Mindfulness and photography.

Images from Grapes of Wrath

I was having lunch with two creative directors yesterday. We were eating tacos at one of my favorite new (to me) restaurants, Garrido's. At some point we started talking about lost skill sets and the march of progress. There seems to be a thread of thought these days that goes something like this: "People will always chose a lesser product or service if it's easier to use and cheaper."

It's no big news when people who've been in a business for a generation or two start to bemoan the current state of the industry and then compare it to how things were in the good old days. But one of us postulated that, the process drives the creativity.  It's also true when stated the other way around. Creativity can drive the process. What we mostly agreed upon was the idea that making a process quicker and easier generally lessens the amount of thought and effort, trial and error, and experimentation that goes into it. Being able to separate the creation of photograph from the compulsion to "fix" what has already been created, through the use of filters and post processing also diminishes the authenticity of the process.

I'm not sure it's the new tools or the easy laziness of software dependence that's to blame for all the boring photography I see all over the place as much as I think it's a result of a society that's lost the ability to really concentrate and be in the moment when they are working. Even when we are working on our own creative projects. There are so many distractions. The ubiquity of the cellphone creates an anticipatory existence wherein we are constantly poised and on alert for the next text or phone call. The brain becomes bifurcated and thought diluted.

While everyone under thirty (forty?) will rush to demagogue this statement I really believe that at the point in our collective history when we allowed ourselves to be 100% available to everyone else we lost our ability to be 100% available to our own selves and our own processes. When we acquiesced to the concept of being "on call" we lost our ability to be really "mindful" about anything in our lives.

It's not digital cameras or online sharing that's causing our pleasure in seeing images to evaporate it's just our sudden (one decade) inability to concentrate fully on either the creation or the enjoyment anymore. It's the same mindset as sitting in a theater watching a movie and compulsively texting to find out what everyone else is doing now and what they will be doing in the immediate future. Our collective fear of being left out is draining our resources to opt fully in.

It's like trying to make love while checking for messages. It's a compulsion. It's also an epidemic.

I wonder if we, as photographers, can come back to a place of real mindfulness when taking images.

Everything we seem to create mitigates against it. I walked with several photographers last month. What a mistake. One kept getting calls from his spouse...which he answered. Another kept showing us "interesting" new apps on his phone. But the whole idea of a group walk with the idea of taking images is about as silly as it gets....if your goal is to make photographs for the sake of your own art. It's like creating the ultimate distraction and then making it portable.

Wouldn't it be an interesting exercise, on many levels, to set aside a day in which you pursue a really focused and mindful day just for taking images for yourself? Wouldn't it be cool to schedule a day that went from sun up to sun down (or later) in which you took only one camera and one lens. A day on which you threw away all the excuses and left your phone at home, in a drawer? A day where photography didn't revolve around the discover of chic new restaurants but actually revolved around your own undiluted looking and critical observation. A day when you thought about every single time you pushed the shutter button and made a photograph?  A day when no one came along for the ride?

I understand that for some people photography is an excuse to socialize and that's fine. But the people who roll that way probably aren't the same ones who read my stuff here. You don't have to be serious all the time. But it might be nice to make a date with yourself to be unencumbered at least some of the time.

Paying attention. Focused on one thing. Reducing distraction. Being totally there for your own life.

(Can you imagine an actor stopping between lines, in the middle of a performance, to check their phone?)


  1. For me reading your blog for photography is like reading Seth Godin's blog on business, thought provoking and constantly challenging me to broaden my perspective.

    My personally feeling is that the current generations are "drunk" on technology, it's available and exciting and we're exploring new realities and dreaming of more. Ultimately I think it's like anything else in that this trend will come full circle. And people will slow down and "sober" up, find a purpose for the toys and start to appreciate instead of over saturate themselves.

    1. +1. Bob Dein

    2. Is that like...guerilla marketing or something, a hit and run kind of deal?

  2. As I was reading this post on my iPhone while watching the evening news on TV :-) it reminded me that I've always believed it was the FAX machine that started the ruination of life on this planet. Before the FAX when someone needed something "right away" they would call me and I would put it in the mail and they would have it in three days. And that was "right away" and that was fast enough.

    1. No Dave. It's really the cellphone. Or rather, the "smartphone" that destroyed our civilization.

  3. This column really speaks to my experience. For many years, I have practiced photography as a solo avocation, primarily in nature and in gardens. For me it has been the experience of walking alone (occasionally with one other, carefully vetted, like minded photographer) looking and trying to see. I'd carry a cell, but it was usually turned off and only there in case I got into trouble. It hasn't hurt that this period of my life has also been one of a regular mindfulness meditation practice. Before I retired, the non-photographic portion of my life (most of it) was pretty frenetic 13 hour days of multiple inputs. The weekly solo photography sessions were what kept me sane.

    With retirement, I take a 3-4 mile solo walk down a country road and into the woods virtually everyday with a camera and 1-2 lenses. I always come back smiling and happy regardless of whether any pictures are taken.

  4. Doing Street Portraiture, I walk around looking for interesting appearing people. Approaching them is another issue. Cell phones are the bane of my existence. I wait until an interesting face puts the phone away - a waste of time. Either the call lasts forever, or another call is made instantly. Then I watch, and count, passing cars. Fifteen percent of drivers are on the phone. People apparently consider driving 'down time', requiring little cerebral input. And don't get me started on blue tooth... :-)
    Bob Dein

  5. We lose more productivity in this country to cellphone misuse than anything else. I wish I had all the time back I've spent stuck at traffic lights behind a cellphone abuser who was too unfocused to realize that the light had changed.

  6. Great post, Kirk. Thank you.
    I have to say I agree with the ideas contained therein.

    I guess it's something we have all fallen into - having the mobile phone on all the time, instant access to the world at our fingertips - but worse of all, giving them the access to us at the same time.

    After being in the photographic 'doldrums' for a wee while I decided to change it this week.

    I set the intention (an important step) to start a personal project which will retune the mind's focus.

    I set myself the task of approaching fifty strangers and asking to make a portrait of them. I'm not sure how long it wilol take but at least a start was made.
    This week I went into Byron Bay (here in Australia) armed with a 35mm, 85mm and D700, figuring to keep the gear to a minimum (maybe just the 85mm next time.

    While it was a little nerve racking to approach total strangers in public, nevertheless, I did it and got four out of four approvals.
    I'll send a copy to them and after editing will start putting the project on the blog.
    It was a great experience and something I'd recommend. the bonus is - I didn't take one call or make one call during the whole time there.

    All the best.


  7. I enjoyed my Chicken Friand at Le madeline today but I had to take a photo of it first with my iphone, just out of habit. a bad habit. I resisted the urge to open an app and apply some ridiculous but currently trendy filter effects. Instead I just enjoyed my lunch. Just because you can do something doesn't me we should do something. But I did check my three email accounts and reply to some text messages. Dang it!!!

  8. I'll skip the part where I would agree or disagree with your lead up to, "...to set aside a day in which you pursue a really focused and mindful day just for taking images for yourself," and jump in there.

    For your personal camera day, you also suggest using just one lens and one camera. I'm for that, but I'd go a step further. I have saved all those old, small memory cards (64 MB!!) and suggest also using an old, slow card, small card to limit the pace at which you can take photos and the number of photos you can take on your personal photo day.

    I do that once a month or so to combat my urge to shot everything. It really makes me think about and choose my shots more carefully.

  9. I read a week or so ago, that parents can't get their kids to vacation in Yosemite National Park because the cell service is poor to nonexistent in many places.

    Cool with me - keepem at home. If the service was better, they would be all over the park - walking around staring at one hand - and banging into trees.


  10. A cellphone? I don't have one, and certainly wouldn't want one. What also helps with concentration is to keep the "image review" (chimping) feature switched off on the digital cameras. And oh yeah, I need to spend time on my own, in the few woods we still have. Needless to say that my cameras are always with me, and most of the time even a tripod. But that doesn't mean that I'm constantly taking pictures.

  11. There is an additional problem in that ones potential audience is also becoming less mindful. Distracted viewers might pause for a split second if presented with tricked out eye-candy, but only for a split second. The number who will actual examine and consider is shrinking away.

  12. Intoxicated with immediacy . . . yes, that's about right.

    Pinhole, 10x8", paper-neg or black-and-white film, contact prints (note:- looking at the price of colour-sheet neg film might cause an immediate heart attack).

    1. Dohhhhhh, I mean "colour-neg sheet film" of course, not "colour-sheet neg film".

      This may be an example of lack of concentration caused by multi-tasking, as I was eating a cheese-sandwich for lunch as I posted . . .

  13. So well said Kirk.
    People are simply not focussed on anything, job, driving, making love,
    actually communicating by talking to a real person.
    So sad couples going out and texting others! A wonderful start.
    I no longer do darkroom and actually miss the quite time..
    The cost now becoming prohibitive, for me.
    Digital is fun. I shoot film and really enjoy souping my own films..C-41 developing is becoming a fatality.
    I will get the chemicals and do bulk processing of accumulated rolls.
    When I did Pro work it was Rush,Rush.
    Lot of newspaper work but the Fashion, Advertising, Publicity mostly more relaxed.
    Well compared!
    I somehow think this crazed moment in people may pass..
    Not sure how anything so fanatic will last?

  14. This needed to be said. Thanks for your post, Kirk.

  15. As an under 40 (though slightly past 30) the only demagoguery I'd offer is that we've been fooled into believing that we're not OUT of the moment, we're IN two (or more) moments and places at once.

    That's what's changed - the university aged people I'm trying to educate today get messages convincing them that they're amazing multitaskers who are actually capable of being everywhere at once, but they don't stop to think that the people providing those messages are from both the megacorps that want to sell them more gadgets (Cupertino, I'm looking at you!) and the other megacorps that want them to be employees who are easily coerced into working 20 or 30 extra hours a week through those gadgets.

    Even some of my better students will sit in lecture with Wikipedia or SparkNotes on the play or figure we're discussing in one tab, and Facebook open in another. They seem to think the very existence of the web source (even though they're of questionable provenance and deal with things in a far less complex manner than I'm trying to introduce them to in a University course) means that they can zip around having semi-meaningless social interaction instead of taking their own notes...and then of course they get mad at me when I mark their assignments down for only halfway managing to engage in the kind of analytical thinking we were trying to model in a class they were only half paying attention too...

  16. Well said! One of the great stresses in kids' lives these days is Connectivity. Kids and teens are under more social pressure than those of us who were kids in the pre-1990 days because kids now are constantly connected. Ok, I'll admit that I'm in the 40-something group now, and I remember when I was in high school my father was the only person in the family who had a cell phone. It was about the size of a brick and ran on a motorcycle battery. I certainly didn't have a cell phone.

    When *I* came home from high school, it was an escape. I was no longer at school. Nobody sent me nasty e-mails or posted crap on my Facebook wall, because those 'conveniences' didn't exist. That jerk on the football team who tried to pick a fight with me at school was no longer a threat. I went home to my house and he went home to his. Being home was safe and it felt good. Now, when kids come home they are still connected to their peers--and also to peer pressure--through their computers, phones, laptops and social-networking. The bullying that kids experience at school can now follow them home.

    As you pointed out, even adults are over-connected. We go out to dinner and our friends/family are texting people on their smartphones. People used to think that was rude behavior. Now we manage to ignore it because "everyone is doing it".

    Anyway, you are absolutely right in saying we need to pay attention and focus on one thing. We need to be more Zen. When we're on a walk, we need to see the trees & feel our feet. Be here, now. It is *not* smart-phone time.

    We need to relearn focus as a society. I hope it doesn't require the government to get involved, but I see no-driving-with-your-cell-phone laws as a start. It is sad that we have to legislate responsibility, but there you go. It's the dark side of technology.


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