The world clamors for our attention and technology demands our hard-earned money, but what has happened to the quality of the experience and the investment in ourselves? Our time is now owned by social media, competitions, and the need to prove how good and well-received our images are, usually to the detriment of the images and our self-confidence.
We live in a visual world where the demand for our attention is a tsunami of imagery filling our screen, phones, inboxes, and each of these things — like a spoilt child — wants more from us, including likes, comments, and feedback. Some friendships suffer if you fail to “like” an image on the social media feed of a “friend.” The rise of the selfie stick seems to be based on few people having real friends or experiencing things with their friends, so there is no one else to take the image or enjoy the moment with, meaning it is shared with faceless people who compare pictures with envious green eyes.
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Strangely, the boom of photography since the smartphone-enabled everyone to be a photographer to some degree. The thing that has been forgotten is the image and the experience.
Photography has become a way of boasting about one’s life, travels, and meals. We have become a world of me, me, me, look at me and my images. If at first you don’t get the response you want then turn up the saturation and clarity to shout ME, ME, ME LOOK AT ME!
As someone who in the past viewed around 20,000 images every day in my role as picture editor of The Times in London, I’ve always held the view that those who shout the loudest have the least to say.
In the daily race to collect followers, likes, and virtual fame, while some brag about who supports their work, photographers seem to be (to me at least) losing the point of photography.
I too have been one of those photographers. In my early days as a news photographer, it was always about my image, my view, my show in the papers, and my ego would often get in the way of a great image!
Ego often gets in the way of image creating these days too. We only judge how good an image is when a certain number of people like it.Stop wishing for more, better, bigger; accept what you have and be grateful for that moment.
Over the last six years, I have changed the way I approach my photography and the way I receive my images. I stopped taking commissions from clients about four years ago. I won’t shoot for money anymore. In fact, the very thought of shooting for a client now fills me with the kind of dread I used to feel when I was at The Times.
Although I class myself as a professional — someone who earns their living from their craft — I am now to all intents and purposes an amateur. “Amateur” is derived from the Latin verb amare — to love — and the important thing for me is that I love what I do, what I see and most importantly what I experience. The success of an image is irrelevant.
The images I create now are based purely on my reactions to the world around me. They are made as a collaboration between me and the subject, usually a landscape but occasionally people.
Seven years ago, I had a nervous breakdown caused mainly by the pressure I was under at work, so I chose to leave the vicious media world and pursue a career as a landscape photographer. It wasn’t long before I realized that landscape photography was possibly the most fruitless and difficult genres of photography.
I chased around well-known locations trying to recreate images that had been created by photographers I respected, only to come away feeling more depressed and judgmental about myself and my work.In the daily race to collect followers, likes, and virtual fame, while some brag about who supports their work, photographers seem to be (to me at least) losing the point of photography.
Quietly in the background, I had been shooting images that reflected my battle with depression and poor mental health. These images resonated with me in such a way that made me tingle, but I couldn’t recapture that in my more commercial work. Why?
Well, it may seem obvious to those of you reading this, but I wasn’t putting anything of myself into the commercial work. It lacked soul, certainly my soul!
I began to allow my emotions and reactions to guide my work, and I can tell you it was a huge battle because as creatives we are all insecure at some level.
My journey into mindful and contemplative photography began and with it the road to recovery from my mental health issues.
“Mindfulness,” by its definition, means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose and non-judgmentally.
As photographers, we can all relate to that, because to create images we have to develop that approach. Apart from the last bit, we are judgmental about our work and that of others.
The sad thing about photography and especially landscape photography is that we all want to create that incredible image we have seen taken by someone else. We drive thousands of miles to a single location then, on arrival, instantly start judging the location by light, weather and any number of factors. En route to the location we have driven past countless places crying out to be photographed, but no, we are determined to reach our destination.
The first thing we have to let go of if we want to shoot in a mindful way is our ego, our need to win competitions, get likes on social media, or be accepted by salons and galleries. But the exterior validation of our work is not going to bring lasting happiness. Pleasure? Yes, for a short while, but the pressure mounts as you try to outdo your previous performance or worse, shoot for the audience you have generated.
In my personal battle with my self-esteem and insecurity, I have found that the greatest happiness comes from shooting images that reflect my state of mind and emotional reaction to something. Happiness means connection. When I connect with my subject and vice versa, then something magical happens.
The magical bit is called “Flow.” There’s been a lot written about Flow States, but essentially it’s when time stands still while you and your subject become absorbed in each other.
You cannot enter this state if you are being judgmental about the light or location, nor will you feel the wonderful freeing sensation if you are expecting the image to win competitions. It certainly isn’t about kit, either.I chased around well-known locations trying to recreate images that had been created by photographers I respected, only to come away feeling more depressed and judgmental about myself and my work.
Contemplative photography is about love, gratitude, and appreciation of what is around you, wherever you are. It’s found in the very simplest of things.
I approach my craft in a very particular way. I spend time silently listening, waiting for a subject to whisper to me. For me, photographs are gifts given because of being quiet and paying attention to the space I occupy.
So many of us get tied up in the technical side of the art, pixels especially, sharpness and dynamic range, but I do not care about any of it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all those things get in the way of the pure craft of seeing and creating images.
Photography is not technical or visual but entirely visceral, it has to be. When you go out into the landscape, there are images everywhere. Some you see, but most come from combining every emotion and sense into a single moment that encapsulates everything you are and that the subject offers at a particular time. No one else can create or see that image because they aren’t you with your emotional baggage, spiritual awareness and way of seeing.
As human beings, we often hide our vulnerability from the world, but through photography, you can share your doubts, insecurities, fears, joy, laughter and love with the world. Photography didn’t give me a way to see the world. It gave me a way of talking to the world about my depression because of how I see myself reflected in the subjects I shoot.
I make myself vulnerable when I am out with my camera. I allow thoughts to come and go, just like the clouds. How I shoot reflects the way I feel or the way I intend to feel. I often start out thinking I’m looking for a certain type of image but when something else pops up and draws my attention, I stop and sit with this thought and look around to see what might have been a trigger for that item waving its hand at me.
Many of the images I create now are within ten minutes of my home. Unless I am working somewhere, I refuse to travel huge distances to find moments to photograph. My eyes have been opened to the beauty on my doorstep. So many of us take the area around our home or office for granted but just by opening your heart, mind, and eyes you can discover a wealth of subjects all crying out for your attention.
The decisive moment is the moment you are in; that applies most powerfully to photography. The images you create are your life, your emotions, and your reactions. Stop wishing for more, better, bigger; accept what you have and be grateful for that moment.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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About the author: Paul Sanders is a fine art photographer, Fujifilm ambassador, speaker and photography mentor. Paul is passionate about the benefits of photography to mental health and wellness. Paul writes: “I’m absolutely passionate about the power that photography has to help people overcome anxiety, and to positively adjust their outlook on life. Still brings together my love for landscape photography and my personal experience of using photography for wellbeing, offering you a new way to use photography to express yourself and explore the world.”