This week, I've been working on putting together a collection of photos that I've titled "Everyday Mind". Two things about the title. First, it feels strange giving some pictures a title for reasons I'll get into shortly. Second, the title may seem familiar as I've borrowed it directly from a Zen koan by the same name.1 Now, I don't claim to have any true understanding of the concept of "Everyday Mind" as it occurs to Nansen. I am not saying the two things are the same in any way.2 I chose the title here simply because of how the words have been resonating with me lately. Specifically, how they are reflected in the way that I've been going about photography.
I've been avoiding writing this post for a while. There are likely a few reasons for this. One is that it feels like in putting together a "collection" and giving it a "title" I'm doing the work of a "photographer", an "artist". I am therefore unavoidably calling myself an artist and I feel pretentious calling myself an artist. Also, I suspect my art is shallow and cliche. Some obvious trope first year photography students are taught to avoid. In fact, I'm convinced this is the case. These are fears, however. Both irrational and completely human. And there are two reasons I'm choosing to ignore them.
The first, is that while I may feel like an imposter the truth is that I'm just an amateur. I don't claim to know what I'm doing or claim to be any good at it. I am trying something new to see what becomes of it. This, now, may feel like an excuse, a caveat. I think the thing behind a lot of this is being seen. In taking a picture and calling it a photograph, I'm admitting I've put something into it. There is vulnerability then, because there is something to lose. This is, of course, a good thing. It is easy to shrug off something that did not have much time, effort, emotion, or money put into it. However, with low effort also comes low reward. When there is nothing invested, there is also nothing to be gained.
Secondly, as I said in a previous post, once I've picked a subject I'm stuck with it. This forces me to examine the subject for what it is. Not run away from it, or second guess if it's really what I want to be writing about. So far, it's almost always the case that I end up somewhere very different than where I had originally thought I was going. If I am reluctant to look at something, part of the work can be in understanding why. This is important in its own right and worthy of this small digression. Now back to the subject at hand, the title.
This is maybe starting to sound more serious than I intended. In reality it really isn't all that heavy. I take pictures because it's fun. It is something I enjoy doing. I see something I like and I try to capture it. It's not that complicated. Taking pictures, for me, is just a way at pointing at things. The other half of pointing, of course, is having someone else to look. Instagram built a whole app around this concept. While I haven't been very active lately, I used to share here pretty often and over the years I've gotten a lot of positive feedback on what I was doing. In truth, I don't think I would have pursued this as much if it wasn't for the encouragement I've gotten along the way. Really, all of this is a direct result of people around me pushing me further.
There has always been a common theme in the pictures I've taken. This is, however, not something that had ever really occurred to me. A good friend (and now collaborator) was the first to bring this to my attention and has since always been encouraging me to ask the question of "what is it that I'm taking pictures of". It's a great question. One that I had no idea how to approach. The answer came much later and, like the question, came from someone else. A recent comment I received in response to a picture was about it capturing some nuance in the "mundane". This idea of the ordinary, the everyday, immediately felt like it did a good job naming the feeling that already exists in the work itself.
The word "mundane" has a pretty unflattering definition and, worse, often has a lot of negative connotations associated with it. It is no surprise then that the everyday is often seen as something to avoid and even something to escape. There is nothing here, and so we go there, where there is something. We chase away the ordinary in favor of the extraordinary.4 In the koan Nansen says, "If you try for it, you will become separated from it". I don't think this means we should avoid putting in effort. It means that if we strain and go off looking for something else we will, by definition, be leaving behind what was right in front of us to begin with. For a while with photography, I was running around trying to figure out what I wanted to capture. I was looking for something worth capturing. But looking elsewhere was unnecessary. The title has always been here because the feeling has always been here. I am grateful to those who have helped me realize this.
So that's it. There is no real profundity here. The idea is simple, that you don't have to go very far to find something worth looking at.
"Ordinary" mind is maybe more often used instead. I've seen it both ways. ↩
I've always thought that you can tell what is important to someone by what they seek validation on, what they try to protect, or what they caveat. And this week, for me, it's obviously the title. ↩
I am not saying that wanting some extraordinary experiences is a bad thing. I've gone on some pretty exotic adventures for this very reason. Some of my best memories are from incredibly remote, very far from ordinary, places. Some of my other best memories are from very boring, almost nondescript, places. ↩