Shifting Your Perspective: Taking a Mindful Photograph
We often reach for our device out of habit, not intention. What would happen if we captured a memory with full presence first and a photo second?
I used to be one of those people who frequently snapped a photo or video of everything. Then suddenly, one moment in Iceland changed it all.
So what exactly IS a mindful photograph and how do you take one? We’ll get there.
With the rise of social media and the internet, photography has grown from a hobby, to a career with potential income. Whether you are behind the lens or in front of it, it has become a way to gain social status, followers, sponsors and is now a sought after profession. Every time we log onto our accounts, we are flooded with photos of beautiful places and people from talented photographers, influencers and models. They pour their heart into their work. They inspire us to visit some of the most remote and rugged locations as well as incredible cities. They show us the world through their eyes and create images that instill a strong desire in us to travel, experience a place for ourselves or buy a certain product. Even our friends and acquaintances with just their cell phones create the same feeling when we see their journeys.
I often wonder what traveling was like without social media and the internet. Photographs and knowledge of locations were only heard about through magazines, friends, travel agents and books. Everything must have seemed like it was special, raw and timeless. It was a “go and see for yourself” kind of time. A time when the crowds weren’t so large and a time where if you did take your camera, you often couldn’t see the image until later and could only hope it turned out. A time when you were just there in the moment because there was no other way to really be. Maybe this is why I love old photos so much.
It’s 2019 and times have changed. Everything is so accessible with a wealth of knowledge available and believe me I’m grateful for it (especially when it comes to trails). I am an outdoor/ travel enthusiast and a novice photographer who is constantly in awe of Mother Nature, as well as people’s creative eye. However, I can’t help but notice every time I go anywhere people are obsessed with taking a photo or “getting the shot” rather than fully experiencing something. We even hear about tragic accidents that happen while trying to take a photo. We take out our camera the minute we arrive at our hiking destination. Sometimes we take photos of something and leave within minutes. We snap a photo of our food or drink without appreciating the time it took the barista or chef to prepare its presentation. We take multiple shots of ourselves or with our friends until they are perfect. Once quiet and untouched places are becoming flooded with human activity and constant photos. We dance around at concerts with our phone in hand or take 5 minute long videos we probably won’t watch again. We are all guilty of it. Seriously, it’s okay as long as you are honest with your intentions behind your photo or video. I just feel this takes away from our experience as humans to revel in these moments when we aren’t intentional or staying present.
Honestly, at one point in my life I was constantly taking photos and videos, documenting everything. After my 3+ year relationship came to an abrupt end, I was travel nursing in Colorado and eventually living in the apartment my ex and I were supposed to share. With a new love for mountains and the city of Denver, I was so obsessed with documenting my every move. Part of it was because things were new and exciting, but a large part was to show people how great I was doing and all the things I was experiencing after this break up. I wanted everyone, including my ex-boyfriend to see. (Of course I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing or my intentions until much later.) All I know is for 6 months, I had my device out right when I got to my destination, when my meals came out, after I cooked, or while I was out with friends. It wasn’t always about “getting that shot” per say, but it was more about showing what I was doing in the moment for other people. Not for me. I was even at the point of checking my stories constantly to see exactly who had watched, talk about toxic. Although I was having fun and enjoying myself, social media slowly made me more sad because I was addicted and obsessed with my highlight reel. If I was out of service I would anxiously await for those bars to pop up so I could post. It sickens me thinking about it. I hate to say it, but even though I have so many wonderful experiences from March of 2016 - September 2016, I don’t always remember everything with the details like I do since then. It is embarrassing even admitting that is what my life had come to.
It wasn’t until I was sitting alone in a cafe on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland that I had an “ah ha” moment. Let me preface the next part of the story because this peninsula has a unique energy. It is said to be one of the 7 chakras of the world, much of Icelandic folklore myths start here, strange things occur and some believe it is the entrance to the center of the earth. Icelandic culture views this place as magical and blames it on the glacier-volcano that occupies the area. Apparently it is responsible for the sleep disturbance of travelers too. From anything I’ve read or heard, people feel different here than in other parts of Iceland, so what a perfect place to have an epiphany right?
It was about noon, and I was several hours into my 20 hour driving day and adventure by myself. I had dropped off my friends (who were at one point strangers I shared a camper van with for 6 days) at the airport around 330 AM. I had already taken a nap in the car since then and driven for several hours to be here. While walking on the cliffs of the Icelandic coast, I came across a little cafe by the sea. To this day, I have no idea of the name or exact location because I stumbled upon it in the middle of a trail. Everything was calm, slow, and waves crashed gently to shore. The grass was bright green, the black rock cliffs were of crazy formations and the sun was finally out. It was so warm I took my Patagonia puffy off for the first time since arriving in Iceland, feeling rejuvenated by the sun. I sat on the patio waiting for my quiche with a cup of tea, breathing in the air. The cafe had just opened and a couple joined me on the patio. I could hear the birds chirping and the breeze was gently blowing my curls into my face. The shop owner was sweeping and humming to himself. I noticed he looked up, closed his eyes and with a breath, smiled. I wondered if he knew how beautiful his home was or if he even noticed it anymore since he sees it daily. Based on what I saw, I wanted to think he knew how special this place was with every cell in his body.
As I sat here noticing my surroundings, even though they were beautiful, I realized I was lonely. I reached for my phone out of habit. No service. “Great” I thought. “I have to be with my thoughts.” I could feel them welling, and I mean all of them. In times of desperation we look to our device and connect with just about anyone, and with language barriers, I had neither. It was in this moment I realized how broken and unhealed I was from this break up. I also realized what this obsession with documentation of my every move was truly about. My need for connection, my insecurities and wanting validation. I saw how being on my device trying to take photo or video to post took me away from my experiences in Iceland and back in Colorado. I thought back to all the times I was with friends, but was aimlessly scrolling or trying to document. It was like I needed more than just the company I was with, it was like the present moment wasn’t enough. I was a version of myself that I didn’t entirely recognize and somehow social media uploads of photos and stories were a way of making people view me the way I wanted to be seen, I just wasn’t exactly that person. I was so shocked I hadn’t fully dealt with these feelings and almost ashamed this was what it came to. I felt guilty for the times I was on my device with friends not giving them my full attention. I felt regret that I so frequently reached for my phone on adventures without taking in the moment like I had today at the cafe. It even crossed my mind that maybe I needed to get back on my anti-depressants because at the root, it seemed like I was unhappy. I realized I hadn’t been myself in years and I missed that bright eyed, adventurous girl so much. I realized she had been sleeping, but she wasn’t dead; she was just waiting for the perfect time to wake up.
Heavy thoughts led me to silent tears as I stared off completely distracted. I didn't even notice my quiche had arrived. The couple near me laughed as they nuzzled closer, bringing me back to earth. I looked at their smiles, I looked around at the beauty and I felt a sense of relief. I realized everything led me here to this present moment and I sat with it. I didn’t change it, I soaked it in with my entire being noticing every detail and discovered it was okay to not be okay right now. How refreshing it was to just be. My tears met the corners of my mouth as I smiled ever so slightly. I was growing, healing and my perspectives were shifting, allowing a small step in the direction to become the woman I was destined to be. I almost didn’t take a photo here, but I decided I wanted to remember this special place as the moment I changed.
When I left and started driving again, a song came on. It was catchy, but the words were powerful. I was remembering every shitty thing that had happened in my 27 years. I was seeing it like a quick movie reel but I was somehow so aware of my surroundings out the windows and was digesting every single lyric. I was starting to wake up and I was beginning to feel how freeing it was. I unknowingly reached for the volume and let the most perfect chorus blare just as I rounded a bend for the Snæfelljokull Glacier to come into view near the sea.
It was just me, this view, this sun, this new relief, this song and nothing but an open road with no plan ahead of me (literally and figuratively). I’ve never felt more, dare I quote, “infinite” as I got carried away. I realized then I’m in total control of my experiences and ability to be present and this was just the beginning of a beautiful life. I screamed and flew my arm out the window of my cheap compact car. Happy tears were flying in the wind as I leaned over to catch the breeze on my face. My mouth was dry from laughing, screaming and singing. I will always remember every detail of those few hours that changed me. It remains to this day, one of my favorite and most vivid memories.
I had roughly 3 days left on my solo trip abroad and I rarely took my device out the remainder of the time. I snapped a few photos here and there and I recorded a few videos of crowds chanting while at a Manchester United vs Leicester City game while on a quick 40ish hour trip to England (Europe understands fùtbol on another level I had been craving to be a part of since I was a child) I do however, have one very important video and photo, and it is of dancing with new friends at an Indie bar with my host, Martin, his friends and two other girls who were staying with them while traveling. I don’t think a smile left my face that night. I was just free, happy, lucky and enjoying some of my favorite music with some incredible people in a tiny bar in Manchester. It was on these sweaty floors I knew that girl who was sleeping was now fully awake. It was here I knew I had come back home to myself. The beginning of my trip had so much documentation, the end was mainly a wonderful memory. When I see those few photos and videos from my last days in Iceland and my quick trip in Manchester, I smile and I laugh remembering it with every ounce of my being because I was fully in it.
I returned to the states as better human. Travel often does that, surprise surprise. I viewed myself, my life, my potential, my devices and my experiences alone or with others completely different.
This somehow translated over into why I picked up meditation in December of 2016. I wanted to bring present moment awareness into my daily life. Come January, I decided to get into photography and with little knowledge I shot a friends destination wedding and her boudoir shoot. I was surprisingly decent, and although I really enjoyed it, it felt a little off. By February, I moved to San Diego for a 6 month work contract and managed to slow down completely. I was at the beach almost daily, spending much of my time alone, mediating, doing yoga and writing but also met some incredible people. I continued to learn my camera and progress my hobby. It was at the coast where I became smitten with being intentional in all forms, the art of presence and the mindset of slowing down. I feel like everything I learned in those remaining moments of my trip came full circle to my daily life here. When I left in August of 2017, this new found grounding and freedom continued to seep into my life with moments of Deja Vu, serendipity, incredible connections with people and a sense of purpose. It even gave me the confidence to go on a 1 month solo trip to Eastern Europe. I brought my actual camera, excited to take some photos but I discovered the conflict I felt initially. My new shift in life and perspective didn’t exactly mesh well with photography, at least for me. I felt rushed and pressured when I had my camera and I realized rather quickly that I wasn’t being fully present. Yikes.
I left my camera at my hostel most days while I was out and decided to just use my phone. I was annoyed at the extra weight I had to carry in my backpack while changing locations and regretted bringing it altogether. I don’t have a ton of photos from month long excursion, but I am flooded with memories from the small amount I have because I know I was fully present. Maybe photography wasn’t for me, but I wanted to give it another go.
A few months later, I befriended people who happened to be photographers and I drastically improved my skills with their guidance. Since I understood the art even better now, taking a good shot became easier. However, I still felt off when I brought the camera on an adventure. I can’t put my finger on it, but it was a personal observation that has no judgment towards anyone who loves photography. Something wasn’t clicking for me. Many times it was a battle for me to even take my phone out because I was worried I’d miss a moment let alone a camera. When I did practice photography, I went out with the intention that it was all I was doing and I didn’t mind it as much. That’s where the process of taking a mindful photograph / video came to me all those years ago, it’s only now I’m putting it into words. For all I know, everyone may do this, but many times I still can sense that people are not fully present with a device in hand. When I do bring my camera on a trip, decide I want to take photos of friends, or if I just have my phone with me on an adventure or daily life, I now know + set my intentions with each experience and potential opportunity for a photo. I don’t feel the conflict I once did. I know how to set myself up for success in order to absorb a moment, experience something fully and document it if and only if I want to.
For everyone who is a photographer, and for everyone else documenting their experiences, I am in no way talking poorly of you because we need you to inspire us all. I love seeing your journey and daily life. I am in no way generalizing every single person that goes somewhere, who is constantly on their device because we are all unique individuals who view the world differently. I just like to think we all run deeper, even if we don’t realize it. That’s where taking a mindful photograph or video comes in. It means being intentional about your experience whether it is for yourself or to share with others. It means taking that extra time to help you remember a moment and to use the photo as a time machine to take you back there fully when you see it.
Back to the idea of a mindful photograph..
Because of my experiences, I spoke to several photographer friends who gave me some interesting insight on how they stay present while doing their work or hobby. For example, a friend of mine is a professional and was on a trip with his significant other to spend quality time together. While adventuring, he ended up wanting to use it as an opportunity to take photos and submit to an outdoor brand. Their relationship almost ended because he was hyper-focused on achieving shots all weekend that he was not staying present with his significant other. This wasn’t for paid work, but he had worked with the brand in the past so he knew any photo he shared with them may have potential for compensation. Looking back, he realized how it changed their entire experience and how their relationship suffered all for a few photos. Another mentioned how he soaks in a moment and tries to capture and create a shot to elicit the same feeling he had for everyone else. If he doesn’t get it after a few attempts, he doesn’t worry much about it. He is an incredible artist who also loves Iceland (@suedeonflim) so check him out. Moreover, a good friend of mine does photography strictly as a hobby. He says he brings his camera almost everywhere on trips but doesn’t take a ton of photos; he just wants it available if the moment strikes. However, he has taken a liking to film photography which he says feels different; you have no idea what the picture will look like so it doesn’t take away since there is no review process. I have also watched professional photographer friends get completely overtaken by their equipment never removing their eyes from their camera and forgetting what and who was around them. Maybe they viewed the world directly through their camera, and that was their experience or maybe they were so focused on getting a photograph they didn’t stop to enjoy the moment fully. I never did ask. All I know was how it made myself and everyone else feel knowing they weren’t experiencing the place all together. It was actually uncomfortable to know our friend was focused on getting photos for themselves, but also of themselves instead of just being there. I remember that feeling so well which is why I wanted the view point of other people in the profession.
Whatever your intentions are with your camera or phone, be sure to first capture your memory and then take a mindful photograph If you’d like.
Part of practicing mindfulness is attempting to stay present. It is often a challenge and many times we stray away from the moment and have to redirect our thoughts back to it. We see this in mediation too. We drift, we notice, and we return to our breath. When we are away from our mat and in the real world, we are overcome with things that have the ability to distract us. Therefore, awareness is key to not let moments and memories just blend together. As we go about our day, our meals, our hikes, our trips and our group hang outs, we unconsciously reach for our device out of habit, not intention. So let’s shift our perspective.
Taking a mindful photograph to me means fully experiencing a moment fully, staying present with what I’m feeling and noticing and then maybe reaching for the camera to capture it after I feel I’ve taken in enough and created a true memory.
When I arrive at a place, whether it is the summit, the sunset, the sunrise, a city, hell, even a beautiful plate of food, or somewhere with friends and we are having a good time, I try to remember to do a few things.
1. Take a few deep breaths as a reminder to keep devices away for a bit and just be
2. Check in with yourself in all forms
What do you see? What do you hear? What can you smell? What can you feel? What can you taste? What are you thinking about, if anything? How are you feeling emotionally and mentally?
3. Practice gratitude (think of at least three things). It rewires your brain
How was the journey getting here? Who are you with? Why are you here? What are you grateful for today specifically or right now? What is making this moment special or not special?
4. Take in the moment as you’ve been experiencing it even more for a few more breaths
5. Then, when you’re feeling ready bring your awareness to your intentions for this photo or video if you choose to take it. Then, fire away. Or not. The choice is yours.
Once you get clear on your intentions and take in a moment it makes your photo that much more meaningful. Maybe it is to remember exactly what you just experienced when you were device free and fully present. Maybe it is for your scrapbook. Maybe it is because you really love this hobby and you’re unsure of what you even want with this photograph but want it anyway. Maybe it is to post on your social media for pleasure, maybe its to post on your social media for business. Maybe it’s because this was hilarious and you want to share it with others.
Whatever your intention is with your photograph or your trip, decide in the moment or before you start but be honest with yourself. There is no wrong answer. I just urge you to really revel in your experience before hand. I ask you to soak it all in before reaching for your camera or device and I beg of you to take a few deep breaths as a friendly reminder to take time to be present. So, take a photo, lay your adventure blanket out to relax, have a picnic with a view and then eat, place your model and instruct them, take that funny boomerang with your friend and share that selfie because you actually took time to notice you were feeling fierce and confident today. Whatever it is, no matter what the reason, enjoy yourself and do everythingl with intention, awareness and total presence. So much of life can be missed when we hide behind a lens or our device.
SIDE NOTE: Taking a mindful photograph does not apply for me when taking a photo at the entrance sign of a National Park with my best friends on road trips. Those have a quick and known purpose of tradition. Its pure entertainment watching each other position phones in shoes or on the ground as someone runs into the shot. They’re always rushed-partly because of traffic and partly because we are excited to get into the National Park, but they are SO much fun. We never care how it looks as long as we are mostly in the shot. Some of my favorite laughs come from this ritual, and the reason I remember every detail is because we know our intentions behind the photo.
I also challenge you the next time you see a place on social media that is instilling a sense of desire to go there to ask yourself two questions.
Why you want to go there in the first place?
What are you hoping to gain from the experience?
Do some reasearch. There is no wrong answer here. The world is a big place with so much beauty and so much to see and we will never be able to see it all. I feel it is important to get clear on your priorities of not only where you want to go and what you want to do, but why you want to go. This way, you can ensure your experience will be meaningful.
Lastly, and most importantly, I encourage you to do something or make something tangible with that stock pile of photos you created. What is better than an actual photo album of an amazing trip or year you can always look back on? What about printing a photo and hanging it in your home? Allow these photos to bring you right back to those memories where you can relive every detail. When you take a photograph mindfully, I know they will.
I promise you, nothing in that frame will ever compare to the memories of your mind, body and soul experiencing it first. Be sure to create a true memory before capturing your photo.
Stay present & stay inspired.