A trip to an island, meandering the shoreline, noticing how the internal questions shift from large to small and back to large again, but carry on with deeper meaning and more perspective. There were the swims, of course, and a boat trip circumnavigating the island, and friendships kindled, and a love of the wild which swelled to new heights and set the heart a flame.
A photo essay meditation, from Inishlacken, Connemara- to pause, to take in the light, to carry that light onwards.
(This post is dedicated to my aunt, Annie Meehan, nee Mulvany, who passed away, aged 86, earlier this week. She was a bright spark, a woman of the flame, and I always remember her as being the last person on the dance floor. As I was taking these photos, she was being laid to rest; with the light beaming and the birds soaring. Our memories carry)
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.
Ah, the delights. It had been on my wish list for a very long time. The thoughts of wandering a warren of red hued streets, of exploring a rich craft and design culture, of hearing the call to prayer and the guttural sounds of Arabic through the soundscape. Then there were thoughts of tagines, and rosewater, and Riads, and succulents, and even a nervous curiosity about what going to a local hammam would actually entail. I had wanted to go with my camera, knowing we would get lost only to find our way again. It all happened, on a whirlwind visit, which turned out to be just a taster. Now I want to return, for the place has so much intrigue and hospitality. Plus I have never felt cleaner in my life after a lovely (and brave) woman scrubbed layers off me. Marrakech, you delight with your charms and your ancient, beautiful, crazy and chaotic ways….
I travelled there with my housemate, Eavan, who not only has an amazing flair for design and an appreciation of elegance, also took on the mighty task of chief navigator and map reader. For those who have been, you will understand when I say that getting lost is an inevitability. But that is the fun of it. We walked over 30km one day, circling and spiraling through a maze of souks (markets), dodging the traffic and navigating the haggling hoards. Our haggle skills got honed too, as we tuned into the psychology of it, and the game of it too. Our adventures through the markets were intercepted with the occasional sweet mint tea or a delicious juice to give some pause. The light did the rest.
In the evening, our Riad (courtyard home) was a genuine oasis and simply to ponder its proportions and elegant design was a treat. That we got to stay there, even more so.
We packed so much in I felt I had been away for much longer than 3 nights, and the whole experience was like inspiration fuel- stepping into another culture to learn, see, experience and soak in the magic and beauty of this world we live in. Thank you Eavan. Thank you hosts. Thank you Marrakech. We will be back, and hopefully soon….
I’ve fallen in love, and out of love, many times. With my camera that is. (The other love is another story- or many!)
Last weekend it took a lake and a quiet moment to turn the love back on. At the best of times my camera and I feel as one – showing up to each other to capture something special, if just for a moment. And last weekend it felt like the best of times again.
The weekend took me to the shores of Lough Derg where my friends Kieron & Sue were hosting a party. They live on the lake shore. It being a full house, I opted for camping, excited that the lake would be the first thing I would see in the morning and the last thing at night. I had spent some chunks of my childhood on that lake, boating with parents and hopping in for swims. The memories were back as reminders of the best of times too.
Early morning, the light was rising. The party goers were still snoozing but the birds had me up with their cheer and dawn insistence. So me and camera went to the lake for a while, first to swim and then just to be.
Then came the click, physically and metaphorically.
There are moments as a photographer where meditation and that very moment merge. The image is all absorbing and the camera merely becomes a vessel through which that moment is amplified and, by virtue of grace, you happen to be there to capture it.
It can take you elsewhere in an instant.
First you are separate and in a click you are one- you, the object, the light, nature, the breath, the presence and the mystery of it all. In a way, the image captured is irrelevant- you aim for beauty but if the moment is beautiful then that is art in itself. The image is icing.
Which is where the love comes back. Some call it mindful photography. But it could equally be called heartful and mindless photography, for when you can allow the moment to arrive and swell the heart with love, the mind is elsewhere, absorbed into the expanse and otherness, the nothingness; that meditative place which can sometimes seem so illusive when trying to get there sitting on a cushion or stretching in a yoga pose.
Just that moment is enough to give a taste of what art opens. My camera forever changes me, for the heart remains swelled, expanded and more capable of capturing it again, experiencing that sense of openness, and timelessness, and love.
My camera teaches me many things: to sit, to be, to listen, to wait, to observe, to sense, to intuit, to investigate, to be open, if only for that moment, to the magic of it all. But perhaps most importantly it teaches me to love, breaking the heart open again, and again, and again, for an expanded sense of presence and expanded sense of being, mindlessly. Click. Click. Click.