One spectacular Autumn morning in 2003, I went out for my daily walk and was so captivated by the light and color that I could not resist going back to the house to retrieve my little point and shoot digital camera. Hours passed as if mere minutes, and it wasn’t until fatigue and sore feet became an issue that I reluctantly trudged home.
As I reviewed the images later, I became aware of two things. First, I felt more relaxed and peaceful than I had in a long time. Second, something shifted deep inside my soul as I reflected on the images I had captured. It turned out that my camera was not the only thing I retrieved that morning. I was recovering the disowned artist within and discovering a new way of seeing.
Ten years and a few camera upgrades later, I found myself at the Bethany Spring Retreat Center, attending a weekend contemplative photography workshop led by Kim Manley Ort. In Kim, I found a woman after my own heart. Our interest in photography as contemplative practice was but one area of common ground. We shared a love of poetry, and were profoundly influenced by Thomas Merton, a mystic, contemplative and Trappist monk who incidentally also practiced contemplative photography.
Sitting around the table at meals with Kim and the other retreat participants that weekend, I realized my deep longing for community with like-minded individuals on this path which was sorely lacking in my day-to-day life at that time. Since then, I’ve been delighted to find that ours is a tribe of many and I treasure each one, like Kim, that I’ve met along the way. Over the years, I’ve kept up with her through Facebook and hope one day to attend one of her retreats at Niagara on the Lake.
Kim is a wonderful facilitator and teacher, and I’m grateful she agreed to share a bit of herself with us today.
What a great question, to think of a time when I made the connection. Honestly, I didn’t think of myself as a creative person at all for most of my life. My passion for photography ignited around the time I turned 40 and even then I didn’t think of it as a creative practice. For the next ten years, as I learned more about photography, my spiritual life was also awakening. The first connection I made between the two revolved around a project called “God is Light.” My first public exhibit was on this topic in 2005. It was another five years before I made the connection between photography and living a contemplative life. This was at a Bethany Spring retreat on the sacred poetry of Thomas Merton and Mary Oliver and led to leading my first contemplative photography retreat in that same place. This is how I met LeAnne. Today, I see no separation between the two. My photographs reflect a connection with life and that is what spirituality is all about.
I have many artists and teachers who have influenced me, yet the answer to this question comes easily. It is the artist and writer, Frederick Franck, author of the classic book, The Zen of Seeing.
Franck was the complete package, someone who knew early on the question that would guide his life, “What does it mean to be human?” He brought this question to everything he did, whether as a dentist working in Africa with Albert Schweitzer, as a drawer, painter, and sculptor, and as a writer of more than 30 books. While living a very full life, he exemplified simplicity, in the sense that he only focused on what mattered most to him. This is something I try to teach in my courses, focusing on what matters, whether in photography or in life.
“The meaning of life is to see” – Hui Neng
It was through Franck that I learned of the quote that guides my life, “The meaning of life is to see,” from the Chinese mystic Hui Neng. Franck taught that drawing could teach us how to truly see and connect with what’s right in front of us. I believe that photography can do the same if we approach it with the same mindset.
It’s often said that we teach what we most need to learn and that is true for me. Contemplative creativity is an unfolding process for me and I share that process through my blog, social media posts, and the workshops I offer. For me, contemplative photography is an exercise in meeting life in the moment. It’s full of surprises and wonder. I try to literally walk the talk, as a daily photo walk has become a spiritual practice. It is through these walks and a general awareness of what’s resonating with me that my creativity comes from and this inspires the workshops I create for others.
I’ve found that many people need that nudge to follow their instincts when it comes to creativity, to let go of the outcome as well as the desire to please others. Of course, this is not easy and it’s a struggle that will never go away entirely, at least for most of us. But, I try to remind them that they are worthy, as is everything else on this planet.
The photographic exercises in her book, Adventures in Seeing: The Camera Teaches You to Pause, Focus, and Connect with Life, will help you to tap into a deeper awareness of yourself and the world around you. You’ll rediscover your own connection with a world fully alive, a world where you belong and have a place.
Workshops Coming Up:
Online – Visual Journaling. Emerging Vision and Voice starts May 8th.
In-Person – June 9th – 11th. There are four spots left in my weekend contemplative photography workshop in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
As I walk my own path of spiritual growth through creativity, I’ve met many kindred spirits along the way. In the Conversation is a series of interviews with these soulful voices who I believe exemplify what it means to be a creative contemplative. Check out other interviews in the series here.