Mindful Photography


One of the participants at our recent “See the Light” workshop was Flint Sparks. For many years, Flint has been leading his own workshops at the Hui Ho’olana (on Molokai Hawaii), teaching mindful embodiment and meditation. This time he was a participant wanting to learn more about photography. On the first day as we got to know each other, Flint shared his lack of camera knowledge as well as his excitement about learning. He portrayed himself as a “new” or “beginner” photographer. Later that night when the participants shared their 10 favorite images, I was anxious to see Flint’s. His first image came up and I heard an audible gasp from the group. My reaction was the same, the image was magnificent. Then, 10 seconds later as the slideshow continued, his next image appeared. Another gasp, another stunning image. In the end, all 10 of Flint’s images were truly amazing. They were full of emotion and connection with his subject. They were not just snapshots from a “beginner,” but rather images that clearly expressed who he was, what he saw and how he felt. I sat there wondering how could this be? Flint had made it clear that he was a new or beginner photographer.

The next morning we had our first “porch sharing session.”  In this session we asked the participants to think about and then share why they photograph. It was a lively and interesting discussion during which Flint and others shared insightful, thoughtful and meaningful ideas. The next day we had another porch sharing session. This time with the focus on connection with subject. Again Flint shared marvelous pearls of wisdom. Really good pearls, pearls that got me thinking. Here, I was a “leader” clearly being taught by a master teacher! And then, in quiet reflection after the sharing session, it dawned on me why Flint’s images were so good. Flint had already done the work we were asking the group to consider. The work of becoming a mindful photographer. The work of learning to be still, quiet and open. Flint embodies these principals. He teaches them, he lives them, he is them. As such, Flint is already in that place where images just being to appear.

Flint shared his thoughts on the way we have evolved as humans. And to humanize what our brain is constantly doing said, “our brain is like wifi that is constantly scanning and asking the world these three questions. Are you there? Do you see me? Do you choose me?” Isn’t photography much the same regardless of the subject? I can imagine the person in the street that I’ll be photographing in Cuba next week essential asking these very questions. Hello, are you there? Do you see me and do you care about me? Do you choose to photograph me and will you be careful with me?  And while it might be more difficult for some to think of a a dune at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley this way, is it not the same? Isn’t the dune asking, are you there, do you see me, do you choose me?

It was said during the week that we don’t take a picture, rather the picture takes us. Freeman Patterson says, “when we take a picture, the camera points both ways.” During the week, we invited participants to pay attention to what turns their head. In other words, what grabs your attention so viscerally that you must make a photograph. So, I ask you, what are you being taken by?  And, are you being mindful enough to be open to what you are being taken by, so that you can make an image that makes your heart sing? Or that others will connect with and that will make their heart sing?

As a side note, Flint has done and excellent Tedx talk which you can view by clicking on this link.  You might also check out his excellent blog where you can read his comments about his week as a student in our workshop.

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  1. Flint Sparks December 29, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    Thanks John! What a generous reflection on our first week together. I am humbled to be mentioned so warmly by you and honored to have been part of that wonderful week. Speaking of the three “questions,” I think that as the brain is asking these essential questions, seeking what it has evolved to seek—connection—and when our head is turned by something that makes our heart sing (and our finger press that shutter), the subject is also calling forward parts in us that want to be recognized, understood, and loved. The objects might enjoy our attention, especially if they are human, but a sunrise in Hawaii or a sandy dune in Death Valley can equally call forward the subject in us that yearns for these same things. These universal longings are what emerged naturally as we met as a group so vulnerably on the porch each morning. Vulnerable intimacy is where we meet our subjects, whether through the lens or sitting in mindful stillness, silence, and awe with our camera in our lap, knowing we have a place in the universe. Home, together.

    • JB December 29, 2014 at 8:37 am #

      And the teaching continues!! Thank you my friend. I very much appreciate your wisdom and new found friendship.

  2. Carla December 29, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    John, this post really spoke to me. I have been working on being more mindful about what I shoot and why. I hope those images that make my heart sing have an impact on others. Oftentimes when I am out shooting, I hear your voice whisper in my ear! Thanks for this wonderful post
    Happy New Year to you and looking forward to shooting those sand dunes.
    Have a great time in Cuba!

    • JB December 29, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      Carla, I love your passion for photography. You ARE making images that sing my friend!

  3. Patty December 29, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    Flint articulated so clearly those feelings I get inside when I see a scene that I am compelled to photograph, now I have words connecting the dots. Thank you John for sharing!

    • JB December 29, 2014 at 11:37 am #

      Patty, thank you for reading my blog. I too felt the same way about Flint’s comments. He is a very wise man.

  4. Louise December 29, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    Flint’s three questions resonate so deeply and emotionally with me–today and on the day he shared them. The questions of emotional connection–to one another or to the world we see and wish to share–are at the heart of what we do as humans and as photographers. Thanks to Flint for his gentle, kind insights and to you for creating a space in which he could share them.

    • JB December 29, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      You’re welcome Louise. Thank you for trusting in Jonathan and me and coming to share the experience.

  5. Kathleen Clemons December 29, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    What a great post, John!

    • JB December 29, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      Thank you Kathleen.

  6. Rich Lewis December 29, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    Thank you for sharing such insight. Spiritual Introspection and growth teaches one to expand their vision of the world. This is exactly what we seek to do with photography. I guess Flint learned that before he learned what an f-stop is . One of the benefits of the modern camera is that we don’t need to be such technicians any more. Not that technical skill isn’t important, but it is no longer essential to create compelling images.

    • JB December 30, 2014 at 7:49 am #

      You are exactly right Rich. Technology has made it easier to make a good capturer on P for professional mode… New photographers can now focus on vision!

  7. Samuel Blair December 29, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    As a long time student of Mindfulness, I read your post, and watched Flint’s talk, and wondered, how have I missed Flint Sparks? As Homo Sapiens, we’re the last leaf on the evolutionary tree. We’re the big winners, the experts on survival. But, ironically, our species is doing all it can to make itself extinct, and miserable on the way out. “Messy Miracle”, indeed.

    The message Flint brings is the answer. Connection and compassion is our solution, the way to override our reptilian impulses that served our cave dwelling ancestors so well, but which are serving us in the modern world so badly.

    To combine that message with Photography seems like a natural fit. If we as photographers are story tellers at heart, what better story to tell the world than this?

    Great stuff. Thank you for sharing.

    • JB December 29, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

      Samuel, Thanks for reading my blog. So glad that I could introduce you to Flint. He is a wonderful man and full of wisdom.

      With regard to marrying photography and mindfulness…. well….. stay tuned. 🙂

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