The Practice of Mindful Photography: Awake in the World with a Camera

The Practice of Mindful Photography: Awake in the World with a Camera

Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, HI © David Ulrich

Most everyone has a camera and takes pictures—lots of them. And many people frequently—even incessantly—use visual communication: on social media, in websites, in printed material, and in personal messages. The camera in your hand, including the one embedded in your cell phone, can be an invitation to awaken to the present moment and learn of the power of direct perception. Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange once remarked, “A camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

I often ask my students: How many hours in a typical day do you spend just observing the world? No one responds. Then, I ask, how many hours a day do you spend glued to a tiny 5 inch screen? Their answers typically reveal that they spend from three to five hours a day looking at pictures, videos, texts, and social media feeds on their smartphones or digital devices.  I live in Hawai‘i, one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth, and observe many residents and tourists walking around with their heads down, buried in their tiny screens. “Look up,” I want to say, “observe the wonder and richness of the world, see the bright spark of everyday moments, and witness simultaneously the touching humanity and the many pressing social issues and tragic conditions that we all face today in our communities, both regional and global.”

The word mindfulness implies a direct awareness of the present moment—and our place, our role in that moment. We look outward and observe carefully everything that we see, hear, and otherwise take in through the senses. And we look inward, without commentary or judgment, and witness our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and inner states as well as our particular reactions to the moment in front of us. A powerful link is established between two unending worlds, the inner and the outer. Through mindfulness, we can experience our own presence, the state of being embodied in a living system of mind, body, emotion, and intuition. And we can experience the particular character and presence of the other—whether it is a person, place, thing, or event. Life is speaking to life. This presence and deep connection to the world and others is many things: our birthright, our responsibility, and a reflection of our deepest human potential.

Writer James Agee writes of the images made by the photographer Walker Evans. “For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned…with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted  from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.”

The camera in your hand can become a powerful tool for dual discovery—for learning about yourself, your own inner landscape, and for making sense of and understanding the world around you. When you frequently pull out your cell phone to take a picture, I recommend five, simple practices that can help make you more conscious and aware, with greater presence and attention to the moment and all that it contains. These practices are
adapted from my new book: The Mindful Photographer: Awake in the World with a Camera (Rocky Nook, 2022).

 1. Observe both the outer moment and your inner response. Don’t overthink. Use your body, your senses, and your feelings. When you move the frame around, a little this way or that way, when the moment changes and with it comes shifting relationships and changing facial expressions, or when the light moves from shadow into brightness, you may experience a moment of “rightness.” Now is the time to snap the shutter. The body, senses, and feelings know unity, proportion, balance, and elegance. The mind is too slow to keep up.

2. Every photograph is both a document of an external event and a self-portrait. Through your choice of subject, framing, and treatment with the camera, you are saying something about the world and yourself simultaneously. Who are you? Who am I? The exploration of the world with a camera and the resulting photographs can answer aspects of both of these questions. Pay attention to both. 

3. Engage the subject. Spend time. Take more pictures. Practice not-knowing and avoid the inexperience of beginning photographers who take one or two pictures and walk away. Professional photographers spend time and take many photographs to understand the subject and make an expressive photograph. Photographer Garry Winogrand said, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”

4. Avoid clichés and tired tropes. Aspire to be authentic and express how you see the world. Have patience and learn to see how you see. You are unique with your own way of seeing the world based on your background and experiences. Show us. Using a camera can reflect the world back on itself and reveal the shape of your engagement—your passion, pleasures, and, at times, pained observations.

5. Study images made by influential photographers from both the history of photography and from contemporary artists. Try to move beyond the shallow Instagram aesthetic and the conventions of popular photography that often create nothing more than eye candy. Be true to yourself and learn the visual language by looking and analyzing great photographs. Seek resonance with a camera. What scenes and subjects touch you deeply by virtue of your identity and being? 

Look up. Look out. Look in. Resonance with the subject is likely to occur from a mindful attention to both: the world itself and your own internal response to the moment in front of you. 

I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds—the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both of these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate. 

—Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson

 David Ulrich is a professor and co-director of Pacific New Media Foundation in Honolulu. He teaches frequent classes and workshops and is an active photographer and best-selling author 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 is the author of Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography (Watson-Guptill/Random House, 2018) and The Mindful Photographer: Awake in the World with a Camera (Rocky Nook, 2022).