A wise old owl lived in an oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
Photographers can learn a lot from this old nursery rhyme, originally told to children to try and teach them the virtue of being quiet. For like the sage Owl who watches and patiently waits when hunting his prey, we too must learn how to quiet the voices in our heads. Only then, are we able to truly hear and feel the pulse of the magnificent landscape around us. And in doing so, we become more receptive to seeing–allowing our intuition, sensitivity and visual acuity to take over.
For how is it possible to see when we’re constantly having internal dialogue with ourselves? As thinking creatures, we spend our waking lives dissecting the world around us, trying to fit our experiences into neat little boxes in our heads. We dwell on the past thinking about the mistakes we’ve made; we obsess about the future thinking about things that haven’t even happened yet; and we waste precious creative energies analyzing, judging, classifying, evaluating, interpreting, labeling, expecting, comparing, intellectualizing, and trying to live up to.
If photography is a conversation with nature, then we are constantly interrupting; completing nature’s sentence before she has had a chance to finish her thought. Are we fools for assuming that we really know what she’s thinking? If we’re too busy talking, we only hear the chatter and static of our own thoughts. And when we do this, the truth revealed in a moment is often hidden—and we become reactive rather than receptive.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably like me when it comes to photography…on the clock. I wish I had the time and financial resources to spend weeks at a time in the field getting in touch with my inner Owl. But often, my photography trips are whirlwinds—consisting of a few days here and a few days there. When we go on vacation, it often takes us a couple of days to fully decompress before we melt into the flow of things. In photography, we usually don’t have this luxury—as we place a huge burden on ourselves to produce something compelling within a very limited time frame (before we are forced to return to our daily lives). And this is further complicated by the fact that shooting conditions never seem to fully cooperate with our intended schedules, providing us with even fewer decisive moments in which to capture something special.
So what do we do? We race around frantically trying to find meaningful pictures to take—as if something breathtaking is going to magically materialize before our eyes. We dash out of our vehicles like they are on fire; immediately set up our tripods in the first decent spot we find; and start feverishly snapping away as if we only have an hour left before we’re going to lose our vision. Nature is our candy store, yet we almost always grab the first candy bar in front of us, rather than allowing the perfect confection to find us. Like the Owl hunting its prey, we too can learn to become intuitive master hunters by harnessing the power of patience, observation and self-forgetfulness. If we look too hard to find the field mouse, we will almost always fail to see it moving through the dense brush.
Learning to photograph like the wise old Owl means that in order for us to realize our creative goals and to truly see, we must essentially give up on our attempt to reach it. To paraphrase an ancient Tao saying as it relates to photography, “There is no technique one can use to see, because every method implies a goal. And we cannot make seeing a goal any more than we can aim an arrow at itself.” To do this, we must give up on our desire to always know, focusing instead on the direct experience itself. We must free our minds from our daily entanglements, engaging the world around us with a childlike awareness—actively sensing and receptive, but at the same time free and untethered…much like the wise old Owl.