This post is the second in a series about contemplative photography as a practice of Christian obscurity. I broke up with photography in 2005, and now I pick up the rest of the story.
In 2019, contemplative photography found me and said, “Hey, ma’am. Remember your old friend photography? It’s me. I’m still here. I’m the same as always, but I’m also so much better than before.”
I had not picked up a camera for personal enjoyment in over a decade. Chris and I had on semi-permanent loan my father-in-law’s DSLR, and on special occasions we would break it out to document a birthday or holiday. But between Chris and I, he was the spouse most committed to taking, editing, and cataloging our photos. I used my iPhone camera for ad hoc moments in our life and for social media posts, and that was about it.
But good friends have a way of inspiring us to look for what we thought was lost. And I credit my friend Brad with introducing me to contemplative photography and spurring me on to pick up my camera again.
We were on a global leadership retreat in Chamonix, France, for an organization we both serve when he broke out his DSLR to take photos of the sunset hitting the mountain opposite our retreat house. “You don’t need a fancy camera, Sarah,” he said. “Just see what you can do with your phone.” Now I’m a midwest, rolling plains kind of girl, so mountains are a treat for my soul to behold. And due to a broken toe, I had been unable to get into the woods to immerse myself with the mountains. So immersion through my camera would have to do.
Those few minutes of snapping photos in the driveway of our retreat house jump started something. Time slowed down as I watched the changing light and clouds on the mountain. I had to breathe slowly and hold myself steady to keep the camera still. To be present in that moment required a meditative mindset.
Brad called this contemplative photography, but it felt like a return to all that I loved and missed about photography so long ago. The slowing down. The thoughtfulness. The magic.
Turns out, contemplative photography is an actual thing. Teachers and writers of it use language like “seeing the world with fresh eyes,” “connecting with the visual richness of our ordinary daily experiences,” and “relearning how to see.” For me, it just felt like a name given to my past approach to photography.
When I got home, I dusted off the DSLR and ventured out into the world trying my hand at learning contemplative photography. But I quickly got bogged down with all the help Chris offered me, bless his heart. He set me up with an external hard drive and an Adobe LightRoom account, and he showed me the ropes of editing on my computer. I didn’t mind pruning down the hundreds of photos I took to mere handfuls; it was an exercise of ruthlessly identified what mattered most in my photos and choosing the absolute best of the best. I did a little editing and filtering here and there, but I never had much fun in the editing process. It would never be as much fun as the black-and-white darkroom.
My enthusiasm waned as the trip to France grew distant, and soon I forgot about getting out the DSLR and going out to take pictures. I didn’t want to lug the camera out. I didn’t want to prune through hundreds of photos. I didn’t know what to do with the photos I wanted to keep. Maybe I was full of excuses. But as I look back on it now, I think I neglected to identify what mattered most to me about picking up this hobby again: the meditative slowing down and watching for images I want to capture. That’s what I love the most.
I had the opportunity to meet again with the global leadership team in France in November 2021. But this time, Brad didn’t bring his DSLR. He had invested in a high-quality phone that suited his international travel needs, and it had a very good camera. He was pleased with the quality of photos he had been getting from it and didn’t see the need to bring his DSLR with him.
Brad championed contemplative photography once again. But this time, not just in passing while we were waiting for dinner. Instead, he gave the whole team a lesson in contemplative photography, drawing from the retreat he leads in southern Spain. He invited us to play and experiment with our everyday cell phones, gave us some some spiritual postures to consider, and challenged us to look at our world through a different lens.
I was not hobbled by a broken toe on this trip, so I could traipse all over the Chamonix valley with my phone during our afternoon breaks. Some days I walked with my friends into town and some days I trekked on my own. I ventured off the trails to capture photos of streams and moss and granite boulders. I used the towering pine trees to frame the mountains in the distance. I got up close and personal with nature, and I also stood back and tried to get all of the valley in one wide shot.
Back home, walking the dog was no longer a mere exercise in working out her excess energy. I always took my phone on our walks anyway, but now I put my phone to use. We slowed down our walks, and I watched for what caught my attention. Even in my suburban neighborhood, nature was in all its glory as fall gave way to winter. Ornamental grasses, dried seed pods, dropped magnolia leaves. They were all worthy of my camera.
Now, nearly a year later, I can’t imagine my walks without watching for photos. And though my walking routes don’t change much, the four seasons of southwest Missouri are constantly changing my local landscape. I love nature photography most (maybe because God continues to speak to me through his creation just like he spoke creation into existence in Genesis), but I also enjoy experimenting images that are not organic.
I’ve found my old friend photography. We’ve both changed since we started this journey, but I’m learning to be okay with what’s new and different. I’m no longer the girl with the camera, I’m just another person with a camera phone. But I’m slowly making peace with the obscurity of being one in seven billion people taking pictures with their phones.
I’ll get practical with what Brad taught and what I’ve learned about contemplative photography in my next post!