When most people think of the word Zen, a meditating monk in a monastery comes to mind, a practice of enlightenment, a person being in the present or someone without attachments. When I think of Zen, I think of a lifestyle that has profoundly influenced my photography practice. I would like to dive into the ways of zen photography and how it might enlighten your creative practice.
The word Zen is from the Japanese interpretation of the word Chan which has ties to the Indian practice of meditation. Zen originated as a school in China, influenced by Buddhism.
It later found its way into Vietnam, Korea and then Japan where Zen is currently known today. Zen practices take from Buddha nature and sitting meditation known as Zazen. There are two-forms of Zen teachings: Rinzai and Soto. I could write a whole book on the subject, but let’s move on.
In short, all you need to remember is that Zen can be a state of mind. Stillness, simplicity, looking inwards, beginners mind and finding the beauty in all things. Take these words into consideration when engaging in your photography practice. Remember that Zen photography can be more about your mindset than the subject matter you’re capturing.
A leaf falling in autumn is Zen. A river flowing around a rock is Zen. A cup of coffee is Zen. A homeless man yelling at you is Zen, confusing I know. But for now just focus on yourself as a human being, instead of a human doing when it comes to your photography practice. What I mean by this is have an open mind, maybe think about trying walking meditation or sitting on a park bench being present in the moment.
The trick is to be open to your thoughts being nonjudgmental, letting them come and go, like a river of ideas flowing through you. If you see something that attracts your eye take a photo of it. Let your knowledge and thought process take a back seat. Let your intuition and autopilot take over. Think expressionist painter, letting their body create the artwork instead of the mind. After some time this can turn into being in the zone.
For myself, I practice walking meditation when it comes to my Zen photography. I go somewhere I wish to photograph, a secluded landscape, park, or even the busy street of the CBD. The location doesn’t really matter. Next, I pick up my camera and set it and forget it. Here the less gear the better, because I have fewer decisions to make. Then I start walking, and I let my mind wander.
“What should I cook for dinner tonight?”, “I think I’ll buy that photography book of Koudelka’s work.”, “Should I focus on social media for showcasing my work, or get my own website?”, “…”, “…”, “Whats over there?”
Then before I know it, creativity and inspiration strikes. I notice something, and without thought, I bring the camera up to my eye and take a picture of it, then keep walking, and so on and so forth. Before I know it, its time to go home. That’s my process, just walking in public spaces, be it a park, beach, city or countryside. The one thing that I try to keep consistent is being present and in the moment, or as much as my mind will let me.
The ways of zen photography are hidden in your mind along with your creative thoughts and inspirations. Remember to be a Zen photographer you don’t need traditional monk clothing, access to a monastery or a place of worship. All you need is your camera and yourself, being present in the moment, that is where creativity shines, that is true Zen.
About the author: A.B Watson is a New Zealand photographer based in Auckland. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. To see more of his work, head over to his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.