I love photography. It’s fun, can be as simple or as complicated as I want it to be, and it shapes how I see my surroundings. I especially love its power to tell stories—stories about current events, about our friends and family and communities, about the world around us.
But as powerful of a tool as it is for telling important stories to others, photography can also be a significant means of discovering new stories about ourselves. When we approach photography as an inward-focused contemplative practice, it can peel back the layers of our souls and our subconscious, opening us to see and feel the deeper realities of ourselves, our God, and our world.
Contemplative photography—that is, using photography as a meditation rather than a project or as documentation—relies on us learning to receive an image, rather than to “make” or take a photo. We don’t set out with an agenda, a goal for our images, or a preconceived idea of what we will shoot. Instead, we set out with only a broad direction or intention, and we let our inner voice guide us the rest of the way. The end result does not matter; our purpose is to be explorers through the process, responding to the creative awareness and inspiration that arises when we stop thinking about our art and start feeling it.
Below, I’m offering seven exercises you can use to help explore the contemplative side of your photography. If you want to go deeper, you can find these exercises and many more in the book Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, by Christine Valters Paintner. It’s a great guide to visual spirituality, and is well worth the read.
Contemplative Photo Walk
Perhaps the most common form of contemplative photography, this is simply the practice of letting your spirit see while you walk.
Grab your camera (phones and small cameras are great for this), choose a place or direction to walk, and take off. You can go to a park, or downtown, or just out your front door. Your pace doesn’t need to be slow, although it should be deliberate and patient. Don’t be in a rush to get anywhere.
As you walk, clear your mind and be aware of your surroundings, paying particular attention to details—colour, light, texture, people, interactions—that you might normally overlook. Don’t let yourself get caught up in evaluating or judging what you see. Rather, just practice the art of noticing—recognise what you feel drawn to, what you find curious or interesting or different, without needing to describe it as good or bad, ugly or beautiful. Just see.
Your intuition is your guide here. If your heart tells you to go a different direction, follow it. If your heart tells you to stop and appreciate something awhile, then do it. If it tells you to take a photo, go ahead and shoot. Don’t think—just trust and follow, and notice the things that capture your attention.
Visio Divina—Sacred Seeing
If you’re familiar with Lectio Divina as a spiritual practice, then you’ll understand the Visio version pretty quickly. The idea is to allow God to speak to us by interacting with a photograph on an intuitive, emotional, and experiential level, rather than a rational cognitive level.
Begin by selecting a photograph that will guide your meditation. Ideally it is one of your photos (perhaps from a contemplative photo walk?), but really any piece of visual art will work. Pick something that sparks some sort of emotional or energetic response when you view it, even if you don’t know why. That’s what you want to explore.
Take a moment to centre yourself, turning your mind inward and letting go out external distractions. Breath slow and deep, feeling your body relax and calm down. Focus your attention on your breathing—this life-sustaining rhythm, in and out… the sound of your breath, the feeling in your chest as you inhale and exhale. Let your attention move away from your mental thoughts, and settle into your emotional heart. If you find yourself distracted (such as construction workers outside, or stress from the previous day, or thinking ahead about cooking dinner), don’t follow it—notice the distraction, name it without judging it, and then let it go as you return your focus to your breathing. Your mind will learn to let it go as you practice.
When you’re ready, shift your focus to your photograph. Take in the whole image, noticing what you can. Observe all the elements you can see: the colours, texture, light and shadows, contrast, characters and subjects, busyness and empty space. As you do, parts of the image might capture your attention, drawing your eyes to rest in a certain spot. Try not to think about it too much, but just notice where your eyes want to go, and where they avoid.
Let these places in the photo that stand out to you be the focus of your meditation; close your eyes and recall the image if it helps. Begin to explore what it is that connects you with that part of the photo. Are there emotions that spring up from the image? Perhaps any words or pictures that come to mind? Perhaps part of the photo is stirring a memory within you? Take time to sit with that.
As you meditate on your feelings about the image, let your heart go deeper and listen for anything God might be saying to you through those feelings. Do you feel any sense of invitation or challenge, comfort or reassurance? Be present with those feelings, listening for more God might have to say.
As you finish your meditation, give thanks for what you have felt and heard, and return to your breathing to end in a mindful, centred space.
Too often in life we get ourselves caught up looking at things from only one point of view. Looking at things differently takes a lot of energy and a lot of thought. It’s much easier to assuming that we are already right rather than look for something that we’ve missed.
We can easily do the same thing with our photography. When you’re taking a photo, it’s the natural thing to do to raise the camera to your eye and click the shutter, then just move onto the next thing. But we miss so much when we don’t spend time exploring new ways of seeing!
Go for a walk with, wherever you want, and just enjoy taking in the environment around you. At some point on your walk, stop and freeze in place (it might help to set a timer on your phone so that your stop is random). From where you’re standing, choose any object that you can see (out of other people’s way) to be the subject of your photographic meditation.
Take some time to explore this subject. Use your camera to photograph different angles, distances, height, sides, and anything else that you can change. Shoot until you feel you have thoroughly explored your subject.
Look back over your photos. As you browse, notice how the change in perspective affects how you see it. Do your feelings or emotions or impressions change if you look at them? What different details or distinction stand out to you from the different perspectives? Notice and reflect on how different perspectives change how you see.
Wabi-Sabi: Beauty In Imperfection
This is a meditation on looking for wabi-sabi, a Japanese Buddhist term for beauty found amidst imperfection and decay.
Find something around your house or in your community, something seems old, used, or ready to be thrown out. This might be a dying flower or plant, some old and rusty metal, or maybe a fence that’s weathered and falling apart. Even some cutlery that’s faded and tarnished could work.
Take your subject, which most people would turn away from or ignore, and sit with it for a bit. Meditate on the shape, the colours, the texture, and so on. Pay attention to the things that make it unique, the things that give it character, the things that make it seem special.
Take time to experiment with your camera to find different ways of shooting the subject and highlighting its uniqueness and character, to really bring out the beauty that is hidden within. Get close, get far, zoom in, zoom out, change your angle, change your focus. Experiment with everything. Find for beauty where no one else bothers to look.
Fifty Images and One Image
This is an exercise in practicing intentionality in the midst of many possibilities. It is a way to practice appreciating beauty without always needing to capture it.
Choose a common object from your everyday life. This object will be the subject of your photography for the next five days. It could be anything: a figurine, a blanket or pillow, a chair, maybe boxes from Christmas that you haven’t picked up yet.
Without your camera, take 10 to 15 minutes to explore your subject; be curious about the possiblities. Find as many possible pictures as you can come up with for this object. Explore every angle and perspective that you can think of; change the lighting or the background; change the setting, the focus, and the surroundings.
When you finish, pick up your camera. Of all the possible pictures you’ve imagined, choose one and shoot it. Only click the shutter one time; you only get one frame. Take whatever time you need to set up your shot, to frame it and expose it. When you are done, set your camera down and walk away.
Continue doing this for the next four days so that you will have five different shots by the end of the week. Remember: you only get one shot each day, so be as slow and patient and intentional as you need to be. For all the other shots that you saw, and wanted to take, but didn’t, practice letting your heart accept and release them, appreciating what you saw without the need to control it.
Reflecting Poetry and Scripture
If you’re the sort of person who likes a bit of interaction between words and pictures in their contemplative lives, and this is a great exercise for you.
Find a piece a text that really resonates with you, something that speaks to your soul. It could be almost anything—people commonly use a piece of poetry or a passage from Scripture. Whatever you choose to use, spend some time meditating on it as it sinks deep within your soul. Sense a line or two that really stands out to you, or reflect on the broader theme of the passage.
Keep that passage deep in your heart and present in your mind as you go through the rest of your day. As you’re walking, as you’re working, as you’re eating, as you’re meeting people—let the passage just be part of your being. As you do, pay particular attention to the things that you see and notice in your day that remind you of that passage or help you do identify with, or that seem to shed new light on the meaning of the passage. Take photos of these reminders and reflect on them later, either when you read the passage again, or when you return home at night.
Alternatively, some people find it easier to begin doing this by going on a long contemplative walk soon after meditating on the passage, so that they can specifically watch for images and scenes that connect with the passage without being distracted. Do whatever helps you and your contemplation.
Portrait words is a way to let what your friends see in you become part of your contemplative life.
Select some friends with whom you’re able to have an honest and real conversation. The number doesn’t matter; at least three or four is ideal, but you can include as many people as you want.
Ask each of these friends to give you two words that they feel describes you as a person. They can talk about your character, your spirituality, your personality, or any other way you wish to focus it. You might even ask different friends to describe different aspects of you.
Take this collection of words and reflect on them. Let them settle into your soul as the truth that your friends see in you, even if you don’t always see it yourself.
In your mind, let yourself receive images that you feel reflect these words, these truths about you. Perhaps if you read them, objects or scenes came to your mind that you want to find or re-create. Others you might need to start looking for, either as you take your contemplative walks or as you practice noticing and seeing throughout the day.
Once you’ve collected at least one photo to go with each word, print them out and begin arranging them together. You might make a collage out of them, or put them on the wall, or just late lay them out side-by-side. However you choose to do it, let this collection of images be a visual reminder of who you are, who you of you have been created to be, who your friends know you to be. Take heart and be encouraged by these truths.
We’d love to hear about your experiences with contemplative photography, or if you’ve found other practices that we should know about. Now go out and experiment!