September 04, 2016

Seeing With the Heart: Practising Contemplative Photography

In this now mainly visual world, photography is instant and prolific. Pictures are taken of meals, of animals, of menus and mail. Even cheques can be deposited with a photograph! Taking photos, not long ago a special, composed "family picture", or unique occasion to be treasured and revisited in bulky albums, is now the ordinary way to move through the world, even the world of function and work.

Circle in braided ceiing

Into this immediate and crowded landscape comes "Contemplative Photography." The term has emerged over many years, but it would be safe to say that it was unheard of forty years ago. Through the writings and websites of Christine Valtner Painter, Jan Phillips and now many others, this way of seeing the world is highlighted as a spiritual practice, an engagement - especially with the natural world but not exclusively - with an essence of something before our eyes which only appears when the one looking moves into a present-moment, open, contemplative seeing; in other words: shifts into and sees with the heart, not with the mind's analysis of setting, distance, composition and other deliberate manipulation. The mind rearranges, composes; the heart sees, and recognizes a depth in seeing something just as it is.

When I began photographing in earnest in 1973 it was because I was asked to do a university course in photography one summer so that I could teach it in the tenth grade once September came. It wasn't something I particularly wanted to do; it was a request from the English Department Head for an experimental course, so I agreed. As participants we were sent out with cameras to photograph anything, everything that drew our attention; then come back and develop them ourselves. I believe it was this two-step process - the seeing in the world and then the seeing it appear on paper under water in the developing process - that first alerted me to the deeper reality of photographing what drew my eye in the first place.

Only in the last several years have I come to see that what I mostly photograph arises from a seeing that is contemplative presence. And it is this presence most of all that opens a window into light, a light that lives within every expression of creation. No expression (one of my favourite encounters was with an inchworm hanging by its near-invisible thread from a branch and confronting me while walking one evening -it inspired a whole poem as well as a photo) - no expression of the created world is for me too small or insignificant or frightening or unworthy. Whatever opens an inner door to my heart - and this has become a familiar bodily sensation now - is a source of contemplative presence and practice. And photographing.

Sometimes I will also write about the photo as well as the experience of encounter, mostly in the form of poetry, though not always. In these ways, contemplative photography has become a steady thread of prayerful encounter, weaving me into the rhythms of the natural world in all its seasons. Emergence, deterioration, dying, and emergence again...this cycle is the Great Teacher, and Contemplative Photography opens the invisible doorway into its deeper realms. As Lectio Divina opens the mind and a path to deeper prayer, so Visio Divina in all its forms can open one's whole being to a contemplative presence that deepens and encounters the whole of life.

SoulWinds cover

In an online weekly publication called "On Being", Om Malik writes an essay called "In the Future, We Will Photograph Everything and Look At Nothing." In it he quotes Susan Sontag, who wrote in 1977, "Today everything exists to end in a photograph."

Contemplative Photography arises as the antidote to this cultural shift. It engages the heart, the soul, and inner seeing as an expression of the whole of creation in all its forms, in every manifestation. And it sees the shimmering reality that hides in the being of every created reality. No expression is too small or too insignificant: such is prayer itself.

Messages to: Brenda Peddigrew rsm (Newfoundland)

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