On Taoism, and becoming a wise photographer with purpose - Part 2

Benjamin Stevens

In Part 2, I discuss the traits that embody a photographer with purpose.


Each photographer will walk a slightly different Way. Most, however, will strive for meaningful photography.

Finding their style. Expressing emotion. Dignifying the ordinary. It all points back to meaning.

Meaningful photography is often associated with mastery. Something elusive that we might stumble upon after 20 years of hard graft.

However, Taoism dictates that meaning is purpose, and purpose, as we have learned, is synonymous with existence.

We strive for the distant goal of mastery when meaning was right under our noses the whole time.

Meaning is not the same as mastery. Mastery is achieved in a linear fashion and is quantifiable. Meaning is non-linear, omnipresent, and somewhat intangible.

Meaning is going with the flow.

I am not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentation but intuition, a poetic experience. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, then sniff, sniff, sniff — being sensitive to coincidence. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it or you won’t get it. First, you must lose yourself, then it happens. - Henri-Cartier Bresson

Henri-Cartier Bresson likened meaning to a poetic experience.

His words speak of an intangible communion between the photographer and the landscape.

One could say that Cartier-Bresson was an inseparable part of the universe, acting in accord with his nature (purpose) and flourishing in the process. In this way, he became the physical embodiment of te — in alignment with himself and with the world around him.

Of course, we have to be open to going with the flow. Power and strength will not materialize by merely being in a creative environment.

In going with the flow, writer Rory Mackay suggests we become like water:

Soft and flexible, water exists in one of two states. It is still or it flows; it is active or passive. It does nothing of itself, but simply follows its nature and adjusts itself accordingly to the circumstances around it. It manoeuvres around obstacles with effortless ease, all the while flowing back to its source.

Like water, we have to be fluid and take the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance is, of course, the Way.

When we become like water, we align ourselves with the natural rhythms of the universe.

We allow moments to materialize and present themselves to us, instead of actively seeking them out.

But how does a photographer become like water in practice?

In answering that question, we need to back up a little bit.

Taoism and photography

When we first enter the brilliant world of photography, our default setting is often gear acquisition.

We can also be rigid in our photographic thinking. We imitate the work of others and we visit the same locations that everyone else does.

We believe that we can only make great images at certain times of the day. We follow rules and techniques to the tee.

We download entire workflows and slap them on our images without so much of a thought as to why.

Taoism calls this rigidity and slave-like adherence to procedure Little Understanding, and it can persist well beyond the beginner stage.

Little Understanding

Photographers with Little Understanding are the imitators. But it’s not imitation with the intention of learning something.

Rather, it is mindless imitation akin to walking someone else’s Path.

Photographers with Little Understanding are the elephants trying to mate with lions, seemingly unaware that they’ll fail spectacularly.

Arriving at the rim of this famous landmark, they shuffle about, searching for a sign that says “shoot here”. With one pre-set image labelled GRAND CANYON in their minds, blinding them to what lies below, they search for the one and only “right” spot to stand.
- Joel Meyerowitz

Such photographers are said to have constricted awareness. They are not aware of, much less open to, images that do not fit their stringent criteria.

They are not aligned with Tao. They are choosing, consciously or otherwise, to go against the flow.

They are also highly judgemental.

This overlook is the best overlook.

That scene can’t be shot after 10 am on a Wednesday.

They attempt to choose the good over the bad. To create, in their eyes, a harmonious environment for them to operate in.

But harmony is not achieved by reasoned choice — recall that Taoism is not concerned with dualistic distinctions.

When a photographer chooses disharmony, they are by extension relinquishing harmony.

They discount the power and strength of the universe and in so doing, become disconnected and weak.

Great Understanding

You complain that your tree is not valuable as lumber. But you could make use of the shade it provides, rest under its sheltering branches, and stroll beneath it, admiring its character and appearance. Since it would not be endangered by an axe, what could threaten its existence? It is useless to you only because you want to make it into something else and do not use it in its proper way.
- Benjamin Hoff

After some time, we develop the ability to go beyond the postcard shots.

We don’t shuffle toward the Grand Canyon overlook with 20 other photographers.

We’re off-trail somewhere, delighted at finding a stand of ancient bristlecone pines.

We may have had an idea that bristlecone pines were in the area. But we were, in our wanderings, happy to photograph whatever took our fancy.

In this sense, we respond to a scene holistically and spontaneously — a sign that we have progressed to Great Understanding.

While photographers with Little Understanding try to bend the scene to their will, those with Great Understanding accept the scene as it is presented to them.

They are flexible to any compositions or moments of inspiration that may arise. They don’t need to stand in certain places to feel good about themselves.

As a result, they are said to have unconstricted awareness.

They intuitively understand that they are a cog in a beautiful, ever-changing universe. A tiny cog, but a cog nonetheless.

These photographers don’t operate with a scarcity mindset if a great moment is missed.

Why? They understand the nature of a bountiful universe and that another moment is just around the corner.

Sagehood — every photographer’s dream

The most adept photographers will have a blend of Little Understanding and Great Understanding.

The photographer who is a stickler for rules and technique might know the exposure triangle like the back of their hand. But without spontaneity, their photographs will lack soul and creativity.

The spontaneous photographer will be free, flexible, and unencumbered. But a lack of technique makes translating their free spirit into a photograph difficult.

Characteristics of the Sage

In the West, we tend to think of a sage as someone with a high level of wisdom and knowledge.

In Taoism, wisdom transcends knowledge. It reflects a profound understanding of life and how the Sage relates to the universe.

Characteristics of sagehood vary, depending on the Sage quoted and the translation used. They usually include qualities such as acceptance, resourcefulness, spontaneity, non-attachment, and receptivity.

An oft-quoted piece is the concept of the three treasures by Taoist Sage Lao Tzu:

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Let’s look at each of the three treasures in more detail and their relevance to photography.


Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.
Frederic Chopin

Simplicity is expressed through thoughts and actions.

Similar to the Beginner’s Mind and also to Buddhist mindfulness, you embrace a child-like appreciation for the world. Not just beautiful or novel things, but the less beautiful and familiar things.

Simplicity is also about intuition. About rekindling that sense of joy and wonder that came so easily to us in childhood. We can achieve this by tapping into the inherent power of Tao.

Simple thoughts make room for spontaneity. You have a clear mind that is free from expectation, anticipation, and judgment.

With a blank canvas, your interactions with the universe determine what sort of images you make.

And since you are free from limiting thoughts, you are not limited in your photography. You embrace novel ideas, subjects, or locations.

You don’t complicate your work with an excessive reliance on gear or process.

You understand that in simplicity, there is clarity of purpose and competence of technique.

Simplicity is about savoring the joy of living. The photographer who combines the joy of living with even a modest technical capability is a very good photographer indeed.


Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?
Lao Tzu

The Chinese say that patience and mulberry leaves will make a silk gown. And while you might not be interested in dressmaking, patience is a highly advantageous skill in photography.

A lack of patience can often result in missing the shot. Impatience often stems from a compulsion to control. To intentionally choose the path of most resistance and ignore our Tao.

We might curse the clouds for a gloomy beach sunset after we’ve waited all day for good light to appear.

But our impatience and compulsive need to control constricts our awareness. We are completely oblivious to the moody, ethereal photographs that could have been made in the forest directly behind us.

Patience, of course, extends to people too. Patient people are not simply tolerant of themselves or others. They are resourceful, flexible, and non-judgemental.

They are not perturbed by temporary difficulties. A patient photographer understands that the best images don’t present themselves on silver platters.

They take the scenic route home from work, even though it takes them longer to get home.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they are unhurried. They choose spontaneity over rigidity and trust that the universe will provide.

When photography is viewed as more than just a means to an end, creativity has a chance to thrive


Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.
Lao Tzu

Compassion is the glue that holds the three treasures together. There are times when we won’t practice simplicity and patience.

We’ll attempt to dominate and control a location. We’ll get angry and feel violated when a photographer criticizes our work. We’ll smash a filter on the ground and berate ourselves for clumsiness.

During good times, we find it easy to love ourselves. But self-compassion is particularly important during bad times.

When we lose the Way or the sense of Tao, compassion is the compass that gets us pointing in the right direction.

Self-compassion helps us reconcile that we are as much a part of the universe as the universe is of us. If we love the universe through simplicity and patience, we must love ourselves by extension.

In loving ourselves, we love our photography and have no qualms with sharing our work, an extension of ourselves, with others.

Compassion then extends outwards, in the form of empathy and kindness.

We naturally gravitate toward helping people and being of service to them. We might volunteer at our local camera club or empower a friend or colleague who is struggling to walk their own Path.


Far from being uncomfortable bedfellows, Taoism and photography are both attentive and holistic studies of the present, ever-changing moment.

We discovered that Tao is a central principle that governs powerful and purposeful natural rhythms of the universe. By choosing to be a part of this natural rhythm, we become powerful also and embody te.

But when photographers try to impose control over these natural rhythms, they grasp for connection instead of allowing the universe to present the connections to them.

They go against the flow by swimming upstream, expelling lots of energy in the process.

Since we cannot exert energy indefinitely, a far wiser strategy is to catch the Tao train and let it take us where it may. To align ourselves and our existence with the universe and carry out our purpose.

The attainment of wisdom over knowledge, to some extent, levels the playing field for photographers. Wisdom and meaning give you direction and fulfillment in your photography. They are ideals that you can strive for each and every time you have the camera in hand.

The wisdom of the Taoist Sage also grants us the capacity for patience, compassion, and simplicity. Like purpose and meaning, these are not virtues that we necessarily ought to seek out.

For as long as we choose to exist harmoniously with this infinitely beautiful universe, we have everything that we’ll ever need.

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Photographer and writer who is passionate about creativity, mindfulness and philosophy.

Seattle, WA

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