Zen and the Art of Photographing the Moment

Zen and the Art of Photographing the Moment

A version of this article appeared in the March 2020 edition of Venture Horizons (our monthly e-newsletter) and I thought I’d also share it on the Venture Blog.

Man diving off jetty into the sea

I’ve been thinking a great deal about photography lately. I don’t mean the technical side of photography: the hardware, the settings, the techniques; instead, I’ve been dwelling on the philosophical and psychological nature of photography, or rather, the act of taking photographs.

While most of us think of photography as gear and equipment and the outcome (the image), have you ever considered what goes through your head when you take a picture? It’s pretty deep and meaningful stuff!

Kolkata Street Scene

Photography is one of the more unique forms of creative expression because of its instantaneous nature (no need to slave over a canvas for hours or days) but perhaps more tellingly because it is a form of extracting a moment in time and immortalising it as a visual representation of that moment.

In taking photographs, we’re working with time – fractions of seconds of time in many cases. Photography takes us into the one moment when we press the shutter button and create a tangible representation of that moment. In many respects, it’s a form of creative expression that asks us to become lost in that one moment, to be intently mindful of that moment; to see it, to feel it, to use it to force us into action — the action of pressing that shutter button. Very few other art forms get us, as authors and artists, to become one with such a moment.

Monk walking past doors in a dzong in Bhutan

What does this mean for photographers? For you?

Photography is about seeing and about timing. Seeing takes us into a small segment of the time stream, where something is about to happen (time is, after all, something that prevents everything from happening at once), and timing is about us inhabiting that segment of the time stream so completely that we become attuned to the moments as they unfold, and to watch and wait for the moment when _it_ happens.

What is _it_?

_It_ is a moment of connection, where that external moment collides with something internal and emotional within you. It could be a gaze, a fleeting expression of emotion, a flutter, a step, a glance, a flick, a smile that’s genuine and not forced. We need to inhabit this segment of time so completely that we don’t miss _it_ — and we can only do it if we give fully of ourselves, our concentration, to that moment.

And as with most things meditative, it can only be achieved when the mind is free of distractions, when it is wholly focused on seeing and timing, when you’re invested heart and soul in that segment of your time stream.

It can be quite meditative. Quite Zen.

Under the bridge, Kolkata

How do you achieve this state of photographic immersion?

When we step into a scene as a photographer, we can feel quite overwhelmed by stimuli – sights, sounds, smell – which counteracts our ability to find the moment and to inhabit it. The trick is to accept this feeling of being overwhelmed, to let it consume you and to internalise it, so that it feels like the new normal to you. Give yourself time to adjust to this range of new stimuli so that it becomes normalised for you. Photography is a game of patience, and you’ll need to let it all wash over you.

Once you’re no longer being distracted by a myriad of things around you, once you have internalised your place in the scene, look for these moments that draw your attention. You’ll find that these moments become more identifiable once you’re no longer battling the confusion of senses and you’ll discover a clarity in your vision that’s quite absorbing. Be guided by the moments, see them unfold and learn their rhythm. Be so much a part of the potential moments that you feel as if you can’t leave until you have fully understood them. Now, you’re ready to inhabit it and to invest in it.

Give it a try.

Masai warriors

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