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‘Calm through the camera’ by Paul Sanders

3rd April 2019

It’s been well documented in several magazines now that I have suffered with mental health issues for the past few years and that photography has helped me at least get back on terms with them and find a calmer side to my life.

Mindfulness is the latest buzz word that many people are latching on to, and to be fair it is the right word to use when talking about photography or any creative art form. 

Firstly, let’s look at what “Mindfulness” means - Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is pretty much the developer of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), describes it as an awareness that is cultivated by ‘Paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally'. 

That sounds great but when we take or create images, most of us judge from the start. Many are mindless in their approach to shooting, all this means is that you miss the moments, in fact you actually miss the being there because you are more doing than being.

Looking back this concept is not new, in fact the true Masters of photography established the idea that to be in touch emotionally and spiritually with your subject made for significantly better images. 

“To photograph: it is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.” ― Henri Cartier-Bresson.

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” – Ansel Adams.

Minor White was a Zen master, using contemplative techniques to “see” - "Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.” ~ Minor White.

What has happened to us then? In short, we shoot in many ways to please others, we look for validation from social media and competitions, becoming judgmental on ourselves when we don’t win or receive enough likes. Some are obsessed with gear, the thinking that a good photographer has lots of kit or the biggest kit is simply wrong.

We all lead busy lives connected by the highest speed possible to every means of communication available. Everything clamors for our attention, texts, email, FB, Instagram and time simply slips through our fingers as we are texting or pressing “like”. We stop being in the present moment because we are worrying about the last one and the next one, never being grateful for the moment we are in.

If you start simply, mindfulness is to focus on a moment - a decisive moment - this one, you do that with your breath, breathe in and now breathe out slowly feel how the breath moves inside your body, as you release it feel your muscles relax. If you can do that without judging yourself on whether your mind wanders or you get distracted, you’re on your way.

When you apply this technique to photography it becomes wonderful. There are two essential keys, one is the seeing, that is to say, seeing your way and your place in the world you inhabit. 

The other is to see through the eyes of a beginner or a child, that way no moment is old, tired or judged in a negative way. Think of the excitement a child has when they see something new - they are truly present in that moment, no worry judgement or pressure.

I practice this on a daily basis, and it is very freeing, whether I am out with my GFX, my X100 or even my phone. The important thing is to throw off the fear of judgement and failure, photography is not a right or wrong art form. Yes, there are techniques and settings that we can master but actually they are the least important part. 

I rarely set a destination when I go out to take pictures, because often I see something on the journey that reveals itself to me and I stop and photograph it, that means to me anything further up the road wasn’t ready to be photographed. 

To find out more about Paul and the tours he is leading for Light and Land please click here.

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*Text and images provided by Paul Sanders.

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