Editor’s Desk: Photography as a Creative Art Form for Personal Discovery

Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels

David UlrichThe interview I did with photographer David Ulrich, author of several books including Zen Camera, is popular on our website. Listeners are showing their interest in the transformative power available through photography. Ulrich says, “When you pick a camera up, even a cell phone, it’s an invitation to observe the world. It’s an invitation to look inward and to take note of your own responses to the world. We would have to agree there’s two different worlds: the outer and the inner world. When those two worlds converge, an image is made and I believe that we learn many things in school but we are never taught how to see. I think that’s very regretful. Because we’re such a visual culture, I believe that the day will come that there [will] be classes in photography for everyone because most people are now using photography as a means of communication.” 

David tells the story of guiding a photography project for Hong Kong youth. An astute Chinese woman took him aside and asked, “You are an American? You all seem so confident. What I find so surprising about Americans is you believe in your own opinions. How can you find truth if you are certain of what you think you know?” In Ulrich’s writings he asks the question: “Do we only make images based on unlimited, subjective perceptions or can we use the camera to learn, to explore, and to broaden our way of seeing? Can we seek the truth of what is through a lens?” He adds, “We certainly can use our sensitivities and intelligence to know more about the world and others and undertake this exploration with the camera.”

This challenge of broadening our perceptions of the world reminds me of the Japanese story of the tea ceremony with the tea master and his Zen student: The tea master pours tea and continues pouring it until it is flowing out of the cup and onto the student’s lap and down onto the floor. The student protests and is stopped in midsentence by the master who says calmly. “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can you possibly learn Zen, without first emptying your cup.”

Ulrich teaches that emptiness implies standing openly in the space between what you know and what you can learn. He says, “The exercise of staying open and not knowing can have devastating and enlightening consequences. It teaches you how little you know and highlights your living questions. The practice of not knowing can also activate your unconscious and bring much newness, power, depth, and ministry to your experience of the world and your resulting images.”

The challenge of living in a place of “not knowing” and turning our attention to asking better questions is reflected in one of Ranier Maria Rilke’s most famous quotes in Letters to a Young Poet where he suggests that the seminal role of creativity is loving the questions and giving ideas time to just sit in the depths of the mind:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 

I hope you are as excited as I am about the opportunity to deepen our own perspective of the world through photography. It can offer us an opportunity to develop our own visual language. Again, we turn to Ulrich who encourages us to take our camera or cell phone with us and advises: Do not edit, do not judge. Photograph anything that strikes your fancy, anything that you feel strongly about. Even outrage is a powerful impulse to make photographs from. Over time, that activity will generate lucid gems: photographs that you can really call your own, that are infused with your own being and say something meaningful about the outer world.”

There is much we can learn about ourselves by the images that attract our attention. They help us to become more present and attentive in the moment. He encourages us to take loads of pictures; take even 100 or 200 in a week. And, using your intuition, choose a few of them out of the bunch that move your heart.

Ulrich says, “The key is to learn to take pictures from deeper parts of yourself. . . you need to take a lot of pictures in order to come to those moments where something inside of you says Yes. Yes in the sense that I know that this picture says something that I’m trying to say even if I don’t know what it is.” He gives the example of going into a used book store, “When I go into a used book store, I always know in a moment if I’m going make a find. And I walk around the bookstore and I look at a shelf and it – this is going to sound very New Agey – a shelf seems to glow in a particular way. It has a sense of presence. And I walk over to that shelf and I find something I’m looking for. So I actually believe that attention can and has a capacity to see in a way that our minds cannot fathom. . . Rumi says, ’let yourself be silently drawn to the things you really love.’ So there is a magnetic pull, there’s a draw to things that belong to us, so to speak. I recommend the same thing when you’re looking at your pictures that you’ve taken over the course of a week. You are looking for those pictures that have a coherence, that shine with a certain kind of significance. that jump off the page.” Ulrich suggests that we collect three or four pictures a week and put them into a separate folder. Over time this will reveal something about ourselves.

We may want to expand on what is calling our heart as represented by what we are paying attention to. Ulrich says, “Photography asks us for a dual awareness. We have a situational awareness of the world so we have to be aware of ourselves and be aware of our own thoughts, our own reactions to the thing in front of us. There is a kind of a mindfulness that is necessary with photography. We see how we see, we witness our thoughts, our reactions, our feelings toward what we’re looking at, and a relationship is established… There’s an energetic currency that takes place through attention… It can be a journey of self-discovery. We all have our angels, we all have our demons, we all have our strengths, we all have our weaknesses. These things can be revealed. These things will be shown in relief as we engage any art form, including photography.” 

As we study the photographs that have leaped out and grabbed the attention of our heart, we may be called to volunteer our time to a cause that is calling us through what we are seeing. Or we may notice that what we are focusing on is not enlivening our lives, rather it is causing us to spiral down into despair, into a kind of paralyzing fear. In my experience that can be a sign for us to shift our attention to something that activates our spirit to once again get out into the corridors of life and join the stream of those who are actively engaging life in positive ways and contributing their energies and gifts to a better world.

– Justine Willis Toms