Q&A with David Ulrich, Author of ZEN CAMERA: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography

  • 1. Can taking pictures change your life?

It certainly has changed mine—for the better, in many ways. This is what drives my commitment to teaching and writing. An active engagement with photography can help us become more authentic and find our highly unique vision or voice. It can assist the growth of our awareness by becoming more attuned to ourselves and others simultaneously, with a greater connection to nature and the world itself. And finally, the camera offers a highly satisfying means of creative expression and a potent, timely tool for communicating with others and expressing our passions, commitments, and concerns.

  1. How can photography become not only a creative outlet, but a means of growth — even a spiritual discipline?

Photography asks us to look deep within and to look outward toward the world simultaneously in order to find our points of connection. To what subjects in the world do we find resonance? Photographs can reveal many aspects of ourselves that may be hidden from conscious view. In this sense, it is a journey of self-discovery. The camera also teaches us to look at others with respect, empathy, and compassion—and helps us understand the realities of others and the sometimes joyful, sometimes tragic conditions of the world itself.

Even as adults, many people do not know how they see. They have never examined their own seeing. Is our seeing a reflection of our own self or does our vision uncover aspects of the world itself—or both? By the second or third photography class, a trained teacher can know who made which images that are being viewed. There is a certain orientation to subject matter, a unique way of handling color and form, and distinctive shapes or compositions that make one’s images unique and personal.

And of course, one of the greatest gifts the camera offers is to learn to see what is—not what we want it to be or think it should be, but, in writer James Agee’s words, the cruel radiance of what is. I personally believe we need this more than ever in our divisive and highly partisan society.

As a spiritual discipline, photography leads us closer to ourselves and engages our most noble energies that connect us more deeply with others and to life itself. Creativity can help us discover our natural wisdom and engender wholeness of spirit and a synergy between mind, body, feelings, and intuition. 

  1. Zen tradition teaches that at every moment in our lives, we have a choice. We can be present to the moment and all that it contains, or we can stay in our distracted, often self-centered state of being. How can you use your camera to get closer to Zen?

What do we wish for? Do we want to be present to the moment: to ourselves, others, and the world itself in equal measure? Or, are we content being distracted by shiny devices that steal our attention and fragment our state of being? Zen Camera teaches us to use our shiny, smart devices in the service of our humanity and a means of expanding our awareness.

With a camera in our hand, we can’t help but become more conscious of the world around us. The camera offers a means of deep engagement. I have always resisted the word “shooting” as a metaphor for photography. It seems so random and even violent. And I become annoyed watching people with cameras take one or two pictures here, and then quickly move on to the next subject, and so on. For me, to extend the metaphor of shooting, this feels like a drive-by shooting. The camera can be exploitive if we only take from the world.

The other possibility is to stick around for a little while, use the camera to spend time, get to know the subject, and become deeply attentive to your surroundings. By offering your genuine attention through a camera, you are giving people a nourishing gift. My first photography teacher once said to me: “After you take the picture you set out to take, now is the time to begin exploring the subject.” Try different angles and points of view, ask questions (verbally or visually), and open to new ways of seeing. What if I try this or that; what will happen if I move forward or move back, or include more or less in the frame? My advice is: Don’t seek immediate answers or trust your first solution. Stay with the subject until it feels known and respected through the lens—until you find resonance.

  1. Can a picture you take be a self-portrait, even if you aren’t in the image?

All photographs are both mirrors and windows. The way we see the world is a reflection of ourselves: our values, beliefs, worldview,and many aspects of our identity. Richard Avedon, the great portrait photographer, once said: “My photographs are more about me that they are about the people I photograph.” In addition to our point of view toward whatever subject matter we photograph, our manner of handling the visual elements of the photograph—form, color, and shape—are highly personal, individual, and unique.

On a deeper level, most photographs contain signs, symbols, and metaphors that underlie the literal representation. Depending on one’s self-awareness, much of this metaphoric content arises mostly from the unconscious and can be deeply revealing. Psychologists believe that somewhere between 75-85% of our mind is unconscious and that the rational brain is often unaware of the deeper contents of the mind. That deeper content of the mind is often revealed through images and art. Regrettably, in our society and in our educational system, we have lost sight of the resonant language of metaphor, myth, and symbol.In my experience, the unconscious content found in photographers’ work is highly revealing.

Of course, most photographs are also windows. They represent something in the exterior world. The dialectic between seeing the world for what it is, and seeing the world based on who you are, often forms the very content of a photographer’s work.

  1. Going from selfies to self-reflection — how is this possible?  

I think selfies represent a healthy and natural impulse: to affirm one’s identity and seek validation from others. However, the question is one of degree. If every photograph you take is a selfie and that is all you are concerned with, it can lead to narcissism and an unhealthy self-involvement that excludes concern for others, compassion, and empathy. In the same way the Beatles once sang, “can’t buy me love,” our carefully posed selfies cannot fill the empty places within—no matter how hard we try. Counting likes on Instagram or Facebook is not equivalent to the earned satisfaction of accomplishment and personal triumph.

Something happens on the path toward maturity for healthy people. We stop giving our primary attention to the ego self and begin to focus on the reality and needs of others, and of society itself. The camera provides a path back into the world and it offers a means for genuine self-exploration.

Here, we begin to focus on the deeper aspects of self and our connections with the world. Seeing the self and witnessing the other simultaneously form the great power of photography. Every photograph is of something in the world and every photograph is a self-portrait. With a camera, we can grapple with the more complex aspects of our identity beyond appearance: race, ethnicity, psychological dynamics, heredity and conditioning, sexuality, gender, economic status, and many other factors that contribute to our unique individuality. As a powerful alternative to selfies, try making images that show who you are without using yourself as the subject. Use allusion, metaphor, concept, mirroring—and find resonance. Seek your inner reflection in the outer world. Self-portrayal through images that reveal your unique background, character, and circumstances—not just your appearance—is one of the great aims of art. It is a means of active self-investigation.

  1. You experienced the loss of your right, dominant eye in an impact injury at the age of thirty-three. Talk about this irony: you are a one-eyed photographer who writes about and teaches how to “see” with a camera.

As a photographer, losing an eye was the most painful trauma that I have ever experienced. Over time, it also become a profound awakening. Like the Zen master’s stick, the injury served to eviscerate my ego and open me to a deeper perspective. I became fascinated with the journey of learning to see again, this time as a mature adult. Our initial foray with vision begins at birth and our process of learning to see as a young child is intimately tied to the nature of socialization and the learning of language. For most people, vision is unconscious, automatic, and largely taken for granted.

I no longer take vision for granted and feel privileged to have the opportunity to relearn vision and its deep connection to awareness. To answer your question simply, I lost an eye so that I may learn to see.

Interested readers can look up my essay, Awakening Sight, originally published in Parabola magazine and currently online through the Daily Good website. In this essay, I chronicle the process of losing and eye and the awakening of vision.

  1. Photographs have become the universal language of the digital age, in which cameras, especially those in smartphones, have revolutionized the way we approach the world and communicate with people. Is the cell phone camera a substitute for direct experience, or can it be employed to heighten our interaction with the world and others? 

This is an excellent question and forms the heart of Zen Camera. The essential key for all forms of photography is observation. Direct perception in the present moment—of self and other—is a form of learning and knowing and cannot be substituted by mediated perceptions found in entertainment, books, websites, blogs, and other people’s images. Mindful looking implies self-observation and looking outward simultaneously to awaken to our own genuine points of connection with the world. A moment of seeing with a camera connects our inner states directly with the realities of life beyond our eyes. We are led inward and outward simultaneously.

From Zen Camera: “The quality and simplicity of the cameras and the global reach of pictures are breathtaking. Today’s tools (or toys) are seriously intoxicating.Cameras and digital technologies hold profound value for communication, new lifestyle options, and both individual and cultural development. But with great potential comes great danger. We see this playing out today for many in what can only be called an addiction to the internet, in excessive texting, and in treating perception as the mere processing of the bits of information transmitted through electronic screens. Look up has become the new slogan for the digital age. What happens when humans no longer stretch their minds? As people allow themselves to freely indulge in comfort and consumerism, what happens to the development of their minds? As people accept dumbing down and the erosion of their attention spans, what effects will be carried by conditioning and genetics to future generations?

“We need to take responsibility, I believe, for using technology to serve and develop our humanity. When texting or interacting online, you can use these activities as powerful reminders to come inside and enter the body. In Zen-like fashion, you endeavor to merely witness yourself here, now, in this moment and engaged in a state of being awake to your own distraction. Nothing matters as much as the seeing of it. There needn’t be any judgment, just awareness. Over time you’ll come to appreciate the power of the tools in your hand as something that can be placed in the service of your humanity, not your ego. You can find a relationship to the tools and not merely be pulled into their orbit.”

We can work to strengthen the capacity for our attention by acts of conscious resistance. Put the phone down, resist looking at it for periods of time, and place the phone on airplane mode while exploring the world through the phone’s marvelous camera. Have the courage and fortitude to witness your many distractions and strive to bring the wandering mind back to the present moment.

  1. What are the six lessons in ZEN CAMERA?

Zen Camera begins with an Introduction that chronicles my own experience and background as a photographer and photography teacher. The first chapter, titled Basic Principles and Methods, offers a foundation for learning photography and expanding one’s awareness through a camera. I ask people to photograph regularly and keep their creative flow alive by keeping a “Daily Record” of one’s visual impressions though the lens. The next two sections in the first chapter are titled, the “Frame of No-Mind” and “Daily Observation.”

We then move into the six lessons. I will offer them here without comment. I think the chapter titles well reveal the content of each lesson:

  1. Observation
  2. Awareness
  3. Identity
  4. Practice
  5. Mastery
  6. Presence

The book closes with a final chapter, titled Photography and Awakening, the Terrors and Pleasures of Digital Life. Here I provide context and dimension to the six lessons. This chapter is divided into three sections: “The Illusion of Separateness,” “Digital Life and Zen Practice,” and finally, “Photography in the Twenty-First Century.”

  1. You encourage readers to TMP (Take More Pictures) and explore their world with a Zen attitude of “not knowing.”  What does this mean?

My first photography teacher asked us what I have come to understand as a profound question. In response to the world through a camera, in response to another person, and in grappling with forming an opinion or point of view, he would always ask: And what else? Everything has multiple angles and dimensions. Our first impression is often based on our preconceptions and our subjective opinions, and rarely gets to the heart of the matter. The first pictures we take of a subject are often superficial, clichéd, and lack resonance or “presence.”

By spending time, by taking enough images to really engage the subject, and by staying open—attempting to suspend knee-jerk opinion and immediate judgment—our pictures gain power and insight through a process of discovery and interaction. In teaching photography during the film era, statistically the greater number of strong images were found on frame #36, at the very end of the roll of film after engaging the subject intensely.

Photography is a powerful form of inquiry. It helps us understand the nature of the world, and the nature of our self. But the moment we think we know something or have an arrogant sense of self-righteous understanding, we close off all further learning and discovery.

A woman in Hong Kong once exclaimed to me, “Oh, you are an American! What I find interesting about you Americans is that you believe in your own opinions. How can you ever see or learn anything new?”

10. Can anyone learn to be visually literate?

Yes, of course, but it takes education and practice. We live in a society in which visual communication is rapidly growing in importance. Most everyone in the developed world now uses a camera and carries it daily. The social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have a global reach. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, head of the Bauhaus school in the United States said in 1934: “The illiterate of the future will be ignorant of the pen and camera alike.”

Photography is a language. Like any other form of communication, it has its own grammar, syntax, principles, and evolving history. Photography shares much with other forms of expression that revolve around the visual language. When I look at someone’s images for the first time, I can tell immediately if they are conversant and educated in visual communication.

If you want to communicate effectively with images, I have one clear word of advice: learn the visual language. Read books or study websites that teach the principles of design. Learn about the expressive language of color, shape, form, line, volume, perspective, and composition. Savor light, and learn to use it as a means of expression. Study the cultural and social representation found in image content and learn to decode meaning. Either do personal research or take a class. Make it fun, but go deep. Be patient and allow your sensibilities to evolve. Find the work that resonates for you and study what moves others. Over time, develop a sense of keen discrimination.

Zen Camera was written with this purpose in mind; to provide a teaching in photography to the legions of cell phone camera users who might find benefit in an education in the visual language. I strongly believe that every high school or first-year college requirement should include a class in visual culture or visual communication. We learn to write, to form sentences, and employ grammar, why not the same with images?



DAVID ULRICH is a professor and co-director of Pacific New Media Foundation in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. and is an active photographer and writer whose work has been published in numerous books and journals including Aperture, Mānoa, and Sierra Club publications. Ulrich’s photographs have been exhibited internationally in more than 75 one-person and group exhibitions. He blogs about creativity and consciousness at theslenderthread.org, and is a consulting editor for Parabola magazine. Visit creativeguide.com.


  1. Very interesting and well written. As a photographer myself I read here what goes through my mind in my practice and position in life, but what I find difficult to explain so clear. I hope more people discover the enriching life aspects of it. Well done. Good luck. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very Nice Post, Thanks keep Posting.

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