Photography and the flow

Today you can’t surprise anyone by making photos on camera or smartphone. However, quite often we take pictures “on an autopilot”, whereas photography is a creative process, through which we can get to know not only the world around but also ourselves. And like one need not be a professional dancer to enjoy body movements, equally one need not be a distinguished photographer to enjoy the process of taking pictures and exploring personal inner world through photography.

Seeking for the story to capture is a challenge. While immersed in the searching process the photographer is totally absorbed by the state of focused attention. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state a flow. Professor of psychology and the author of the vast scientific research on happiness, creativity and prosperity, Csikszentmihalyi is considered to be one of the founders of positive psychology. In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” the author writes: “There are situations in which attention can be freely invested to achieve a person’s goals, because there is no disorder to straighten out, no threat for the self to defend against. We have called this state the flow experience, because this is the term many of the people we interviewed had used in their description of how it felt to be in top form”.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, attention is a special mental energy. And the way we spend it and the kind of thoughts, feelings or memories we let into our mind determine our personal development. In the state of flow we are focused only on the activity we do, the activity that brings us joy; we do not waste our attention on anything else. We forget about our personal Self, we lose the perception of time and feel that we have total control over what’s going on, or to be more exact, we’re not afraid to losing control over the situation. While in the flow we’ve got perfect order in our mind and we know for certain that “everything happens as it should happen”. And photography is a very “flowy” activity.

One needs to learn how to enter the state of flow during taking photo shooting. One of the major forces having detrimental effect on consciousness, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is a mental disorder. Usually it appears as information conflicting with our already existing intents and distracting us from carrying out the activity. It may result in feeling pain, fear, anger, anxiety or jealousy. “All these varieties of disorder force attention to be diverted to undesirable objects, leaving us no longer free to use it according to our preferences” — writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. To focus attention and enter the state of flow, photographer should get rid of mental disorder. It will be useful to slow down during photo shooting and try to discover the inner silence. It’s also important to accept a photographer inside you (let yourself make mistakes) and to clean off other people’s stereotypes from your head (let yourself make photos that you like).

Feeling the flow (while taking pictures or being involved in any other activity) gives a strong impulse for development. And when our personality grows, the quality of our lives changes. Csikszentmihalyi writes: “Following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before. It is by becoming increasingly complex that the self might be said to grow”. Being in the flow is experiencing pleasure and joy, but not because of satisfying our needs or desires. “Enjoyable events occur when a person has… gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before” — writes Csikszentmihalyi. Joy may come from an intense tennis game, from reading a book, that offers an unusual view of things, or from a conversation, where we suddenly express new ideas. We also can feel joy after driving a hard bargain or completion of an important work. And, surely, we can feel pleasure when we manage to capture an elusive beauty of world on a photo. “After an enjoyable event, — the psychologist says, — we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it”.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi highlights the “joy of seeing” as a special form of flow. He calls it contemplation and points out that it takes some training to learn to find joy and satisfaction in it. Given the fact that vision is the primary channel of information for our body, and our body is the main supplier of feelings to our Self, training of “contemplation muscle” can be a huge support to personal development and harmony with ourselves. And photography is a tool.

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