Part 2: Art and Mind
Hokkaido (Days 6 – 10)
We often hear or read the quote, “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer”, meaning the creation of great photographs is not dependent on having the latest or most expensive gear but on having a keen eye, an open and inquisitive mind and the artistic skills to turn vision into a reality that is a photograph. After sixteen years as a professional photographer, I can attest this is absolutely true.
That doesn’t mean improved tools don’t make the job easier and open up possibilities that would otherwise be hard to fulfil. There is no doubt I can achieve things with the FUJIFILM X-T2 that would have been practically impossible with a 35mm film camera. But whatever the benefits of technology, the stories we tell – expressed in the photographs we create – always come from within us.
If we believe this to be true, how much time, then, do we spend training ourselves above learning camera skills and techniques? This thought came to mind as I flew north from Honshu towards the island of Hokkaido.
My overpowering observation of Japanese culture is best described as “mindfulness”. It’s the reason I so quickly fell in love with the country. Whether it’s a cleaner, bowing respectfully to the train he’s just swept, or the dignified and purposeful presentation in the return of your credit card by a shop keeper, the Japanese are mindful in everything they do.
Mindfulness teaches us to interpret the automatic flow of our actions and thoughts and intensify our connection with the present moment. In part, mindfulness is awareness. Living mindfully means taking time for contemplation; being touched by objects – the ones we encounter every day and forget because we’ve seen them so often, we no longer see them at all. It means removing the barriers that separate us from our environment and, in so doing, letting it capture and fascinate us to no purpose.
It takes effort to see things that are invisible to those who don’t look, just as it takes effort to see the potential photographs in a world obscured by our subconscious beliefs. When we’re out with our camera, we need to become more aware. Conscious.
There is another aspect to mindfulness beyond simple awareness. In order to see what is truly in front of us, we have to let go of any attachment we may have to a particular result or outcome. This involves looking at things without hope or judgement, instead adopting a mindset of open curious humility towards the world. This was my challenge when I arrived at Lake Kussharo to photograph the region’s famed Whooper swans.
Of all the subjects I planned to photograph during my time in Japan, swans were bottom of my list of priorities. Judging them as “just swans”, I was attached to the idea my time would be better spent elsewhere. But I wasn’t elsewhere, I was here.
When it comes to photography, the key to letting go of pre-conceived ideas is letting go of the camera. When I need to open my mind to new potentialities, I leave my camera behind and take time just to sit and contemplate. This helps the process of disengaging from objective thought and prejudices – it’s uninspiring, it’s common, they’re just swans – and opens my mind to a flow of energy that bypasses the brain’s natural filters enabling me to see the world more deeply. When I returned home and reviewed the images I’d made, it came as no surprise it was those of the swans that resonated with me the most.
Photography is living. We are alive! Mindfulness – waking the mind – gives us the gifts of possibility: to fully realise the connections that bind us to nature and fortify those links so the distinctions between what is self and what is not self become illogical, pointless and burdensome. Surely, this is the purpose of photography, of art – to awaken us to possibility and potential.
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