Camera As Begging Bowl

Be willing to be surprised.

There’s a practice in several religions, but closely associated with Buddhism, of monks who’ve taken a vow of poverty hitting the road with little more than the clothes on their backs, begging bowls in hand. Those who give to the monks earn the karmic merits of their kind deeds. The monk or mendicant relies on the kindness and benevolence of those they meet for their sustenance. I’d imagine they also learn pretty quickly to be grateful for whatever ends up in the bowl, since you never quite know where or when you might come by the next morsel, and you’re mindful that no matter how little you may have gotten, someone somewhere had less still.

All of this might seem a bit removed from the day-to-day concerns of a photographer. When you stop to think about it, though, we’re not that far from those monks. Our cameras don’t function on their own; they rely on our imagination and vision to bring them to life. That combination, of eye, mind, and camera, is in a very real sense our begging bowl; it’s empty, devoid of image, if you will, and we set out to see what the world will put in our bowl, hopefully taking only what we need, and being grateful for what the day brings.

It’s not always easy to approach photography like this. It’s one thing to pick up the camera with a sense of anticipation, maybe even excitement. It’s something else again when that anticipation turns to the expectation of a certain nebulous percentage of keepers, if not amazing shots. The problem with expectations is that at some point, usually sooner rather than later, they come face-to-face with reality. We hit creative blocks, we lose some of the inspiration that we’ve come to take for granted, or we run into external factors we can’t control, like bad weather, uncooperative lighting, or misbehaving equipment. Experience, which you’d think would help, sometimes only adds more hindrances. With time, we come to know what we envision, exactly how we want it to look, and exactly when we want it (now, though yesterday would be preferable).

Disappointment comes when we get attached to those expectations, and think that somehow the world will play along, forgetting that the world has bigger fish to fry. If the sun ducks behind a cloud and ruins the perfect, rich sidelighting you had, it’s not because the universe is conspiring against you. Letting go of those expectations leaves less of a chance that we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

I understand if you’re working on assignment, you generally have a specific timeframe in which to deliver some very specific images. If or when you’re just shooting for yourself, though, try something: pick up your camera with nothing in mind other than making photos. Nothing more specific than that. No cheating, either… “well, I’ll get one or two nice sunset shots, then see what else I get.” For once, let your mind be as empty of expectations as your memory card, and just see. Let your eyes, and life itself, guide you from one image to the next.

I remember seeing a billboard once that read, “No matter what you’re looking for, the real joy is finding something else.” It was probably for some mall or other, but as billboard philosophy goes, I thought it was pretty useful. Over the years, I’ve tried to apply it both to my writing, and to my photography. The result, I hope, has been a willingness to always go into a project with my eyes open, willing – even eager – to be surprised by what I find (or what finds me), even if that something wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Always have your beggar’s bowl of curiosity with you, ready to accept those daily surprises, those calls to mindfulness, with a glad heart and open hands.

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