Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his wonderful book The Miracle of Mindfulness, tells a story about eating a tangerine with a friend. To paraphrase: the friend was wolfing down the tangerine, not giving much thought to the simple act of eating a tangerine. Thây goes on to say that if you’re not eating the tangerine mindfully–thinking only of eating the tangerine as you eat it–then you’re not eating the tangerine. You’re ingesting whatever else is “on your plate” at the time. So you could be eating The Real Housewives of Azerbaijan, or drinking rush-hour traffic.
The same thing applies to photography. Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m some kind of Zen master. I’ve got monkey mind that’d do Curious George proud. I’d love to say that every time I leave my apartment with my camera, there’s an immediate and intense level of focus (that’s me, not the camera) on nothing but the myriad of sights around me, but I wouldn’t even fool myself saying that. It usually goes a bit more like this:
“Okay, that chipmunk’s a bit overexposed. Do I go with a faster shutter speed, or just use exposure compensation? Tweak the shutter speed. Nope. Still overdone. Overdone? I’m hungry, that’s what it is. Turkish? Is that Turkish place still – what, they serve pizza now? Okay, Greek?”
I’ll spare you the other 3,257 steps in the process. Suffice to say, I’m surprised that some of my flora and fauna don’t come out looking like kebabs, or newspapers, or whatever other digression wanders across my mind at any given time.
Speaking of digressions, let’s get back on topic. It isn’t just the distractions of everyday life. Sometimes, paradoxically, photography itself can be the distraction in your photography. If your last session didn’t go well – you were distracted, you couldn’t find anything that caught your eye, everything came out blurry, your batteries ran out in mid-shoot – it can be very easy to carry those frustrations into your next shoot. This doesn’t mean that you’re a lousy photographer; it means you’re a human being. We all do it. Try, though, to be mindful of it, and to cut it out when you find yourself doing it; it’s one thing to be diligent about avoiding the same mistakes, but it’s another to repeat them, or trade them for new ones, because you obsess over them.
And, strange as it may seem, your photos will look different if all you’re doing is paying attention to where you are and what you’re shooting. Being mentally absent from the process means you’ll also be absent from the end result; your photos could’ve been taken by anyone, with no particular skill or attention. But being present for your photos, and especially for your subjects (whether or not they’re human), means having more of yourself – your individuality, your unique “voice” – present in your photos. Stop shooting last night’s argument, tomorrow’s dinner date, the phone bill, or your uncomfortable shoes, and just be fully where you are in that moment.
Adapted from my other/earlier blog, A Slight Delay.