3 | Paying Attention

It begins with a vague fascination with taking pictures. In some cases it might be closer to a compulsion or even obsession. The visual world fascinates us, organizing our impressions and capturing the experience is endlessly seductive. If we are disciplined, and a bit lucky, our personal image archive begins to steadily enlarge. This should be happening for you by now as you have followed the previous exercises and reflections.

Think of your pile of pictures as alive. It should be speaking to you. With just a little work on your part, it can and will. Think of your images as raw research data, your personal database. This work chronicles and maps your exploration of the image world, and like any data set, it has the potential to tell multiple stories.

We are reading the story of our lives as though we were in it, as though we had written it.
— Mark Strand

The work you are engaged in is complex and multifaceted. Part of it involves shooting regularly and prolifically, but it is just as important to actively sort through, catalog, and organize this stuff. Your efforts
may feel vague and diffuse in the beginning, your collection of pictures may appear on the surface to have little cohesion or direction. But if you go back and review this archive, study and engage what you are accumulating, and begin to ask reflective questions, you can start to see the beginnings of habits and themes. This is how your casual fascination can grow into a disciplined and intentional practice.

Our personal pictures can be thought of as a conversation we are having with ourselves. These images come from a place inside us that may not lend itself to language, as we generally understand that word — primarily speech and writing. This may be a part of your psyche that you are actually not all that familiar with. The messages may be faint, symbolic, cryptic, or confusing. It may take a long time to become adept at decoding this other aspect of yourself, but the good news is that this will motivate you to continue pursing your practice.

Carl Jung’s theories of the human psyche are based in the notion of the unconscious, a deeper psychological state that we do not generally have access to in our waking lives. Jung believed that this part of ourselves communicated and generated meaning through the production of symbolic imagery, and that our dreams become the theater in which our unconscious creates densely encoded visual narratives that give voice to who we are at our very core. He believed that every night we entered into an image world that was like a huge, powerful subterranean river flowing beneath what appeared to us as the solid ground of our everyday lives, and that analysis of our dreams could lead us to a deeper understanding of our lives and of the complex world in which we are immersed.

Based on my own visual practice and my many years of teaching, I know that photography often functions as a form of wakeful dreaming. Just as our night time dreams often contain images that are densely meaningful, often to the point of being utterly mysterious, our own personal photographs frequently contain layered and elusive meanings that do not always reveal themselves clearly or immediately.

Imagine your photographs as icebergs. There is the small portion sticking above the surface, the bit that’s visible, which is usually just the facts of what is literally in the picture. But there is almost always a much larger unseen portion, what’s beneath the surface and initially unseen, that speaks to deeper symbolic attachments. As Jung said, “Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend”.

These elusive deeper meanings are not completely out of our reach, but engaging them requires an extra measure of time and reflection. Its not enough to just take pictures. If you want to really engage the meaning of what you are seeing, you need to also commit to reviewing your images and asking yourself what it is you are really seeing in these pictures.

This is the point at which a journaling process that combines images and writing can form a powerful combination. Writing about your pictures helps you to slow down and really look at what you are creating and collecting. It encourages reflection, helps to guide and focus attention, and invariably leads to discovery, sometimes even revelation, about what is unique about how we each see the world.

We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.
— Ralph Hattersley

Keep in mind that these discoveries may not come immediately, and will probably require work and patience. And you should also understand that there is a bottomless quality to this process — if you are really asking hard questions, you will never arrive at some magical all-encompassing answer and the ultimate meaning of what’s going on in your image world will never be entirely revealed. Actually, you don’t really want this to happen because it would mean the end of having a reason to take pictures.

So learn to cultivate and simply enjoy the ultimate elusiveness of your process. The mystery of it can keep propelling you forward. This may be one of the hidden secrets of a lifelong image making practice. Most artists who devote their lives to making pictures do so because they never completely figure out, with utter certainty, what they and their work is try to say. So they make another picture, and that picture gets them a little closer to understanding, but absolute clarity remains elusive and just out of reach. For many of us,
that’s the hook. Remember, its the journey that’s important, not necessarily the final destination.

That journey begins with the accumulation of a large personal archive of images. I personally throw very few of my images in the trash. Storage is so easy and inexpensive that I want the option of potentially going back to anything and everything. Our vision changes and evolves over time, and I have sometimes discovered an old image that I was not able to really ‘see’ and appreciate until years later. That said, you are now at the point where it is becoming important to apply some kind of editing filter to your expanding raw archive. This exercise can be a starting point for you, but one that is reflective and intentional.

The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.
— Carl Jung

I’ve been making pictures for about three decades now. If it was just about taking pictures, I would have gotten bored a long time ago. But what I discovered is that my pictures tell me about myself — they’re like mirrors. And sometimes the stories they tell are layered and complex. I have come to believe that, in some respects, my work is smarter than I am, that I learn from the pictures I make, and that making and reflecting on my pictures has changed me. My history of image making — creating them and looking at them — has transformed me. Literally, I am a different person because I make pictures.

But this process takes time and energy. You need to actually develop an intentional process, and writing can be the vehicle for this journey. You can’t hurry this, so try to slow down and be truly present. Too often we are so busy taking pictures, that we fail to actually give the pictures the reflection time that they deserve. The act of photographing is only half of the equation. Sitting with those image is just, if not more, critically important. Your pictures have stories to tell, and surprisingly they are not always the story you were telling yourself when you clicked the shutter. They sometimes want to tell you something else, something that may be truer and more revealing than you realize. It can be useful to think of your pictures as unsolved riddles.

You will find that if you develop the habit of quietly looking at, and writing about your personal images, their meaning will shift and expand. With time and patience, you will begin to see more than just visual habits, you will begin to sense and discover themes and cycles in your work. If you look closely enough and long enough, appearances will begin to surrender their meaning. As you develop a creative rhythm of making images on a regular basis, you will discover there are deeper layers beyond the surface of what you are seeing. Your vision has an intelligence that in the beginning may be invisible to you and that, no matter how long you engage in this practice, may always be elusive and difficult to pin down. But if you commit to just keep showing up — just like going to the gym or sitting on a yoga mat — your ability to ‘see into’ your pictures will deepen and expand.

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