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Photojournalism Through the Eyes of a Monk


Being a monk who has photographed monastic communities from many years now, many people have asked me if I have something to share from my experience. Well, there isn’t much.

First of all, one must know that he doesn’t know anything. Only in this way can one stay on the constant path of progress and not harm anyone. People who are overly confident often harm others, many times even without noticing.

We must have a correct relationship with our subjects, with ourselves and with the outside world.

The first rule of thumb especially when we talk about our subjects is: do not harm. Always be ready to lose a shot (or more) just to leave others to breathe, to be natural. We must have the awareness that a photographer, depending on the environment, applies pressure upon others and thus he must be attentive in order to keep this pressure in bearable limits. We must be constantly attentive not only to see the occasions in which we must shoot but also to see the occasions in which we must skip shooting. Perhaps this will give us fewer shots, but albeit better ones showing a delicacy otherwise impossible to get:

“Be there and get close,” is something that’s often said. Well, this is true, but in order to “be there,” we must know very well the customs and habits of the place, to have our homework done in order to become invisible for others, to just be there. And then your truly immersive experience will be transmitted to the ones for which you’re photographing:

Try, rather, to not act instead of making a wrong move. Be obedient. Because we are humans we are bound to make mistakes. That’s why we must build trust with others, to show them love, to help them, to be one of them — we should cancel the distance between ‘us’ and ‘others’. We just need to be one body and then this unity will show up in our photos:

If we are constant and have the flexibility of humbleness, then this bond with others is strengthened until the point at which even the deepest feelings of the subjects are freely flying outside, sometimes in unbelievable candid shots.

We must have a peaceful lucidity in order to see where an interesting story develops and try to cover it:

The correct relationship with ourselves is based on humbleness and correct attention. The ultimate attention, that is where the mind is, should be in the right place at the right time.

That’s why we must avoid the centers of pleasure or pain which can divert our mind. So, we need to avoid unnecessary chimping or praising ourselves for a good shot that we think we got. Also, we must try to avoid conflicts at any costs and we shouldn’t take in our heart the praises of others. Then we will be able to be in control of ourselves and of the event, knowing if it is appropriate (or not) to get a very intimate shot:

The only praise you can take into account is when someone says, “I praise you because you didn’t bother me — you were there but I didn’t see you at all”.

Here our gear plays a special role. Our attention shouldn’t be diverted by our gear. We must be focused on what we have to do, not on how to do it. Our gear, especially our camera, should be a natural extension of our body in order to not lose the shot when the moment comes:

The last thing about the correct relationship with ourselves is to not seek comfort for ourselves. Bitter conditions make sweet photos:

The correct relationship with the outside world can be summed up in some small things. Here’s one: don’t lie. In my humble opinion, post-processing in order to crop, enhance colors, and increase sharpness is okay, but don’t lie. Do not clone in or out something in order to alter reality. It won’t end well. Always think: “If others will learn what I did, what will they say?”. Ask yourself this thing because they will.

Manipulations such as long exposures…

…or obviously staging photos…

…are okay because these don’t try to deceive so it isn’t unjust towards others.

Sometimes trying to be just and to not stage photos is rewarded by candid shots that look like they are staged but they aren’t — the happiness of getting the candid shot below is much bigger than if I had staged it:

A strong bond with your subjects and your clients will greatly offset the lack of staging. In fact, in my humble opinion, this is a professional: not the one which does something for the money or fame but the one which sacrifices himself for others. Money, fame, and gear should be secondary effects of the amount of love that someone gives to others.

That’s why on my site I don’t showcase my ‘best’ photos, but rather I try to help others by posting each day an image (or more) while covering the expenses from donations.

In fact, I do it just in order to be happy and to make others happy too, because only in this way I reach my peace of mind — a thing which is very rare today.

About the author: Monk Theologos of Vatopaidi is a monk and photojournalist based in The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopedi, an Eastern Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos, Greece. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Monk Theologos shares his work through his website, The Ascetic Experience.