I had my first brush with mindfulness when a therapist suggested it could really help to stop my anxiety from spiralling out of control. I thanked her for the tip, but quickly dismissed it, believing I was just anxious by nature, possessing what 15th century physicians would have called a “choleric temperament”. Sorry, can’t do anything about it, gotta go. Little did I know, I’d already been practicing a kind of mindfulness for nearly a decade.
Mindfulness has been having a moment recently, amid an increased awareness of mental health issues in the media. Essentially, it’s a meditation practice that asks you to be present in the here and now, observing the sensations in your body and the sights, sounds and smells around you without judgement or reaction. This can be done anywhere, anytime and keeps your attention grounded in the present instead of ping-ponging anxiously between past and future. If life were a Sci Fi movie, that would be like getting your consciousness beamed back into your body in one fell zoom that knocks you off your chair. In reality, it’s more like putting your internal chatter on pause.
Photography requires the same kind of focus on the present moment and non-judgemental exploration of your immediate environment. When you’re holding a camera, you need to be fully here and now in order to capture the next shot. This fine-tunes your mental focus and you begin to notice things: the way light falls on a particular object, the colour palette of traffic or an interesting face in the crowd. With enough practice, it will help you become more and more present in your own life. You might even feel inspired to snap a picture or two.
My own passion for photography started 10 years ago and since then has led me up steep hills, down colourful streets and sometimes into shady neighbourhoods, pushed me well outside my comfort zone and even got me talking to strangers and taking their portraits. It also helped me return to the present moment over and over, each time noticing more.
Seen in photos, the mundane, the invisible and even the horrific turn at least interesting, if not outright beautiful. (Just think about war photojournalism, which is transfixing.) A few years ago, I experimented with an expired black and white film, shooting random everyday objects: the back of a chair, laundry drying in the sun, the downstairs neighbours’ balcony. The harsh shadows and noisy grain made everything look strange and surreal. When I showed my friend the prints, her reaction was priceless. “Where is this?” she asked, as if staring at postcards from Egypt.
This kind of experience allows us to approach the world with newfound wonder and curiosity, as if seeing everything for the first time. And, who knows, it could spread to other areas of your life, too. Maybe it will give you the push you need to talk to new people or do that thing you’ve been putting off for months, you know which one. Or maybe it’ll renew your zest for life and the world and inspire you to take more photos.