We can be present to the moment and all that it contains, or we can stay in our usual distracted, often self-centred state of being.
When we think of Hawaii many of us will entertain conventional images of paradise – idyllic, lush and beautiful, with stunning beaches and balmy sunsets – and for the photographer David Ulrich it is, too. Yet this, it turns out, is not the main reason he felt drawn to make it his home.
Thirty-five years ago, at the age of 33 and at the peak of his photography career, Ulrich was chopping wood in his backyard when, suddenly, a splinter flew up into his face, and he sustained an injury that was to change his life. Despite hours of surgery he lost the sight in his dominant right eye. Devastated, he could not imagine how his future would unfold.
In his autobiographical book, The Widening Stream, Ulrich recalls the moment of realisation that changed his attitude and gave him an unshakeable sense of courage: “A question unexpectedly arose in my mind: If I cannot let go of something as relatively insignificant as one eye, one small part of my body, what will happen when I have to completely let go of my entire body, when I die?”
Once he had yielded to the shocking and unexpected change, Ulrich was able to focus on the positive aspects of having survived such a traumatic event. He now embraces the experience as a profound life lesson in letting go.
“A transformation had occurred on many different levels, physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual, due to the effects of the injury. It served to break down many of the unquestioned and crystallized attitudes my psyche had developed as an armour; and provided an opportunity for renewal, for a regathering of my energies under different conditions.”
On a photography trip to Hawaii a few years later, Ulrich was drawn to the transformative and “phoenix-like” nature of the landscape, and after several more visits he realised that he “was a part of the place, and the place was a part of me”. Hawaii, fertile, vibrant and colourful, would not exist without the force of the volcanic eruptions that have taken place there, and it was this juxtaposition of destruction and beauty that had resonated with him – although it took him years to realise it.
Something of that growing realisation is revealed in Ulrich’s latest book, Zen Camera, in which he brings his Buddhist principles to bear on the subject of his chosen art form and its many talented practitioners – and, in particular, muses on how spiritual techniques of creativity and consciousness can be used in the modern era of smartphones and digital images.
Speaking to Resurgence & Ecologist from his home in Honolulu, Ulrich argues that Zen Camera encourages us to cherish the uniqueness of personal perspective and develop an authentic way to simply “see what is”. Right Seeing, the first step on the Buddhist Eightfold Path, implies not only a positive, life-affirming attitude, but also a genuine effort toward direct and conscious perception, Ulrich believes. His book describes how Zen practice can be interwoven into a daily photography regime to become a powerful and highly creative form of self-expression.
“Zen tradition teaches that at every moment in our lives we have a choice. We can be present to the moment and all that it contains, or we can stay in our usual distracted, often self-centred state of being. With a camera in our hand we are encouraged to cultivate mindful attention and strive towards a holistic awareness that simultaneously encompasses self and subject equally.”
A digital photograph can be viewed instantly by a global audience via social networks. That reach, however, doesn’t mean the image will be particularly profound. Ulrich is puzzled why so many people share such shallow content on Instagram – such as selfies and shots of their latest meal – when social media holds such powerful capabilities as a publishing platform with global reach. “There’s power in numbers. Look what happened with the Arab Spring, where people used social media to communicate, to nurture and cultivate their activism. We also need that for the environment,” he tells me.
Ulrich points out that, for most of their day, many people – teenagers especially, perhaps – are experiencing the world through a screen. He refers to the work of Jennifer Roberts, a Harvard University professor of the history of art and architecture, who is striving to create opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, to address the need for immersive attention in the digital age of endless distractions. As the capabilities of digital technology increase, so there is increasing potential for humanity to become dependent upon it. Ulrich believes that there is a growing cultural need to use technology with greater awareness and vision.
I start to wonder at this point how Zen Camera’s approach might contribute to greater understanding between people. Ulrich tells me: “When you begin to break through the crust of your conditioning and recognise your own depth, you also recognise that all human beings have that depth and that all human beings deserve equal respect and care. I think it’s much harder to be violent or to hurt somebody else when you’re inwardly connected to yourself.”
The Indian thinker and writer Krishnamurti described Zen practice as “choiceless awareness”, a place where intuitive thought leads. Ulrich says that time and peace are required in tandem for this state to be realised. He also cites Zen master Takuan Sōhō’s observation that “the mind must always be in the state of flowing” to pave the way for creativity – often referred to as ‘creative flow’ or, in Zen Buddhism, ‘No Mind’.
The six main lessons in his book focus on observation, awareness, identity, practice, mastery and presence. Ulrich suggests that photographers exploring these ideas build a practice of visual journaling, keeping a daily record, as they progress. He encourages his students to take notice of whatever intuitively draws them in, allowing their natural perceptive style to emerge before even lifting the camera. Motivational tools are provided for readers to use as they develop their skills in the key elements of photography: frame, light, use of colour, sensitivity to the moment and the nature of the subject.
“Using a camera can be approached as an inner practice that leads you more fully into a rich engagement with the world, and a platform for sharing your questions, observations and discoveries,” Ulrich maintains.
Ulrich’s book is infused with the reassuring sentiment that it’s never too late to learn: “You’re never too old or too busy to find your own vision or voice. I would say that to anybody,” he tells me.
He adds: “The challenge for me, and I think for many of us, is to maintain our curiosity, our sense of hope and engagement, and our sense of ‘not knowing’. As soon as we think we know, we close off many possibilities.”
We are all beginners.
Grace Rodgers is a freelance writer and photographer. David Ulrich’s book Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography is published by Watson-Guptill.
This article was first published in the current issue of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, which is available now.