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The Mindful Photographer

Sophie Howarth: The Mindful Photographer

I have to admit I tend to have a visceral reaction to phrases like mindfulness. It which seems a bit too New Age for my midwestern taste. So, I was pleasantly surprised by Sophie Howarth’s The Mindful Photographer.

The book is really about slowing down and looking at the world with awareness. As photographers, we often speak of “capturing” an image. The phrase casts our photography as an inherently aggressive activity. We are taking something that exists outside ourselves and capturing it with our cameras –freezing the scene, the animal or the person forever within the confines of a frame.

Photography as a hunt

Very often, the subject of our photographs is a kind of prey that we have caught. There is a long tradition of this type of “hunter” approach to photography and I tend to fall into that category. The “Decisive Moment” of Henri Cartier-Bresson is a classic example. In fact, Cartier-Bresson, who was well-experienced in hunting parties during his youth, said “I adore (taking) photographs. It’s like being a hunter.”

Walker Evans concealed his camera when taking a series of subway photographs, while Paul Strand went so far as to attach a fake lens to the side of a camera, so he could shoot subjects unawares that the camera was actually pointed at them. And, of course, one of Strand’s most famous subjects, a blind woman on the streets of New York, could not see the photographer and therefore, could not object to having her picture taken.

Street photography is built on a foundation of stalking the streets looking for subjects and much of photojournalism is about hunting for the unguarded and presumably revealing moment of expression. Those of us who practice wildlife photography rely almost completely on hunting down subjects that can never give consent to have their images taken.

The nature of this hunter-gatherer style of photography benefits from quick reflexes with little time for deep introspection.

Transcending Conscious Thought

Hunting down photographs does not necessarily preclude mindfulness. In fact, Cartier-Bresson drew inspiration from a 1948 book, Zen in the Art of Archery, which described a state of mind where senses are raised to a level that transcends the individual and allows the person to accept and seize on whatever offers itself, without conscious thought.

Yet, too often as photographers we become so consumed by seeking out and capturing the subject that we give little thought to what it is we are capturing. It’s a though we are in a contest to capture as many unique or unusual images as possible in the hopes that we will have accumulated enough images to be declared a winner by the time we are on our deathbeds.  

Becoming a Better Person

That’s what make Howarth’s embrace of mindfulness so appealing. She encourages photographers to reflect on their subjects and approach the craft with introspection. One gets the sense that she cares less about pushing photographers to produce better images, than about pushing photographers to become better people. And that should be something that we all ought to place greater value on in this contentious era.

Howarth offers up 16 themes for photographs, all chosen to explore mindfulness in some way. Examples include Clarity, Curiosity, Gratitude, Ambiguity and Generosity. The chapters can be read in any order and if readers find one exercise not to their taste, there is always another to choose from.  

She has artfully selected photographs to accompany, but not necessarily illustrate, each exercise. There are brief quotes from photographers, philosophers, writers and others that will inspire further reflection and introspection. Each chapter includes a “Mindful Practice” exercise meant to explore the theme of the chapter.

I would suggest reading the book through once, without necessarily attempting the exercises and then, coming back to it as time allows, to pick and choose what interests you. It’s the kind of book that can sit quietly on your desk ready for you to take it up when you need inspiration or a recharge.

Learn from the Heron

I love watching Great Blue Herons fish. They have perfected the art of waiting. They can spend hours standing or slowly and purposefully strolling along the bank or in the shallows. They always live in the moment, never impatient but always ready for a fish to present itself. The opportunity comes and they release the spring that is their neck. In a flash the spear that is their beak impales their prey and they know they will eat and live. They do this hour after hour, day after day, year after year. They have done this from generation to generation through millions of years.

I imagine the Heron as a master of at least one kind of mindfulness. Clearing your mind so as to be ready to accept the gift when it is presented to you.

Howarth’s book can move us closer to that place. But, in another sense, it is not even a book about photography. Rather it is a book about growth, which can in turn lead you to become a better photographer.   

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