“ABSTRACT: This study examined the affective and cognitive benefits of taking photographs of one’s everyday surroundings. Thirty-eight undergraduate participants were randomly assigned to either take photographs in a mindful, creative way; take photographs in a neutral, factual way; or do a count-your-blessings writing exercise, an activity that is known to reliably increase mood ¹. Planned contrasts revealed that those taking mindful, creative photographs were, on average, in a significantly better mood and were significantly more appreciative and motivated than those taking neutral photographs. There were no significant differences between either photography condition and the writing activity. These results suggest that, when done thoughtfully, photography can be an effective way of improving mood and appreciation of everyday life.” – Jaime L. Kurtz
The results of Jaime L. Kurtz’ study indicate that photography when undertaken ‘mindfully’ alters the operators mood substantially and for the better! Something that I and many other photographers can attest to having occurred in our lives.
To be mindful in the holding and operation of a real camera is part of the process of using it. One must establish what they want to capture, how to frame it, what to focus upon, how much to have in focus throughout the scene, etc… Many things are decided upon when taking a picture with a real camera. This focus and concentration in combination with an instinctive searching and observing of ones surroundings lead to the easy to access experience of mindfulness in photography.
“DISCUSSION: The present study had two primary aims. First, it sought to examine the affective impact of photography, both with a positive and a neutral emphasis. Second, it compared the effect of photography to that of an empirically-supported happiness-increasing strategy: counting one’s blessings in a writing exercise 1. Results revealed that those who were taking photographs while looking for meaning and beauty found the activity more pleasant and absorbing and also reported significantly higher mood and higher levels of appreciation and motivation than those who were asked to take more neutral, informative photographs. In other words, the way a person engages in photography seems critical.
Results suggest that both mindful photography and counting one’s blessings seem to be similarly effective at enhancing appreciation. One might argue that the photography exercise takes more time and effort than writing, which can be done anywhere, at any time. However, these results suggest otherwise. The mindful photo condition was not only rated as the most pleasant and absorbing activity, but was also the least challenging. While these results are not significant, they do suggest that those who were asked to take pictures were not particularly overburdened, and those in the mindful photo condition actually enjoyed the activity.
To my knowledge, this is the first study to examine the psychological benefits of photography. Future studies could further address questions of implementation. Positive interventions are more effective when a certain “fit” exists between the person and the activity, such that it feels authentic and enjoyable 4. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that not everyone would enjoy and benefit from mindful photography. In addition, the current manipulation was somewhat minimal, with participants taking three photographs of each topic, twice a week for two weeks. With the practically limitless memory capacity of digital cameras, a person hoping to implement this strategy could easily take these findings to the extreme, such that they are so busy taking photographs that they cease to be fully present in and appreciative of the moment. As with most happiness-increasing strategies, the appropriate “dosage” needs to be considered ³. – Jaime L. Kurtz”
Very interesting results were gathered from this study.
That mindful photography is as effective as counting one’s blessings in a writing exercise is quite the surprise! That both of these activities lead to increased appreciation is good news indeed. That mindful photography was also the easiest accessible and least challenging as compared to thankful writing was also a pleasant surprise.
I am glad that Jaime L. Kurtz wrote the warning that there can be too much of a good thing in the final paragraph! I have personally found that around the two hour mark is the magic time limit with photography.
“EXCERPT – Part 1: Recent conversations I have had about photography with friends has gotten me thinking. First one was with Sheldon Serkin in Bangkok. He asked me what getting in the zone when shooting street meant to me. He was to give a talk the following morning about this at the 8 x 8 Street Photography Conference. About how when you are out shooting, that you get in the zone. Whatever that is. For different people it is different things.
I stopped and thought.
I think, I said, for me, it is switching off. I lose sense of my surroundings, of noises. Things become narrowed. I become super-focussed on my immediate environment, and the only distractions I have are visual ones.
Later, with more reflection, I told him – when I am out shooting and I zone out I am on an accelerated path, excited, exhilarated to be in the moment. Scenes, looks, people, flash and vanish. It is dreamlike. I am – off.
When I step out of this moment, I said, it is weird. Slowly, and then suddenly, noises, like traffic, people talking, rush in. I might find myself in the middle of the road, or down on my knees on the pavement, or pushed up against a wall and realise I need to move, to get back into the normal rhythm of things. I feel invigorated, exhilarated; alive! It is euphoric and addictive. Does it happen all the time. Hell, no! But when it does – wow!
He told me for him, when he gets in the zone, he feels invincible, invisible. Instinct and intuition kick in and he feels on. Conversely I feel off. Freed. But I do agree with the instinct and intuition kicking in.” – Brendan Ó Sé
The feeling of being “in the zone” is a commonality amongst a certain subset of photographers. Those who have the ability to zone out to the surrounding noise and the distractions all around us, become one with the place they find themselves in, truly observing it in a synchronous and creative manner, much like a child being things for the first time.
This sensation that Brendan describes of being almost alienated as you return to the world is one I experience frequently when out doing my photography. Being “in the zone” everything else recedes to the background, no more intruding thoughts, no more distractions, just the place or things I’m photographing and me with my camera! When you are looking through the viewfinder of a camera, you enter another world, being whisked away quickly and easily.
Even though Brendan’s friend Sheldon described the experience as one of “feeling invincible, invisible”. They are both experiencing the same thing, it’s just described in different ways, due to their differing experiences of life and therefore their contrasting views, with Brendan feeling “off” and Sheldon feeling “on”! Me, I feel off, when I’m in this state of awareness and experience, able to react without those unnecessary procedural thoughts that go along with doing something, it’s all instinctive, almost primitive in the way I am able to react and truly observe things.
“EXCERPT – Part 2: Move on to the next conversation, one I had with my friend, Paul Moore at the excellent MojoCon conference last week. He was talking about how he likes to stay up late at night and work on his photos. He said for him it was a form of mindfulness. Now, I had never ever imagined that editing images could be a form of mindfulness. But once he said it, I banked the idea, and have returned to it over the past week or so, and I have to say he is right. Very right. It is a form of mindfulness. One that suits me. One that does bring me a calm. OK, lots of times it can be frustrating when you learn that your photo is crap. But while editing, I am immersed in the process – with each Lightroom slide, I am willing the photos to life, willing them to be right. And for those moments, I am back in zone, back out on the street and the emotion, the excitement, the connection and all-consuming immediacy of that moment is there with me again, but now it is calming, rather than exhilarating.” – Brendan Ó Sé
Paul’s experience of mindfulness when editing his images is one that many photographers share! Time slips away from the editor, the world slips away, the worries of the world too! As I said above, anything can be a mindful experience, even doing the dishes if you truly want it to be.
Personally, I find the activity of editing photographs to be a meditative process, “calming, rather than exhilarating” as Brendan put it so well. I am so focused on bringing the image to life, I become inward in that time. Again, the world at large disappears along with all its intrusions and distractions!
“EXCERPT – Part 1: To understand what mindfulness photography is, let’s first take a look at what it is not.
You’re out on a shoot. You’re scanning the environment, looking for a good capture and trying to avoid bad ones. In the back of your mind you’re thinking about all those great photos you’ve taken in the past, or about great images by others. You consider ways to recreate your prior success or emulate those outstanding pictures by your heroes. You’re reminding yourself of the techniques and strategies for shooting. You’re thinking about the people who will see your work. Will they like it? You anticipate their reactions. Some recognition and praise would sure feel nice. Maybe these pictures will turn out to be crap. How disappointing would that be? You’re wanting and hoping that this will be a successful shoot. You expect at least a few good photos.
I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves living out at these some aspects of this scenario. But what’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong is that we’re not really SEEING. Our awareness is constricted by what we’re thinking, expecting, and wanting. The internal chatter and emotional desires act like smoke that clouds our vision. We’re experiencing all the stuff going on inside our heads and not much of what’s going on around us.” – John Suler
There’s no way I could have put that better! John has described what mindfulness isn’t perfectly, it’s probably a state-of-being familiar to all of us, especially with the busy-ness of life in this day and age.
“EXCERPT – Part 2: … The Balance between Mindfulness & Concentration …
In his book on mindfulness meditation, Henepola Gunaratana talks about how it is actually a combination of mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness is a process of opening up and detecting something new, like highly sensitive peripheral vision. Concentration, on the other hand, is a one-pointed awareness that zooms in to focus on an object, like a laser. In photography as well meditation, the two work as partners to balance each other. In the state of mindful awareness, you notice something in your field of view. Then, using the powers of concentration, you consciously direct your awareness to it, sink into and explore it, and finally, when doing photography, record it without memory or desire – not unlike the archer who selflessly lets loose the arrow in that fully focussed moment of Zen awareness. Once the photo is taken, your mindfulness opens up again to notice something different. During the shoot, the process repeats itself over and over again, with mindfulness providing receptivity to the “big picture” of new visual possibilities, while concentration guides the immersion into the selected subject, culminating in the photograph. Mindfulness is inclusive, concentration is exclusive. If you find yourself being overwhelmed by visual sensations – i.e., too much mindfulness, which can happen to people with acute visual sensitivities – try boosting concentration. If you find yourself slipping into a stupor-like focus on one thing, try returning to mindfulness.
a Camera IS Mindfulness
Photographers who practice mindfulness sometimes say that simply holding a camera can induce this state of awareness. It is a kind of conditioning effect: your mind associates doing photography with mindfulness. I might add that when we are mindfully aware of our surroundings, we are doing photography, even if we don’t have a camera with us.” – John Suler
John’s explanation that mindfulness meditation is “actually a combination of mindfulness and concentration” describes exactly what occurs when one enters the zone whilst doing photography using the camera as a tool to enter the state of mindfulness easily. His next sentences describe exactly what is happening when in this state. It is the action and combination of “opening up and detecting something new” along with “one-pointed awareness that zooms in to focus on an object, like a laser” that makes photography such a beneficial activity to experience regularly. There is a healing nature to this practice that is extremely beneficial for those that experience mental health challenges in their lives.
That this state of being is actually easy to enter into by using a camera is great news!
I find that the action of holding the camera, and even packing my photographic equipment, in preparation for its use helps shift my mental state from busy to calm and clear! This has been reinforced through regularity of experience over time, and hence why I feel it important for my sessions to occur for a minimum of eight weeks. An ongoing weekly activity of this nature is best though, as it allows the participants the opportunity to establish this as an entrenched experience over time and through regular repetition.