A Perspective on Photography as Meditation

Some years ago I wrote about the (now fairly obvious seeming) perspective of photography as a process of grounded, present awareness in order to achieve a result.

With the viewfinder to your eye, your attention is boxed in and hyper-fixated on that tiny window. Even if what is beyond the window is a magnificent visa you are perceiving it via a constricted tunnel – not simply observation, but sight with a goal. How can a photograph result from a diversion from that goal?

If you are ONLY seeing then you are not making the photograph, but if you are only making the photograph then you are not present through the window, you are present as a technical camera operator.

Seeking balance between these different approaches can offer a middle way, allowing for an experience of photography as a form of meditation. The current trendy co-opted and rebranded Satipatthana methodologies offer mindfulness as palliative care for mental health, which is as effective as blu-tack over a fracture in a dam. This is the kind of meditation you find in guided mobile apps, breathing and self-affirmation exercises designed to return you back to your stressful life without realizing that repairing that on a deeper level may be more worth your time than only addressing the symptoms.

Meditation is often mischaracterized as a means to clear your head or empty your mind, but I think this is an unfulfilling definition. I would explain meditation as a process of observing your thoughts as they appear, noticing them as they pass by while behaving as the watcher of them rather than identifying as them.

Just as your pancreas produces insulin, or the glands in your skin produce sweat without you (or what you tend to feel is you) doing it, your brain produces thoughts. Attempting to “clear” your mind of thoughts is as futile as attempting not to sweat.

In photography, effort is often concentrated around cultivating a specific workflow or process whether that’s before, during, or after pressing the shutter. Time is spent planning, researching, curating, editing, and sequencing. There is a time for all of these, and there are situations where it makes sense for there to be crossover.

If you try and control this then you are applying force to what is easily attainable through patience and dealing with each step in its turn when appropriate. There is a Daoist metaphor, “Pu”, which refers to an “uncarved block”, and implies as yet un-expressed creativity. The process of working with a block of wood, marble, or similar material, can be achieved in many ways. Due to properties of that material, areas of softness and hardness, knots, grain, bubbles, and so on, the best results will come from a craftsman who first asks their material “what would you like to be?”

This is in contrast to a worker who operates with a blueprint, ignorant of the unique properties of their material only with the end goal in mind.

Working “with” rather than “despite” your materials, which in photography can include light, location, people, or concept, means that the act of taking the photograph becomes one of absorbing in, not projecting out. Facilitating rather than demanding.

Timing is essential to photography, but you are not beholden to it if you are not making your decisions about your eye and camera separately from all other decisions. Working “with” timing does not mean arbitrarily slowing yourself down – time is an illusion only up to the point where you’re late for a flight.

Photograph reflexively, as a scene unfolds in front of you; if you go through an internal process of making a decision and then executing that decision as different steps, then you may be limiting yourself. Instead, cultivating a mindset of “decision-action” decision and action as one fluid and involved step, mind, and body working together as one with the external world it is processing.

This can be taken a step further and applied even to slower-moving photography, such as with landscape and still life. Without urgency you can more easily settle into a space the Sufis refer to as “Fana” which means, “to die before one dies”. In practice, a shift in perspective for a photographer means noticing what happens when you really place your ego in the observation of your subject.

Where does the part of you you feel is most yourself go when you are paying attention to something external? At that moment there is no separation between the observer and the observed, there is only observation. This is the same as when you breathe in air that has been breathed out by a tree, and organisms before that; it is all the same breathing process that you perceive as separate events. You are in the world and the world is in you.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.