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Photography and Training the Soul to See Beauty

I’ve been enjoying photography for most of my life now. Some might even call me a “photographer” but to me, it’s simply one of my many things I love. I’m hesitant to accept the formal “photographer” label, preferring to allow photography to move through me rather than fitting myself into a mold of what that word might mean.

105A6408I’m again in Nepal, and I’m lucky enough to say it is my fourth time here in the past two years. My primary work here is with the Nepal Orphans Home and its affiliated Chelsea Education and Community Center. Yesterday, after helping prepare food for the poor here with Curry Without Worry, I wandered the streets, alleyways and markets outside Durbar Square with my camera, taking photographs in between Kathmandu’s monsoon raindrops. I managed to take a couple of sweet portraits including this one of the apple/pomogranite vendor with his bicycle and the one at the top of this post of a young pregnant girl selling produce. My heart felt very tender toward her and her gentle, quiet way.

105A6549The following morning I hired a driver to take me to Bhaktapur, an historic old town about 15 minutes outside of Kathmandu. He was a good man, with a kind eye, a quick laugh and an easeful patience. In trying to explain to him the kind of photographs I like to take in hopes that he’d have some suggestions for other places we might go, I told him I like to photograph “life,” but that’s a little broad, I know. It’s not easy for me to describe what I photograph and as a result, the best locations he could suggest were the typical places popular with tourists: Swayambhu aka The Monkey Temple, the stupa at Boudhanath, and the Pashupatinath Hindu temple. All amazing places to go but I’ve been to them all more than once on previous journeys and I wanted something more ordinary, more everyday. So in this process or trying to explain, it became obvious to me that I simply like to photograph what I find to be beautiful. Not only is it difficult to describe, especially to the non-photographer, but in truth, I won’t recognize it until I see it myself.

Photography has the wonderful ability to open my senses to the perception of beauty. All objects and people are simply that, objects and people. Some of us might have a spiritual belief that everything has an inherent beauty to it, but to me, everything simply is as it is, no more no less. When something appears to someone as being beautiful, it is because their soul is simply and touchingly being impacted. The experience of beauty is entirely and uniquely within each of us.

105A6520You can see how difficult it might have been to direct my driver this morning. The best I probably could have articulated would have been “Take me to the place where I am most likely to encounter things that I would personally find to be beautiful,” but that most certainly would have proven futile. As we drove, the early morning sun rising in our direction would occasionally reveal a magical silhouette or other divine glare and I’d beckon a quick stop which often extended into a not-so-quick stop. Eventually we made it to Bhaktapur where I love to wander the streets. Outside of the mountains, Bhaktapur, the seat of one of the ancient Nepal kingdoms, is a perfect place in Nepal, bristling with Nepali life and history.

sistersI was a little nervous coming back to Bhaktapur as it’s my first time returning here after last year’s tragic earthquakes and I feared seeing too many collapsed buildings in the places where I had taken some portraits which have become dear to me, like this one of two girls I met here last year. Even though I may only meet some of my subjects one time, my relationship with them continues to deepen as I connect with their image again and again over time. I can begin to feel close to them. I was pleased to find that although many homes were gone, a great majority of the largely mortared-brick home structures of this town remained.

I even was lucky enough to photograph a young boy for the second time, this time a year and a half later. I wasn’t certain until I got back and compared the images, but it’s the same boy without a doubt. He has wisened up since last year, pressing for 100 Rupees rather than settling for some candy.

105A6585boy

So what I’m trying to get at here is that photography has a way of connecting me with the beauty of the world and this lifetime. As such, every time I look through my eyepiece or walk around with my slightly-too-heavy camera bag slung over my shoulder, I am training myself to see beauty. You can’t
really teach someone to see beauty as it isn’t simply a visual thing, and it certainly isn’t a logical thing. It’s really a development of the soul. It is so easy to move through life distractedly, but when you walk your world with a camera, you are practicing the art of seeing beauty. 105A6560Beauty arises in the sacred confluence between the physical world, the visual sense, the mind, the heart which is touched by what it has come to love, a connection with the perfection of the present moment, and an overarching sense of wonder. The real benefit to photography is that it trains the soul to learn to see beauty. Thus, even without camera in hand, the world becomes a more sacred place.

105A6797I’ll be returning to Bhaktapur tomorrow with a few of the girls from Nepal Orphans Home who have shown an interest in photography. Teaching photography, aside from all of the important technical aspects of composition, exposure, focus, and depth of field is, to me, largely a spiritual teaching. Can we connect with more than merely what we see or what we think we see? Can we learn to connect to our own presence within the moment? Can we allow enough sensitivity to our own soul to recognize that which touches us? Can we truly allow our awe and reverence to arise and move through us? Can we learn to engage our camera’s shutter release at precisely the moment our heart/soul is most touched?

Here is the artist’s statement from my photography website which speaks more directly to what I’m trying to write about here:

I take pictures,
when the mood strikes me
or when I see something
or someone
beautiful.

I’m not one to stage things,
preferring life as it unfolds
scenes as they unveil
people as they unmask.

Our human nature wants to
know the bounty of this existence.
Without beauty, there is no bounty
only sufficiency.

What you see here
is a sounding of the beauty
which plucks a harmonic
of my own soul.
A grasping, I suppose,
to hold to that beauty
and express who I have come to be
and share what I have come to know.

Photography supports my humble attempt
to leave the confines of my mind and
move into a space
of greater connectedness within the moment.

In that moment,
this moment,
now,
there is
nothing that is not beautiful.

Update:
I returned to Bhaktapur with three of the girls from the orphanage where I taught them what I could about photography, from the technical to the spiritual, from composition to photography as personal reflection of one”s own unique experience of beauty.
After we 105A6895returned and reviewed the images, I walked each of them back to their homes (each girl is in a different one of our four residences, a few blocks apart). As I walked the last of the three girls to her home, she paused and said something which touched my heart and made me feel like the day was a complete success.

“Look!” she said and she pointed to a break in the bulging gray clouds where a virtuous patch of blue had broken through. “Look how beautiful!”


2 replies on “Photography and Training the Soul to See Beauty”

Always a pleasure to read your thoughts, and to browse again thru your photos, each one is a whole story, or the beginning of one. Sounds like your journey is still filling your heart. A friend who juts retired from teaching in England visited last summer – she went to Nepal several times (over the years) with other teachers and students from her school; they built a library for a school in Nepal – now much of that area has been too badly damaged by quakes, or other issues … in any case, she instantly recognized the mountain range in the background of the photo I have of yours, “rice field worker” and she enjoyed looking at your website photos. Keep on ! Looking at you photos reminds me of one of my favorite films of all time, the Chinese movie “To Live”. Hope your travels lead you back to the North Coast sometime ! Let’s have tea or take a walk by the sea. Best Wishes – glad to have met you, and appreciate the artistry of your photography.

Thank you so much. Ginny, I appreciate your support and kind words. I’ll be back to the coast in another week or two so let’s meet up after then for a walk. I’d enjoy that.

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