Photography is My Meditation

By Ann Wheatley

Photography is my meditation. This claim often surprises people. They say, “When you’re photographing, you’re thinking, right? You’re analysing the scene and fiddling with the camera settings so how can photography possibly be your meditation?” What a great question!

When I hold my camera, something magical happens. I open myself to the world and stop ruminating about things in the past or worrying about what the future might bring. I’m here, in the present moment, with full attention. But it hasn’t always been like this.

Fog in the Richmond Ranges rising to reveal curving lines of road, field and forest. The Ranges stretch for 100 km from St. Arnaud to the coast, rising up behind the towns of Richmond Nelson and Blenheim. While plantation forest dominates this view, the native flora and fauna includes beech, rimu, totara, matai, miro and kahikatea. Blue duck, yellow-crowned parakeet, kaka and kiwi also live in the forests. Olympus OMD EM1 45 mm f/5.6 1/100 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

The early years of my adult life were marred by a simmering anger relating to childhood hurts and family dysfunction. I was always reacting and defending, on guard, my thoughts racing, my body tense. I found it hard to trust anyone. Maybe that’s why I turned to the camera. Photography became a kind of therapy, time alone with my camera soothed my pain and helped me relax and open to the world around me, at least temporarily. Eventually I realised the price of anger was too high and looked for a way to release it.

My search led to the Buddhist path, with its focus on ending suffering. I swallowed doubts about getting involved in any sort of “ism,” and took my first steps into a world of study and practice. After a long search with many blind alleys, I connected with Ken McLeod, who taught me how to meditate. Ken helped me get to know my anger, experiencing it fully rather than acting upon it. Slowly, his methods bore fruit, allowing me to experience much more of life’s pain and joy without falling into old reactive patterns so frequently.

Ferns are mostly tropical but New Zealand has about 200 species ranging from 10 m high tree ferns like these, to tiny ones just a few mm tall. By Ann Wheatley.

Ken taught me that meditation is the cultivation of attention, a skill honed through practice, much like playing an instrument, becoming a dancer, or mastering the technical aspects of photography. Among his many explanations of how to cultivate and rest in attention this is my favourite:

Start with the sensation of breathing. Be aware of your breath. Expand from there to include all your sensations, what you touch, see, hear, smell, and taste. Then open to all your internal material – your thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes. Many of them disagree with each other, but don't worry about that. Just open to all of them. As you do this you begin to get a sense of your field of experience. You may think of some parts as internal and others as external, but it's all experience. Open to your whole field of experience. Then open your heart to that whole field. Rest in that experience. When you can rest there, pose the question, "What experiences this?" When you pose that question, you'll experience a shift, into the experience of awareness itself. Don’t try to answer that question. That will plunge you into conceptual thinking. Just ask the question, experience the shift, and rest there.

Ken called it the primary practice and he intended these instructions to be practiced bit by bit, over and over again.

Cloud and sand blowing over Farewell Spit, the longest sandspit in New Zealand, seen from a clifftop trail. Olympus OMD EM1 50 mm f9.0 1/200 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

Over the years I’ve come across much photographic advice that points in the same direction as the primary practice, but I especially appreciate the writings of Freeman Patterson, Howard Zehr, and most recently David Ulrich.

In Photography and the Art of Seeing, Freeman talks about letting go of self as a precondition for real seeing, and by seeing he means, using your senses, your intellect and your emotions and encountering your subject matter with your whole being. He also offers photographers exercises in “relaxed attentiveness.”

Howard Zehr takes this further. In The Little Book of Contemplative Photography he writes explicitly about the link between the practices of mindfulness and photography:

To fully experience photography as a way of seeing and as a meditative exercise, an attitude of genuine receptivity and openness is required. Some call this approach mindfulness. Mindfulness involves a rejection of preconceived ideas and expectations combined with a cultivated attitude of openness to whatever we might receive. This approach is similar to native American hunters who conditioned themselves to see everything, but focus on nothing.

Ordinary yet special describes the Ngakawau Gorge daisy, Celmisia morganii, blooming on a rockface alongside an ephemeral waterfall. The gorge is the only known habitat for this rare, protected species. Olympus OMD EM1 35 mm f/5.6 1/4 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

In Zen Camera David Ulrich talks about how seeing can be learned:

You can sharpen your observational skills and use them for creative work and in your interactions with others. Photographers, writers, film makers and artists are trained to see beyond surface appearances and speak about the particulars of the human condition.

Fog, cloud, blue sky, forested hills and sand meet and mingle on a West Coast beach near Mokihinui. Olympus OMD EM1 14 mm f/5.6 1/1600 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

Like a Buddhist teacher talking about the three refuges, the four noble truths or the five precepts, David talks about the five photographic elements: frame, light, moment, color and tonality, and treatment of the subject. About the element of moment he says:

Photography immortalises fleeting moments in time. Which moment and why? Taking a moment out of the flow of time and making it memorable demands sensitivity, awareness and active reasoning. The moment you choose becomes an interpretational vehicle for your world view and your overt and hidden attitudes. Much of your thinking is done before you snap the shutter. There is no time to think in a moment that requires instinct and spontaneity to capture. Self-awareness and your attention to the world are allied in your search for your perfect moment. The perfect moment cannot help but reveal many aspects of yourself, your psychology, social and political views, conditioning and natural tendencies. It is your moment to select out of the flow of life, and it reveals as much about you as it does the world itself.

A chocolate sunset at the beach in Granity, on the West Coast. Olympus OMD EM1 14 mm F/7.1 1/250 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

Some years after first meeting Ken, I participated in a meditation retreat led by Stephen Batchelor. In Stephen I encountered a teacher with a lifetime of meditation experience who also practices the art of photography. He connected insights from Ken and from photographers such as Howard, David and Freeman in a powerful way. Stephen noticed that both photography and meditation are practices of attention that shift us from a habitual view of the world to an appreciation of the unique nature of each moment. In a wonderful essay on photography and meditation he wrote:

Whether you are paying mindful attention to the breath as you sit in meditation or composing an image in a viewfinder, you find yourself hovering before a fleeting, tantalizing reality. At this point, the tasks of the meditator and the photographer appear to diverge. While the meditator cultivates uninterrupted, non-judgemental awareness of the moment, the photographer captures the moment in releasing the shutter. But in practice the aesthetic decision to freeze an image on film crystallizes rather than interrupts the contemplative act of observation. Aligning one’s body and senses in those final microseconds before taking a picture momentarily heightens the intensity and immediacy of the image. One is afforded a glimpse into the heart of the moment that meditative awareness might fail to provide.

Sunrise on my local beach, Rabbit Island, with the Richmond Ranges in the background. Olympus OMD EM1 17 mm f/11 1/800 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

He also appreciated the special significance of light to both meditators and photographers:

Meditators speak of “enlightenment,” an experience in which “light” metaphorically dispels the “darkness” of the mind. Similarly, by means of an odd angle, an unusual arrangement of light and shade or an adjustment in the depth of field, a photographer illuminates something about an object that had previously been unnoticed. Such photography has nothing to do with preserving a pictorial record of things, places and people that are already familiar. It opens up the world in a startling and unexpected way that can be both compelling and unsettling.

And he pointed out the inseparability of light and what it illuminates:

The closer you attend to what is seen in the viewfinder, the more you notice how the light that illuminates and the object being illuminated are not two separate things. An object is just as much the medium through which light becomes apparent as light is the medium through which an object becomes apparent. You cannot have one without the other. In taking a photograph of an object, you are taking a photograph of a condition of light….As soon as you make the perceptual shift to seeing the object as a condition of light, what you observe becomes as tentative, shimmering and luminous as light itself. In paying more attention to the display of light rather than “something” illuminated by light, photography starts to move away from representation towards abstraction. The photographer becomes absorbed by the restless contrasts of line, colour, shading, what is in and out of focus to the point where the object as a recognizable “thing” disappears.

Dramatic wave forms breaking on the beach, viewed from Gentle Annie Point near Mokihinui. Olympus OMD EM1 50 mm f/10 1/160 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

Like Stephen, I’ve found that my meditation and photography practices have converged to the point where I no longer think of them as different. Stephen also discovered that his pursuit of meditation and photography led away from longings for the extraordinary and back to a rediscovery of the ordinary. Just as the hope for mystical experiences was one of my blind alleys in the early days of my meditation journey, my cravings to photograph exotic places and unusual objects have also subsided. A deeper capacity in attention has heightened my appreciation of local landscapes and every day things.

In The Little Book of Contemplative Photography Howard Zehr quotes photographer David Vestal:

When you’re thinking about what to do, you don’t have enough attention left over to see what’s around you.

Nikau palms and harakeke glowing in the sunlight at the Kaihoka Lakes in Golden Bay. The nikau is New Zealand’s only native palm, and harakeke/flax is actually a giant lily. The leaves can grow to more than 3 m in length.The seeds are edible, the seed pods can be used to dye fabrics, and the whole plant has medicinal uses. Olympus OMD EM5 33 mm f8.0 1/160 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

The paring down of my photographic kit to essentials and becoming intimately familiar with those has been a key to ensuring I have enough attention available to look rather than think. I’ve achieved this by committing to a conveniently small and light mirrorless camera, and doing nearly all of my photography with just two lenses.

Rolling clouds and hay bales on a farm in the Catlins, a counterpoint to much more common images of spectacular waterfalls, coastal cliffs, sandy beaches, blowholes and petrified forest. Olympus OMD EM5 13 mm f 22 1/100 s ISO 200. By Ann Wheatley.

Welcome to my safe home, my sheltered haven, a public artwork by Juan José Novella, photographed in silhouette at sunset. Overlooking Nelson’s Haven, the sculpture alludes to Nelson’s strong relationship with the sea and was inspired by the shapes of kelp and mussels. The curved form suggests a sense of sheltering, inclusion, welcoming and safety. By Ann Wheatley.

I’m delighted to share a few images of every day moments, illustrating the way photography and meditation converge for me. All are from New Zealand’s South Island, my home for the past twenty years. Many were taken near my home in Nelson, and most of the others were made in places in the South Island that can be reached by walking for an hour or two.

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