I’m just back from a photography trip to Chincoteague and Assateague off the coast of Virginia. Before the trip our instructor was very clear. This was to be a working vacation and it wasn’t for beginners. I felt a little trepidation. I knew enough about f stops and aperture settings to think I might fit in yet I was barely beyond the beginner stage with photography.
I also knew we would be going out in the field to catch the best light at sunrise and sunset. Still nothing could prepare me for getting out of the van that first morning, in the dark, wind blowing, cold and bleary eyed from lack of sleep. Our instructor is way too awake. He’s even happy and joking: “Quick, quick, we’re wasting daylight” he says. I think about pointing out to him “there is no daylight. It’s pitch black”. I guess he knows that.
We are at a beach. I stumble thru the sand a short distance though it feels like a mile. I try to set up my tripod. I’ve used this tripod for 2 years, but never in the dark. I didn’t bring my flashlight either. It’s sitting comfortably back in my room in my suitcase. The notion we would be photographing in the dark didn’t quite penetrate my thinking. I couldn’t remember where all the settings are. My fingers are awkward. My feet freezing.
Finally back to the base for an instructional session, then our first critiquing session and more photography at sunset.
Whew! What a first day. I fall into bed exhausted, with racing thoughts that made sleeping difficult. I find myself doubting myself and thinking: “Others must think I’m completely incompetent.” My mindfulness practice kicks in. I watch the thoughts float by. Thoughts are just thoughts.
More 5 am wakeups follow. The days start to blur into each other. I find myself getting into the rhythm. I get more acclimated to the cold. The camera settings come a little more naturally. I start to actually look around, start to see and to really take in my surroundings.
The quiet of the early morning sinks into my being. I take in the clouds, purple, blue, orange. I experience the world waking up, the birds coming alive, other creatures stirring. I start to become attuned to the colors. The light is so different in the early morning. The reflections of the sky in the water. The colors in the windows of a building.
I find myself more and more able to just be present. The camera becomes an extension of my eye. There is a sense of the picture taking itself.
Yet everything looks so different when seen thru a camera lens. I’m standing in the midst of an immense, cascading, overwhelming, ever changing, kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, sounds and smells. The camera puts a border around all this. In a way it diminishes the immensity of life around me. It also helps me open to that life in a whole new way. Something about seeing one small piece of the world brings me out of my head and more attuned to the life that around me. This day, this moment I have the privilege of seeing it. It’s humbling. I see my place in the world more clearly, just one tiny piece in a vast universe.
Gradually I learn to focus on details. It’s impossible to capture the 360 degree panorama within which I live. I learn from our instructor. In our critiques he comments: “I’m not sure what you were trying to convey.” or “this over here is distracting, what are we looking at?” His words and my mindfulness practice help me really see when I’m out there with the camera.
A natural flow emerges, an openness to seeing the world in a new way, as a form of meditation. I start to see and feel the subtleties that make up my daily experience. I find a deep sense of calm, and a sense of wonder. Seeing the eye of a bird, seemingly looking at me, more likely looking for the next morsel of food, yet somehow it feels as if I can see into the spirit and soul of that bird. I watch my thoughts. What is beauty? Is that vulture ugly or does it have its own beauty?
We arrive at a place where we are to stay for 2 hours. It looks awfully ordinary to me. I notice my thoughts: “I’ve got to get a good picture out of this. We’re going to present our pictures to the class in a couple days.” I let the thoughts come and go and start to approach it without an intention for what the outcome might be. I find myself more and more able to just relax and sink into being where I am. I find a sense of humility in enjoying all the small sights that make up my world. In that way the ordinary becomes awesome.
I begin to notice small moments. It takes perseverance and presence to catch the exact moment when the bird catches a fish, for instance. I sit there for almost an hour, just being present, to get that picture. I am here. I am so honored and so humble just to be here, to be standing in this place at this instant and seeing this exact moment in time. Then it’s gone. Fleeting. Everything changes so quickly. By the time I catch it, the moment is gone.
The days go quickly. All too soon I find myself back at home with hundreds of pictures to pore over. Everyone asks about my vacation. I show the pictures. I get the oohs and aahs yet something is missing. In some ways the photographs have become objects, dead, a frozen moment.
Then I just sit and really take in one photograph, a shell, water surrounding it. It’s more than just a memory. I can look at the photograph and have new ongoing, emotional reaction to the photograph itself. I see not just a shell, and not just an intriguing picture, but the swirl of the water, the colors and shapes. I remember being mindful of the raisin in the first session of our 8-week class. A new world opens just by sitting and seeing. Just this, just this one shell, this one wave, these multitudes of color in this one instant of life brings me back to a new way of seeing.
After this trip I find my senses sharpened. I realize I miss so much. Now I feel more committed than ever to really being awake for my life. Whether it’s noticing the wind in the trees in all their autumn glory or sitting with a friend who is in distress, just being present is profound.
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