The missing link between mindfulness and creative photography - Part 1

Benjamin Stevens

And how it can lead to meaningful work.

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No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire. - L. Frank Baum

As photographers, we are obviously interested in our subjects.

But are we curious about them? Are we curious enough to ask questions?

Mindfulness is how we see deeply and perceive the world uniquely. We come to understand the beautiful, interconnected nature of all things and learn how we relate to subjects we want to photograph.

For example, we may find a beautiful plant with vibrant yellow flowers growing on the forest floor.

While we may marvel at its form, function, shape, or color, we should not be so focused on the plant that other, more peripheral thoughts are blocked from entering our minds.

Thoughts such as:

· Why is this plant growing here, and not over there?

· Last week I remember reading these plants like to congregate in groups — I wonder if there are more nearby?

· How would these flowers catch the late afternoon light during winter when the sun is not blocked by that massive Eucalypt?

· Why do I prefer yellow flowers over red flowers?

· What would happen if I got down on my hands and knees and photographed the flowers from below?

· What can I infer from my thoughts and what stories can I tell?

In our attempts to make sense of our perceptions, it is only natural that questions should arise.

Questions, of course, contain answers. Mindfulness helps us learn about ourselves, our processes, and our environment. We become more knowledgeable as a result.

And knowledge, as we’ll see, is quite important.

Divergent thinking

In a previous article, I stressed the importance of divergent thinking in producing creative, meaningful work.

Divergent thinking is an imaginative process of coming up with a range of possible solutions to a problem.

In photography, the problem we are trying to solve is often a real or imagined lack of creativity. Coming away with more than the obvious shot, finding compositions that align with our artistic self-expression, and so forth.

The solutions, then, are creative compositions that communicate what we want to say in a fulfilling and meaningful fashion.

There is another player at the creativity table, however.

Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking is the process of choosing a single solution to a problem.

But it can be abused. In the aforementioned article, I argued that convergent thinking was the enemy of creative photography.

Photographers who visit Yosemite National Park, for example, usually have a few popular locations they want to shoot.

Popularity, it seems, is proportional to the quality of the potential image. The more one has to jostle for position, the better.

Now, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone adding these photographs to their collection. Photographs from these areas are undoubtedly beautiful and popular for a reason, but does that mean your interpretation has to be the same as everyone else’s?

Destination photography

When I took a trip to the USA in 2014, I spent a month visiting many of the major parks in the western half of the country. It was never going to be long enough, in hindsight.

Not even close.

In fact, I probably spent longer researching the destinations before I left. I’d write out a list of photographic hot spots for Zion like I was writing a shopping list for dinner.

And while I had a ball, my photographs didn’t speak to the emotions I felt visiting these parks. The sense of peace, awe, wonder, joy, and oneness with nature was largely absent from my images.

Looking back, I don’t think I wanted to take many of the shots I came home with.

Perhaps I took them out of some sort of societal obligation. The herd mentality. Or perhaps a scarcity mentality — when could I afford to go back? I better take as many photographs as I can.

In hindsight, my rather formulaic approach to location-bagging guaranteed my images would lack emotion and meaning.

The curse of modern photography

It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur. - Wallace Stevens

While I’ll never encourage photographers to go on cookie-cutter destination workshops, convergent thinking does have a place in photography when used in conjunction with divergent thinking.

When a photographer visits Yosemite with a shopping list of photographic locations, they have bypassed the divergent thinking process. They have not blissfully walked through Yosemite’s lush meadows and wondered how they might express their joy through photography.

They are not using divergent thinking to mindfully come up with creative solutions because there is no need! The solutions have been created for them.

This, my friends, is the curse of the 21st-century photographer.

The sanctity and mystery of many national parks, indeed of many locations, has been removed.

We can visit them from our living room, pick out the photographs we want to emulate, bag the shots and then move on to the next park.

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© Benjamin Stevens

When we give locations the respect they deserve, convergent thinking is an asset because it helps us make sense of the solutions we proposed during divergent thinking.

But divergent thinking has to take place first. We need to come up with a range of solutions before we can choose one of them.

Sometimes, there might only be a handful of solutions to a photographic problem. One or two compositions that are the best representations of your vision.

For example, we don’t need to work a scene for lake reflection photography when there is only one place to get the shot without falling in.

Nor do we need divergent thinking to tell us when to photograph the receding dusk light on the mountain peak in front of us.

In both cases, the best solutions are the most obvious solutions.

To employ divergent thinking in these scenarios would be to miss the shot and contradict the very essence of what it means to be a photographer.

Most of the time, however, we will have a range of solutions available to us. We will have to work the scene and choose a satisfactory composition.

How do we make this choice? Indeed, how do we define satisfactory?

Knowledge

In a paper titled In Praise of Convergent Thinking, educational psychology professor Arthur Cropley (2004) argues that prior knowledge is crucial to the convergent thinking process and by extension, creativity itself.

And while divergent thinking can lead to creativity in the literal sense of the world, the end product may lack meaning, interest, or cohesion.

Take the case of a toddler haphazardly banging away at saucepans.

The toddler may use divergent thinking to choose to manufacture a sound that has never been heard before.

But is the sound novel? In other words, is it original, useful, or interesting?

If the sound were a photo, would the photographer want to show it to their friends?

This of course is a rhetorical question, but it bears pondering.

In Part 2, I'll briefly touch on pseudo-creativity and how intuition combined with knowledge can ensure that you are creating something of value.

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

Seattle, WA
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