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  • Kay Gibbons-Buckwell

The Simplicity of Being: the Gentle Art of Mindfulness through Photography

To sit still in the middle of a beautiful scene or space, breathe deeply, and feel enriched by its harmony, is a serene and gentle way to pass the time. With a camera (or phone) in your hand it's even better. Here's why.

I'm not sure if it's just me but life seems to have become so much busier these days. With that, so have our minds. While meditation, walking through a forest or along the beach, or soaking in a hot tub are all wonderful ways to nurture and reinvigorate ourselves, sometimes our minds just don't want to switch off. Our engines keep running until we find ourselves in a state of overwhelm and rejecting the very thing which could help us - time out. (Who has time for downtime when there are things to think/worry about?)

The Art of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one way to help calm some noise in our busy monkey minds so that we may centre ourselves and give our overthinking some much-needed time out.

So what exactly is Mindfulness and why is it good for you? What does it mean to just "let go and be in the moment"? And what has any of this got to do with photography?

A camera (of any kind) is an incredibly useful tool for shutting everything out, except for whatever is in focus (pun intended). In that ten seconds (or however long it takes to tap the shutter button) you have automatically quietened down parts of your brain to home in on a couple of simple movements and thoughts, thus beginning a few seconds or minutes of mindful bliss.

Mindfulness, by definition, is the action of becoming aware of thoughts, feelings, movement in any given moment. Rather than getting lost in those sensations or emotions, we merely become observers of them minute by minute, meaning, we stay present in the here and now.

We sip a cup of tea and become aware of its smell, taste, texture, temperature, shape of the cup, its weight, how the light glistens on the surface of the liquid. We may see our reflection in it, watch steam rising from it, observe the patterns on the cup itself. There are a dozen different ways of staying focused in the moment by taking in all the nuances of the act of drinking tea. (Who knew?)

We could merely call this an observation, but what we've done subconsciously, is, for a moment, blocked out a dozen things which were concerning us five seconds ago. We've calmed our mind, regulated breathing, and enjoyed the action at hand (especially if one can make a decent cup of tea - organic Rooibos is my preferred choice!)

The Art of Appreciation

But let's take this mindfulness idea a step further. What if, during the process of observing, we begin to really appreciate the nuances of the objects or actions at hand? What if we see how the handle makes a kind of an off-centred love heart? What if we notice the steam is sort of dancing and making really cool shapes? What if we begin to find a spark of joy in the way the sunlight outlines the shape of the cup? What if, suddenly, we begin to see the truth of the beauty in what we are observing and it lifts our hearts? What if, by lifting our hearts, we begin to feel happier? More energised? More grateful for all of these tiny details which surround us in any given moment?

The more energised we feel by the scenes of our life, the more we're able to lift our moods, and in turn, lift the mood of those around us, which in turn, lifts the community at large. Ripples make waves. Being mindful, therefore, not only adds to the benefits of your wellbeing, but the world while your at it. I don't mind if you think this is poppycock. That's your choice, but you've read this far so you may as well read on (she laughs while sipping on her delightful cup of tea).

So, the camera. A phone camera, DSLR, an old Box Brownie, whatever you've got on hand will do. Pick it up. Look through the lens. What do you see?

Is there a light which falls just so? Is there a curve worth celebrating? A pattern? A shape? What's lifting your spirits as you look through the lens?

I'll show you some examples of how certain things you may see every day - and take absolutely no notice of - bring beauty or a certain harmony without you ever realising.

Powerlines, boring old powerlines. In Australia they're everywhere and generally viewed as eyesores. But I like to change my perspective on these types of objects and find a way to enjoy them. Here are three examples of powerlines being brought into a more agreeable way of viewing them.

Is there something you find ugly that you could turn into a beautiful piece of art work? Walk around it. If it's an object move it into the sun so you can explore its shadows. Is there some way to show it off in a more peaceful way? Can you somehow find appreciation for it? Crop in the photo so you see just a detail. Set yourself a task of finding beauty in something you don't normally. Or, better still, find a way just to accept that something is what it is, and celebrate its mundaneness.

The Art of Happenstance

It's true that it is easy to find beauty in a glowing sunset, to enjoy the glory of a waterfall or a grand vista of some kind. But it's not always so easy to look beyond the obvious. That's why we need to set our intentions - be mindful - to search out the interesting, the beautiful, the quirky, with our full attention - full intention, full mind - on the task at hand.

We must train our mind to be open to new ideas, to look beyond the boring and the ordinary, and develop a greater awareness of the details around us. This may take effort to begin with, but while you're training your mind to notice these tiny special moments, you're giving your brain a much-needed break from overthinking and worry. Does this make sense?

It's a win-win! We win at seeing life in a new way while also winning at easing a troubled mind. And when we really start to observe our surroundings, we notice all sorts of fun and games - little synchronicities of life which, to me, become big miracles.

Example One

I was photographing a flock of seagulls one day as they were changing patterns in the sky, but I didn't realise I'd captured a beautiful smile until I came home and began the editing process. When I cropped the photo in I took it as a sign the universe was smiling with me. So it also pays to be just as observant and mindful in the editing process as it does in the act of taking photos in the first place.

Example Two

Another gorgeous synchronicity which always gives me a huge chuckle is the happenstance of unexpected colour coordination within a scene. I can tell you right now, I don't wait for hours until the right set of circumstances lines up. I am in the moment, walking, watching, turning, with every step I take. So it's even more wonderful when things just line up "accidentally", like the next two shots. The first "green" shot was taken in a laneway in Melbourne, Australia, last December. I knelt down to explore a potential perspective of the lane with the bike in the foreground. The woman walked into the shot, the coloured lights above turned green and I snapped in a heartbeat. I don't mind if the shot is not a world-beater. I smile because it happened. What are the odds? The second "yellow" shot was taken in Lucerne, Switzerland. I was panning around to see what would look interesting through the lens when suddenly this woman in a stark yellow jacket passed in front of my lens. At first I thought oh she'd make a nice pop of colour against the grey, and then I saw that she matched the chair - not just a little bit, but exactly! Again, what are the odds?

Happy "accidents" like these always make my day. They also make me wonder if there is a deeper synchronicity at work. Whatever the reason, the powers of observation, being in the moment, and having good reflexes are keys to getting the shot.

If mindfulness photography, is about being in the moment, observing deeply, thinking about the best way to capture a scene with an interesting perspective, then how does that translate into the simplicity of being? Well, let's unpack that a little bit.

The Art of Simplicity

"Keeping things simple" - we all understand the concept but we're not so practised at its execution. It's about eliminating all of the outside interference so we can concentrate on one thing at a time (which keeps us mindfully in the moment). It's also (sometimes) about literally keeping things simple in composition, so that a feeling of tranquillity and serenity can be easily portrayed to the viewer - just as it was probably felt during the precise moment of taking the shot. This could also be called "minimalism" both in photography and in life. "Minimalists" practise living without clutter and the same principle translates to photography. Again, another way to throw out unnecessary noise. In simplicity, lies serenity.

The Art of Being

We are humans existing and having experiences. [My personal mantra is: we are souls having (very) human experiences.] When we choose to stand or sit still, breathe in our surrounds, feel its nuances, use our senses to experience all facets of it, this turns into a moment of just "being" - or allowing - ourselves to become immersed into the fullness of life, without expectation. We are simply flowing. No mindset to go this way or that, or to take any particular shot. It's in those moments, of having absolutely let go of any idea of what should be, that the beauty of life speaks to us, comes to us, in its own time. In the stillness of being, opportunities present themselves to us in wonderful and unexpected ways. Some call this serendipity, or synchronicity, as I mentioned earlier. I call this being in the flow. When a photographer dives into this state of being, anything can happen - true Zen moments.

The Art of Following Instincts

Sometimes I get feelings to act upon certain inspirations (well, all the time, really, but that's a story for another day). One day I was especially hankering to take some shots but the day was quite misty and seemed, at first, unappealing. But intuition told me to drive to the waterfront all the same. Timing is everything, for just on arrival the sun poured through a split in the clouds and danced on the sea. It was magnificent! Straight away I knew why I'd felt so compelled to head to the bay, why my intuition had been calling me to get in the car and drive. I'd been following my instincts, feeling the flow, and existing in the moment with no preconceived idea on what or how to set up any shots. Yet the scene dictated exactly what needed to happen the moment I parked the car. I just had to let go and be one with what was unfolding before my eyes. The magic of the scene poured over me and I stood in the misty rain for over an hour with no concept of time. The world could have fallen down behind but its drama would've been lost on me, such was I in this state of being. And more importantly - enjoying.

The Art of Light

For me, light is always a symbol of hope, and as I observe plays of light on objects, or within whole scenes, it reminds me that I'm connected to all things. It's also a reminder to find my gratitude, to slow down, simplify my life, turn down the volume of negative thinking, and to always look for a different perspective - whether that's in my own personal viewpoint or in thinking of new ways to shoot a location or object. Light is one element which can acutely alter mood and portray emotion.

Here's a story.

The shots below were taken in Colmar, France (the village where the story Beauty & the Beast was set in). This particular night was rainy and I had a head full of hayfever. Exhausted after a full day of exploring and shooting laneways and flower-lined canals, I was not feeling much like heading out again to capture the evening. Yet, with a rather large dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) and a husband who knew I'd kick myself if I'd missed the opportunity of photographing reflecting light, we set off to meander through the village once again. The laneways had quietened with most tourists and locals tucked away for the night. The rain had eased to a mist. The adventure became an immersion in a real-life enchanting fairy tale. Oh, and I forgot all about the hayfever!

Four of the many, many, shots I took that night resulted in a Top 10 award in the Australian Photographer of the Year (Australian Photography Magazine) 2023. I was beyond ecstatic that the warmth and emotion I had felt during that shoot, had transferred through the images and onto the judges. Such a celebration of light. Such a celebration of life. It was a true highlight of my trip to Europe last year.

The Art of Colour

Colour plays another big factor in my enjoyment of photography. For years I've studied the impact of hues and tones on our wellbeing. As I'm also a painter (and singer/songwriter, and writer), colour has figured largely in my life. Mindful of how it transforms our moods, I'm like an overexuberant puppy when I happen to stumble across a vibrant scene. It is part of the human condition to be moved by colour. Sunrises and sunsets, as already mentioned, are the obvious ways to celebrate and immerse ourselves in the world's colourful natural beauty, however, colour also brings harmony to chaos. Training the mind to be on the lookout for colour is another important way to stay mindful.

The scene below, which I happened across in Lucerne, Switzerland, could have been just a hotchpotch of competing lines if not for the unifying colour of orange joyfully creating a wonderful backdrop to the man lost in his phone.

Below that is a detail of colour which I came across while immersing myself in the celebrations of Chinese New Year in Melbourne. As people reached out to touch the passing dragon for luck, I thought how easily the image could be translated as an appreciation for colour and texture.

The Art of Meditation

As a meditation teacher for over twenty-five years, I have come to find that meditation comes in many forms and photography, for me, is one form of mindful meditation. If you Google studies on the benefits of meditation you'll find quite a few papers written on the subject and it doesn't take long to read that meditation may help with everything from lowering heartrates to alleviating all sorts of health issues including depression. There are also numerous studies on the specific positive benefits of mindful photography.

As this is just a short(ish) blog on the subject, I won't include all of the ins and outs of those studies, (you can do your own research there) but I will do a dot-point summary of the things I've particularly found to be beneficial to me.

The Big Summary

  • I'm more mindful of surroundings

  • Helps me to sit still

  • I can see grace/gracefulness

  • I'm more open to seeing unusual things as beautiful

  • Gives me purposeful intentions

  • Helps me look for peace

  • It stills the mind

  • Relaxes

  • Calms the heart

  • Ignites my senses

  • Keeps me in the moment/present/mindful

  • Reduces anxiety, quells fears, enhances wellbeing

  • Restores the centre of me, grounds

  • Reminds me to just let go and be

  • Helps me to be spontaneous

  • To feel more

  • To open my heart

  • To breathe deeply

  • It is meditative

  • Hours can pass by

  • Helps me to create deeper appreciation for the world

  • Encourages me to slow down

  • To stop thinking about anything else except what’s right in front of me

  • Helps me to go deeper than just merely observing because it's an immersive experience where I start to feel, see, recognise the beauty of lines, shapes, textures. Taking a photograph is then like paying homage to a scene. I respect the reverence of the moment.

  • It helps me to shift perceptions

  • It freezes time

  • Promotes childlike wonder as if I'm seeing everything for the first time

  • Promotes wellbeing, happiness, connection, observation powers and love for the world around us

  • My appreciation for life and its tiny details grows

  • I have used it to work through times of grief, not to express the angst within, but to relieve myself of it.

  • Helps in observation of other themes like the intersection of past and present, of colour serendipity, and of finding harmony in chaos

These points are only the tip of this important subject but I hope there's enough inspiration here for you to try it for yourself - with or without a camera (or smart phone).

By the way, there are some people out there who like to complain with their sighs and cries of "stop filming, stop taking photos, live in the moment!" And while putting the phones and cameras down for a time, to be still and breathe, certainly has its benefits, I would say to them that by looking through a lens (of any sort) is one of the most therapeutic and gentle ways to be completely focused, mindful, and relaxed. It resets, rewires our brains into recognising the true beauty and harmony of this planet, our people, in a very pointed way.

In any single moment, our gratitude, and therefore our happiness levels, have the potential to be raised. And what can possibly be wrong with that?

Let go, let flow, discover and enjoy. Even in your own home, you can find mindful moments of pure Zen.


1 Comment

Jan 20

I love everything about this article, Kay. It's a beautiful reminder of ways to be mindful. I've never been one for yoga, but I have found that going out in nature with my camera has brought me peace in the past. I always associated it with the location (mountains or Great Lakes). But you're right - when I'm framing my shot and clicking the shutter, my anxiety disappears because I'm concentrating on something else.

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