When I was 22 I moved to China for a year, teaching English language and literature at Peking University. It was one of the hardest times of my life. I was in at the deep end, alone, and felt like I was swimming against a very large crowd. I found Beijing to be over populated, over polluted and overwhelming. I did not speak Mandarin and I was teaching about 250 undergraduate and graduate students at the top university in China with no curriculum and no idea what I had got myself in for.
Looking back now it was art that helped me get through it all. Art- namely writing and photography- gave me a window out and offered me vital breathing space to make sense of it all. And when I say vital I don’t just mean that it was important, I mean it was a way to breathe in new life and connect me to my own vitality. Not only that but it also helped me to find beauty in the broken bits. Art was grace.
This was in the days before I could afford a digital camera (they were expensive things back then!), so I got myself a whole pile of simple disposable cameras. They were a saviour. Through all the noise, commotion and craziness I started to look for things that pleased me and started to take photographs: the unusual shape of ginko leaves; the way the rushes in the lakes bent and froze; the interweaving patterns the thousands of bicycles made in the snow; the steam from a bowl of street noodles; the ping pong bats used to reserve tables in the canteen. I started to notice the little details, and in the little details I found solace and belonging.
That was during the day. At night, I wrote. In fact, I couldn’t stop writing. The simple act of writing helped to connect me to my body. I wrote by hand, page after page, each page allowing me room to find myself. I wrote my first novel in a couple of months (a book that will gladly stay in my drawer), a whole series of poems, a collection of short stories including one little children’s book (which I still love) and an English language learning textbook, which was even published!
Through the taking of images I was able to stand on solid ground and through the writing process I was able to connect with my inner world. Together they brought me back home to myself and to a quality of presence which for a while I had lost.
‘Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed’- Mary Oliver.
Presence really is the key.
Creativity, I have come to realize, is not so much a series of technical skills as a way of being present, and a way of capturing the quality of that presence.
Now, as a photographer, when I feel present at an event or in good relationship with the object or person I intend to photograph I know it makes a massive difference to the type of photograph I am able to take. When I do not feel that my photographs are good enough or I have not learned from the experience, it is usually a sign that I was not fully engaged with the creative process to begin with, and certainly not with the moment when the image was taken. However, when I can plug into that presence, everything changes.
Learning how to be present is a skill set which we can acquire and practice over time. The mindfulness revolution, yoga techniques and centuries of meditative practice have a huge amount to offer this process, as too the simple act of noticing.
So here is a little practice for you… Next time you are feeling a little ungrounded, start to notice what is around you right now. The little details, the way the light falls or the curvature of shadow. Take a pen and write about it for 5 mins- no need to edit or review, just write. Or pick up your camera (maybe the one on your phone) and photograph just for a sake of seeing, and being.
In the noticing is the act of presencing, and in the presencing is lies the seeds of transformation.
Looking back now I am so grateful to that time in Beijing. It has helped to make me who I am. It helped me to shed old layers of myself and it forever brings me back to the page and my camera, to notice, connect, and at times, transform.