Be like Zen artists…

Be like Zen artists…

Stirling Ranges Sunrise

You may have heard of the American artist and photographer Saul Leiter, whose photography in the 1940s and 1950s was credited to have brought about the New York School of street photography. Leiter once said in a conversation:

    “I have a deep-seated distrust and even contempt for people who are driven by ambition to conquer the world … those who cannot control themselves and produce vast amounts of crap that no one cares about. I find it unattractive. I like the Zen artists: they’d do some work, and then they’d stop for a while.”


There is something remarkably resonant about Leiter’s words, especially now in an era where we are completely saturated with photographic imagery (you could say to the point of over-exposure). At a time when everyone lays claim to be a content creator, you could argue that everyone is also an image-maker. And with everyone vying for attention on social media platforms, it’s hard to avoid the glut of photographic imagery out there.

As photographers, we are caught in the double bind of wanting to have our work noticed, but also not wanting to add to the churn of photographic content. This is where Leiter’s reference to the practice of Zen artists may offer a way forward.

    “I like the Zen artists: they’d do some work, and then they’d stop for a while.”


If we are so caught in the desperate need to continue to shoot, capture, create and publish (aka “share”), where can we find time for self-reflection, to refine our vision and style, to breathe and consider where we came from, where we are now, and where we’re looking to take out work in the near future.

What I call “capture, create and churn” (the rinse and repeat process of image making) traps us in the cycle of creating work that’s derivative, perhaps crowd pleasing, visually attractive, perhaps garnering a few awards… but which, at the end of the day, doesn’t allow you to evolve as a creative person and visual artist.

Stopping awhile to allow you to catch your breath and to cast a reflective eye on your work may help give you clarity. Clarity about what you’re producing, why you’re producing it, what you hope to gain from it, and what new directions you can take with your photography and image making. Perhaps you’re locked into the cycle of shooting with the same lens all the time and it’s producing a body of work that’s repetitive and no longer challenging you to go better. Perhaps you’re stuck on a particular style of photography that no longer engages you but you still produce it because it’s getting the “likes” on social media. Perhaps you’re a bit tired of just putting your work up online and not really taking it into the real world as prints or a photo book. If we don’t stop the production line every once in a while, have a temporary shut down, and take the time to think, reflect and review, we’re not really producing meaningful work.

The first Tim Tam you taste is amazing (especially if you have a sweet tooth). You might even enjoy the first packet of these delicious chocolate-coated biscuits. But eat three packets in succession and you realise that you’re no longer enjoying it (disclaimer: do not eat three packets of Tim Tams in a row, it’s probably not good for your health. ? )

It’s the same with photography: in order for us to stay fresh and engaged with our own image-taking and image-making, we need to stop for a while, like the Zen artists. There is no real imperative to keep creating images and adding them to the churn. Do you even need to contribute to that churn? Perhaps you can re-focus and create work that people will actually care about.

The ease by which we can easily “praise” images on social media creates a false impression that we are actually producing praise-worthy work. Social media platforms are designed to make it easy for people to “engage” with content, but it’s not real engagement. It’s easy to hit the Love or Like button; heck, even Instagram pre-empts your responses by giving you words to tap the moment you start to type a Comment. Hit the Comment box and Instagram offers a choice of four responses to choose from. You don’t even need to think of what to say. The platform does it for you.

Here’s an idea: there is value in social media. Social media makes it easy to let others know what we are doing, to engage their curiosity and to prompt their response. But we want responses that are authentic, thoughtful even. So, if you’re producing work you are proud of, work that is considered, creative and which reflect your vision, don’t share it on social media where it can get lost in the churn. Show your work in a space that deserves it. This could be online (a web page), an exhibition, a publication (photo book), and then use social media to draw attention to the work. Interested parties – the very people who will spend time looking at and processing your images – will take the time to visit that space and to reflect on your images. Give them an avenue, within that space, to engage with you so that they can manifest their thoughts and responses to your work that goes beyond double tapping the screen, or selecting one of four pre-arranged responses.

If you are really serious about your work, having it located outside of the “churn” also helps draw attention to it when you approach other artists and photographers, looking for commentary, mentorship, direction.

You want people to care about your work, so give it the space it deserves to truly gain attention. And once you’ve done that, stop for a while. Reason, reflect, breathe and grow, and let a new direction find you.

Denmark Inlet sunrise

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