel.  Repeat until you’ve had enough or arrive home again.

Use a random point generator – generate a small number of random points within a small area nearby.  Enter your postcode or place name, choose how many points you want to generate and what distance you want them to radiate from a central point, and click Get Random Points.  When they come up, they’ll show as latitude and longitude, but click on Show on Map to see where they are.  Go to those points and find some interesting photographs.

Change your mental perspective – how would your block look if you were photographing it for a tourist brochure? (if it’s not at all what tourists would come to see, then just think how you’d show it in its best light) Or to highlight deprivation and decay?  Or to document birds and wildlife?  Or to show the activities of dogs and their owners? Or to show the styles of architecture found there?  Perhaps you could create a portrait gallery of residents, or document front gardens.

Choose a word – choose an emotion word, such as ‘joy’, ‘sadness’, ‘hope’, ‘anger’, ‘apathy’, etc, and look for ways of expressing it photographically, using what you see on your walk.

If you like the idea of transforming a familiar walk into a photo project, and would enjoy sharing your experience with others, have a look at this month’s 12 x12 challenge on Flickr.

In the words of the organisers:

12 by 12 is a year-long series of photo-challenges set by renowned photographers. Every month a new challenge is issued and group members are invited to interpret it by submitting their responses on Flickr or Instagram.

The project aims to stretch its members creatively, encouraging experimentation in terms of approach as well as aesthetics. Community is an important aspect of 12 by 12 and the support of the group can be helpful to spur members on throughout the year.

This month’s project, which asks you to ‘take a route you’re familiar with but have never photographed along and photograph someone or something every 100 or so steps‘, runs until 2nd April so if you want to take part you need to get started now!  Even if you don’t want to participate, have a look at the pool of photos on Flickr to see just how varied they are.

The point with these exercises is not so much to end up with some great photos – that’s simply a nice side-effect – but to expand your ability to see what’s around you and interpret it photographically.  Although you’re looking in one particular way, you’ll find that you start seeing the overall potential in what, at first sight, might seem dull and uninteresting.  The image below is of a plastic bag that had blown into our front garden and then been rained on – there’s beauty to be found everywhere.

Plastic bag with raindrops

The contemplative photographer

Rye harbour abstract 1

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.

Rye Harbour abstract 4

Rye Harbour abstract 6

Rye harbour abstract 5

Rye Harbour abstract 7

Rye harbour abstract 8

The beauty of plastic

Asda bag 1

I don’t like plastic. I especially don’t like plastic when it’s been dumped and is classed as litter.  Even so, you just have to see some beauty in the fluid shapes formed by this torn Asda carrier bag, floating in the Marine Lake at West Kirby.  And if you abstract just one tiny piece of it, it has the look of a graceful and exotic jellyfish.

Asda bag 2

And it’s not the first time I’ve found plastic beautiful. When my friend Eileen visited recently, we got a bit lost looking for Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, and ended up at the (closed) public library instead.  We wandered round the outside before realising our mistake, and spotted these windows.  They had some kind of plastic coating on the inside that was beginning to peel off in interesting shapes.

Hawarden window

Hawarden window 2

This is what I love about photography. Where once I wouldn’t have given these things a second glance, or would simply have been upset about the dumping of non-degradable waste if I had noticed them, these days I’m able to see something wonderful in them as well.  Seems to me I’d do well to transfer that attitude to the rest of my life.