The Photographer’s Guide To The Galaxy: A Fish Eye Lens of Self-Compassion

Photographers Are Today’s Storytellers

Life moves fast now, faster than it ever has before.  Stories are captured in pictures, and short, cleverly worded captions.  There has never been so much pressure on photographers to use their environment, and the people in it to captivate, wow, and touch their audiences.  A train shot far off in the distance symbolizes travel, and life’s fleeting moments.  A ship docking represents the opportunities that await us.  Fireworks have become a metaphor for triumph and celebration.

While photographers can use special applications to modify pictures for people like myself, who have a terrific gift for closing their eyes at inopportune moments, they also must deal exclusively with what is.  They cannot make it any warmer outside.   They cannot alter the personality or the needs of their subjects.  They cannot compel cars to take a different route, or the wind to slow, or rambunctious children to not crowd the shot.  Like bartenders, hair stylists, psychologists, military personnel, and traveling monks, they must venture into, work with, and make peace with what is to create the most emotionally compelling stories.

Now that we all have phones with cameras, most of us consider ourselves amateur photographers.  So, we could learn much from professionals, who have dedicated their lives to telling others’ stories with sincerity and well wishes.  They are great models of compassion for others (e.g., the kindness they show to their subjects), and self-compassion (e.g., allowing their work to be flawed and beautiful despite desiring it to be perfect).

To take a great picture and persevere with self-compassion you need four unmistakable things.  First: Know your Subject. Second: Know Your Terrain.  Third: Have A Story In Mind. Four: Let The Story Go.

First: Know Your Subject

People are neurotic, peculiar, and riddled with agendas, expectations, and concerns.  To know how to photograph someone, you must first know their story.  You need to know how and why they respond to the camera the way that they do to capture their sincerity.  You also need a certain level of connection to ask them to be part of the story you have in mind. 

If you give someone the opportunity to tell you their story, they will inevitably tell you what makes it difficult for them to be photographed, what makes it easy, and what parts of them make them unique.  All stories start with an idea, but are at their core about individuals, and the experiences they share with others.  As a photographer, you need to help your subject connect with the larger audience to truly fulfill their role in the storytelling process.

Second: Know Your Terrain

Life is full of props, both those you purchase and choose to decorate your home and studio with, and those that the sands of time have worn with their gritty texture and fluidity.  Have a bunch of locations in mind to try to capture the best parts of your subject, and be willing to amend them should they not work the way you planned.  Like the parts of your wardrobe that you stumbled upon by accident but have become your favorites, it is often the forgotten or unnoticed things about the external environment that ties a special story together. 

Each scenery or position change will invite the subject and the camera to catch something unique.  To record true beauty, you must not be afraid to adapt, but must also have the courage to make a plan that could fail or succeed.  If the plan leads you to one that works, it has served its purpose.  Fail faster. Succeed faster.

Third: Have A Story In Mind

People and the world can be simple, but even in their simplest form, when peeled back they will expose infinite layers.  Think to yourself about how differently you respond to change in weather, bosses, teachers, friends, amenities, skill realizations, promotions, and romantic partners.  Birth and death perhaps change us the most, and every day offers a version of both.  A new friend represents the birth of a new part of yourself, the part that emerges to be connected to them.  To lose a friend, even one who remains amongst the living, feels like the end to a part that we cherished deeply. 

If you have no story in mind, you will capture too much to convey something relatable.  Once, you have the story in mind you free yourself and your subject to respond to that story in a way that inspires emotionally, cognitively, and interpersonally. 

How many times have you seen a couple holding hands with the sun sinking into the ocean, and felt your heart rise or fall?  How many times have you seen a sick child in a parent’s arms and swallowed hard with the wish that the child become well, and the parent avoid a terrible loss?

For a clear story to emerge, you must have one in mind.  If the details change, you will always have that structure on which to rely.

Fourth: Let The Story Go.

Photographers are agile minded, hardworking, humanists, who suffer through the bitterness of unhappy subjects and sometimes harsh landscapes to capture a moment that can bring one or many people years of joy.  They go to great lengths to create a story that captures these subjects in a life affirming way, and when the subjects and environment conspire to crush this story, the photographers must choose to let their efforts die completely or be reborn in the muse of the moment. 

Somehow, great difficulties, and impossible elements strike a chord in great photographers.  They make them tap into their deepest well of self-compassion, and embrace their most virtuous intentions: to make something beautiful out of what the world gives them.  I am not a great photographer, so I can only capture the actions of someone who is. 

Applying These Elements In Real Time

My friend Alan recently did a photo shoot of me.  It was about 30 degrees outside, perhaps 20 with the wind chill.  I have an adult history of feeling anxious in front of the camera, and I close my eyes when I try too hard to take a good picture.  Alan clearly had his ideas about a story, but when a scene did not work, he would simply wrinkle his brow, relax it, and make a suggestion about scene or position change.  He shifted to an out loud count to help me prepare to relax my eyes, and at one point even suggested that I start with my eyes closed and open them at the end of the count. 

Of course, the pictures completely unmodified turned out beautifully.  Of Alan’s many photography talents, his greatest strengths are his sense of warmth and kindness.  They give him flexibility, and perceptiveness that he could not learn in a classroom or from a book.  This fluidity also allows him to modify or drop stories as he films because he is more lead by his heart than he will ever be by perfection.  His compassion for my challenges, and self-compassion for his own were humbly kept to himself.  As amateur photographers, we should probably all take note.

365 Days of Self-Compassion.  Day 129.  In The Books.