Mindfulness photography – where the real magic happens
Hello everyone, my name is Benjamin Stevens and I am Australian. Today I am going to tell you my story and talk about my mindfulness photography.
I did not have what you’d call a traditional entry into photography. My father was a casual photographer, but I did not simply pick up his camera as a toddler and find photography that way. Indeed, I did not buy my first camera until roughly 10 years ago at the age of 25.
What I did have from a very young age, however, was fond memories of camping in the Australian bush. My parents would take us into the desert and we would camp in beautiful, tree-lined gorges that had water in them (if we were very lucky).
I remember the smell of the canvas in the camper trailer. I remember digging holes to go to the toilet. I remember the peace, the serenity and the tranquility of camping and being self- sufficient in the bush.
On one particular trip we were stopped on the road by a wedge-tailed eagle – Australia’s largest bird of prey. It simply refused to move out of our way, standing defiantly and proudly in the middle of a major highway.
I was probably 8 or 9 years old at the time and I remember thinking to myself, what kind of animal would dare be so defiant? It was a mighty bird to see up close, and this experience combined with camping in vast open spaces set off a love affair for nature that lasts to this day.
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Struggles with mental health
Things took a downward turn in late adolescence, however. At some point during my early years at university, I began to become acutely aware of my deteriorating mental health. I was always a shy kid and I felt pressured to follow in the footsteps of my uncle and study geology.
After all, no one knows what they want to do straight out of high school, and this seemed like the best choice at the time.
But I was a terrible student. I skipped class frequently and had an immense fear of crowds and public speaking.
I became bored, shy, unfulfilled and severely depressed. I was surrounded by people (many of them great people) on a daily basis, but I felt hopelessly directionless and alone.
Somehow, I managed to make it to 3rd year before I had my first panic attack. This set off a series of events that would lead me to drop out of university entirely. It was a traumatic and quite frankly shameful experience. No one likes to drop out of something or to admit weakness.
I struggled to tell the full story of my problems with mental health to friends and family, further isolating myself and my illness.
Nevertheless, I was somewhat naïve as to the precise condition of my mental health. The word depression never really entered my vocabulary. I just assumed I that I didn’t have what it took to earn a university degree. I assumed, sadly, that I was stuck with what I had. I allowed my mental health to define who I was.
Discovering a love of photography
Throughout my troubled years, escaping into nature happily remained a relatively constant source of contentment.
When I got my own car and unrestricted driver’s license, this opened up a new world. I was free to explore the vast Australian continent. I would drive for days to the middle of nowhere, and then drive back again. To some extent, I was trying to run from my life, even though the lonely highways and immersion in nature were quite soothing.
At some point I developed an interest in storms and storm chasing. There was a particularly stormy spring and summer in 2004 that piqued my interest. I could combine my love of driving with my love of nature and a burgeoning interest in the weather.
I joined up to storm chasing forums and discovered that many of the members of these forums used cameras to document their trips.
I went to a few meetings in our local bowling alley, where members of the forum would meet up to share photographs and stories. Although I was terrified of attending, I eventually found happiness and belonging with a bunch of people who shared common interests.
Shortly thereafter I purchased my first camera, a cheap, almost disposable Pentax film camera.
It was great! I took it with me storm chasing, and would always wait for my developed film like a child on Christmas morning.
Some years later I upgraded to a * Canon 350D, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The hidden benefits of photography
Although anxiety and depression have been a constant in my life for the best part of 20 years, photography was something that I could rely on therapeutically.
But what is it about photography that gives it such power to quieten the mind? It would be easy to conclude that anyone who does something they love doing is going to be happier, but I believe the truth runs deeper than that.
Photography is a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation originating from 7th century Buddhism, but very generally it is a state of awareness in the present moment that is attentive, non-judgmental and engages all of the senses.
In the early years, I was not making a conscious attempt to be mindful of my surroundings when I had a camera in my hand. Instead, photography was simply a passion that consumed all of my mental energy. No questions what they are doing or why when it is something that they love, right?
When I observe a storm rolling over the desert, I am watching the landscape and the sky intently. I’m listening for thunder and smelling the rain hit the dry soil. I’m thinking of how I might be able to photograph that storm. I’m also anticipating its next move so I can stay a few steps ahead of it. When these thoughts are going on, I simply don’t have space for the destructive thoughts associated with depression and anxiety.
Photography doesn’t always go to plan
Most photographers would agree that photography can be frustrating.
Sometimes we wait for hours for light that doesn’t materialise. Some days we have great light and we just can’t find our photographic groove.
The problem, at least for me, is usually a lack of mindfulness. I was being judgmental (this day sucks because I haven’t found any storms, or I’ve wasted $100 on petrol with nothing to show for it) and not engaging all of my senses to the present moment.
Mindfulness helps me to live in the present and not judge things simply because I didn’t get what I wanted. If I fall into the trap of setting expectations that aren’t met, I simply tell myself that the present moment is privilege enough. Anything else is a bonus. And besides, there’ll be other storms, other days with great light.
Gratitude is also a big part of this. I’m grateful that I have a car and money to go and do whatever I want, when I want. I was grateful that my old boss used to let me have days off, purely to chase storms.
Photography and spirituality
Fast forward to today, and I’m a voracious reader of anything related to mindfulness, spirituality, Stoicism and other eastern religions such as Taoism and how they can be applied to photography and by extension, mental health.
Although these philosophies were developed hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before the camera was invented, they are no less applicable to modern photography.
For one, photography is an act of creation, and creation brings the risk that what you create will be rejected by others.
Many photographers, including myself, will also struggle with things such as finding their own style, expressing emotions in their photographs, finding compositions in chaotic areas or simply finding the motivation to get out of the house and shoot in the first place.
Mindfulness is not only a means of dealing with mental health issues. It is also as a means to improving the fulfillment we get out of our photography.
There is a lot of talk about upgrading gear to produce better photographs these days, but when I think back to my Pentax film camera, I was no less impressed with the images I got back from the department store than I am today when I look at my raw files in Lightroom.
But they are tools, nonetheless. Photography and the creative process are where the real magic happens.
I am forever grateful that I stumbled across photography and its value as a restorative, therapeutic hobby. I would honestly hate to think where I would be today without it.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear to me now that my love of photography was borne out of depression, comfort, solace, escape and relaxation. But it was a love that came very easily, and that is what matters I suppose!
Photography enabled me to perform some sort of primitive mindfulness, even though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time. Photography also enabled me to satisfy my high natural curiosity for the world and perhaps most importantly, express that curiosity through imagery.
Lastly, I’d like to think Lara for the opportunity to guest post on her blog and share my story. It is very much appreciated!
If you’d like to see more of my work or find out more about mindfulness photography then check my Instagram page or my blog at benjaminstevens.com.au/blog. Thanks for reading this far and if you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them!