The Practice of Photoku.



Painted sky, salted air

The rhythm of the waves 

Senses sparked, soul nourished

At our “Mindful Photography” workshop, I introduced the concept of a PhotoKu.  This is the marriage of a photograph with a poem, loosely based on the Japanese from of poetry, Haiku.  The idea is to give words to what we are seeing and feeling. The hope is to help us see more deeply.

I believe the biggest shift in my photography happened when I started to focus on experiences rather than chasing “keepers”.  I find writing words with my images helps me connect to and remember the experience.  The end result has been what I believe is stronger photographs.

My teaching partner for this workshop, Flint Sparks,  recently added twist to this idea.  I shared a PhotoKu with Flint and this was his reply…

“I loved the Photoku and wanted to send one back, but I also wanted to engage in another practice for myself. The practice is not to go through all the images I’ve processed and pick the “best” one to send to John. Instead, I decided to pick the “next” one, let go of ego, and allow what comes to come. This is what was next in line this morning with my photoku for you”


Waiting in morning light
Silent, ordinary, still
Ready for a warm hand
I am grateful for my friend Flint who is always teaching. Let go of ego.  Let go of good versus bad.  Let go of judgement.  Let go, and, be open to seeing more deeply.  Thank you Flint!  Approaching photoku from this paradigm will indeed deepen my ability to see beyond what I have traditionally labeled as good.  I look forward to this practice in 2017.
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  1. Jo December 29, 2016 at 1:32 pm #


    To date this is the most inspiring and meaningful post that I have read on your blog. It may, perhaps, be just good timing for where I am today. Regardless of what it is I am extremely grateful for it.

    Happy New Year!

    • JB December 29, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

      Thank you Jo. I am grateful for you!

  2. Scott Oberle December 29, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    I agree JB. This expresses what I have always thought about my photography. It is a journey, not a destination. I can look at an image I took years ago and am transported back to that time and place, complete with feelings and emotions. And as I look back, I am amazed at how many of our really great experiences involved you and Dan. Thank you for that…

    • JB December 29, 2016 at 8:35 pm #

      You and Joyce have been a joy to have along on the many trips you have taken with us. THANK YOU!

  3. Steve Zigler December 29, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    Love this, John. Thanks!

    • JB December 29, 2016 at 8:34 pm #

      Thank you Steve.

  4. Nancy Japak December 29, 2016 at 8:29 pm #

    Your philosophy of photography keeps me going even in my darkest moments
    of self-doubt. The idea of photoKu is so uplifting.

    • JB December 29, 2016 at 8:34 pm #

      You are very kind Nancy. Thank you. And I’m glad you find some light in the dark. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Celebrate the joy in the world!

  5. Jeff Barclay December 29, 2016 at 10:03 pm #

    My soul is warmed when I see how you inspire others. I am ever so proud of you and all you do.

    • JB December 29, 2016 at 10:45 pm #

      Thank you Big Brother! I love that you are spending more and more time with YOUR photography. I look forward to having you along for a photo week with me someday.

  6. marty golin December 29, 2016 at 10:18 pm #

    Far be it for me to tell anyone that what works for them is “wrong,” & I trust you accept that I am not. & I fully embrace the theory & practice of what you (& others) want to achieve with this. However to some degree, to give words of interpretation to an image may enhance both the photographer’s experience/intent/presentation as well as a viewer’s sharing that, it also reduces a viewer’s opportunity to have their own unbiased interpretation. Maybe that’s not a concern or a bit of excessive photographic “purity,” but it came to my mind as a point to consider. I suppose ultimately it becomes a matter of degree, how well do the words “work,” to evaluate (on whatever emotional feedback level) whether they’re an aid or a hinderance.

    • JB December 29, 2016 at 10:49 pm #

      As always Marty, you bring a unique perspective that causes me to think. While I can appreciate your concern, I believe this exercise is still extremely valid for the maker of the image.

  7. Brenda Tharp January 2, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

    A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, a man teaching a workshop had us write words to our photographs. We wrote to ones we made each day, haiku, poetry or just sentences, and it was a fantastic experience. In the end we compiled a book of two pictures and ‘words’ from each participant, and labeled it the 10,0000 Things based on Frederick Francke’s books. I’ve used this same idea in my own workshops, when it’s appropriate, and it’s wonderful. Oh, the teacher? A common friend of ours, Dewitt Jones! Ask him about it sometime, maybe he’ll remember. It was a profound experience back then, and your idea is along that same path of thought. Although one of your commenters suggests that it might change the viewer’s experience, I’m a believer that the words just further the expression of what you, the photographer, were feeling in the moment when you made the image, a further expression of what it means to you. Well done, John! And someday I’d like to meet this Flint guy!

    • JB January 4, 2017 at 2:40 pm #

      Hey Brenda! How about that! Not surprised about Dewitt. His writing has gotten better and better! You do need to meet Flint. He is amazing.

  8. DIana January 4, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

    This concept and action was a favorite part of my Molokai experience. I have in the past written Haikus to go with some of my photos, but now words spring to mind even when I do not take a picture. This idea makes the experience of going out exploring even more “emotional” for me and the experience more memorable! Thank you and Flint!

    • JB January 4, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this idea.

  9. Jim McDermott January 26, 2017 at 8:36 pm #

    Does it matter if we write haiku and then take the image, or compose the haiku after? Not intended as a snarky comment, but as a word person through my career now in a long process of becoming an image person, I found the combination of poetry (a more difficult challenge than prose) and photography intriguing as a way to convey a story or an emotion, and as a way to continue finding ways to free up or to inspire creativity. Thanks to you and Flint for some new ideas and challenges.

    • John Barclay January 27, 2017 at 12:04 am #

      Good feedback Jim. Thank you for chiming in. I agree, either way works. I just think writing adds much.

  10. Stephan Dietrich January 28, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    Poetry in motion! … An image is a small segment of the BIG picture. “The moment we are in” is often hard to place into words or even capture “one” image from. How we remember and recall is often matched with words, an image or what we recall from the moment… Some get frustrated when they do not walk away with what they expect, visulaize or conceive… Your idea and approach is awesome.

    As with most things in life and with all that we do, I know of few moments when “forcing” something that results in something favorable.

    I know far too many photographers and artists that want to create something that is a masterpiece – often from each experience or creation… As with a baseball player, you cannot expect to hit a home run or grand slam or even getting to first base every time at bat… Far too many variables that need to happen… Practice, patience and seeing beyond the expected… Relax, chill and go with the flow… Become one with your subject and moment…

    As with film, it was difficult to delete an image. With digital, we press delete… I know far too many that delete digital images as they go… Flint’s thought and concept of choosing “the next one” sheds light on rethinking why we chose certain images over others and to rethink about the others we took, ponder upon why we recorded that frame and to see the unexpected… or simply accept it. Something perhaps that might be in our sub-conscience…

    As with associating words… As with a freezing or cold pipe, sometimes the water does not flow… Some have writers block… Some have photo-block… You now are challenging to approach both… A great lesson, concept and ethic respect to have … Ultimately achieving awareness of both visual and mental flows.

    Excellent images (JB and Flint) and post JB!

    • JB February 1, 2017 at 12:41 pm #

      Glad you liked it! Thanks.

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