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Karin van Mierlo of Photography Playground: How We Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness

Get into the process. When you want to incorporate gratitude into your life through a photography practice, your mindset is crucial. This form of photography is more about the process than the result. Let go of the attachment to the outcome and look at your photos with appreciation and gratitude. This also means you shouldn’t get too hung up on your camera or your photography skills.

As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.

What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?

One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness ” I had the pleasure of interviewing Karin van Mierlo.

Karin van Mierlo is a pro photographer with 25+ years of experience in documentary, travel, and street photography. She is the driving force behind Photography Playground and loves to write and teach about all things photography-related. She teaches people to photograph their world as it FEELS like ~ not what it looks like.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?

Like so many of us when I was growing up, I was searching for that special thing that would light me up. I didn’t find it on the first try, but I knew I was looking in the right direction. Before I set foot in a darkroom for the first time, I studied interior design and then audio-visual arts. Once I did set foot in a darkroom, I was hooked. And I knew that was it. My passion for photography has never left me and I feel truly blessed it hasn’t.

I have done a lot of different things in photography, but my main subject is people. I love photographing people in all their beauty, chaos, and strength.

A few years ago, I wanted to share my passion for photography by teaching aspiring photographers how to tell the stories that matter to them and I started a website called Photography Playground.

In an industry that’s very focused on gear, gadgets, and fast results, I want to be a voice of intentional, slow, and expressive photography. Because it’s not about the camera. It’s about the person behind the camera and his or her experiences, intentions, and emotions. When you bring yourself into your photography practice, you create the kind of photos only you can make.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There are so many stories to tell I’m having difficulty choosing one. The people that allow me to photograph them invite me into their lives for a few hours and sometimes days. I always feel very privileged to become part of their lives.

I think what made the most impact on me on a personal level was the first time I photographed a birth. Being a mom myself and having gone through a similar and at the same time very different experience made this very special. To witness this process and be present for the first breath of a new human being was life-altering for me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Years ago, I visited an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois in the Tate Modern in London. She is among my favorite artists.

Bourgeois is mostly known for her big sculptures and installations, but toward the end of her life, her works became small and quiet.

While wandering the rooms of the museum, I was struck by a pink piece of paper with the words “Art is a guaranty of sanity.” I bought the postcard in the museum shop, and it hasn’t left my ‘above the desk’ wall since.

This has been my truth since I started photography, and sometimes I need to be reminded that making my art is vital for me. Because sometimes we forget to do the thing that matters most to us and makes us happy.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?

I love reading self-development or business-related books, I devour them. For every novel I read, I read at least 20 non-fiction books.

As a budding photographer and a single mother, I read ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron. It’s the book that made the most tangible and long-lasting difference in my life. I think it was serendipity. It was exactly what I needed at the time to create space for my inner artist and maintain a balance in my life.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I started 2021 with a Gratitude Project in my Photography Playground Facebook Group. Every week I post a photo prompt around a theme, and members of the group can share their photos.

With this project, I hope to make people more aware of the good stuff in their lives. Because I know it’s there, despite the restrictions and challenging circumstances we live in at the moment. It’s simply a matter of actively opening your eyes to it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My daughter is my biggest cheerleader and source of inspiration. I am intensely grateful that she came into my life.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?

For me, gratitude means being actively aware of the good stuff. Appreciating the most simple and basic things in your world like the air you are breathing, the roof over your head, the supporting people around you. But also opening yourself up to the beauty our planet has to offer and be touched by it.

Allowing yourself to be touched by the good stuff makes you a happier human.

Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?

I think there’s a component to gratitude that might feel a little uncomfortable for many people.

Expressing gratitude also means acknowledging there are aspects of life that are beyond our control. The trick is to be okay with that.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?

I believe that looking at your life from a gratitude perspective changes your outlook on the things you have experienced in the past and are experiencing in the moment. Because no matter how dire the situation was or is there will always be things to find you can be grateful for. If you try to look at situations and circumstances from a process point of view instead of an outcome point of view you will find them.

We live in a very result-driven society. But I believe life is not about outcomes. Life is about learning, growing, and connecting. When you look at your life from an outcome point of view, you might feel disappointed and see few reasons to be grateful. But when you look at it from the perspective of what you learned and how it changed you for the better, it totally changes your mindset. Looking at the process sets you up for feelings of gratitude no matter the result.

Because you are never an outcome. You and your life are a work in progress. And that in itself is something to be grateful for.

Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?

For me, expressing gratitude and photography are intertwined. I actually only came to this realization during the past pandemic year. But when I look back on my life I can see that every intentional photo I make is an expression of gratitude.

I think gratitude makes you focus more on the now. Instead of looking at the things you miss you look at the things you have in this moment. It expands you and makes you feel more generous.

And photography is a wonderful tool to be in the now. There is no room for thoughts and feelings about the past or the future.

Photography is also very much about sharing, about being generous with the photos you made.

What is special about photography is that it connects you to the outside world. It encourages you to open up and to really see, experience, and appreciate the world around you. Photography is a way out of your overactive mind and into the mindful experience of your surroundings.

Another aspect of photography is that it makes those experiences of gratitude tangible. Because you photographed them you can go back to them whenever you want or need them. You can surround yourself with the encounters you are grateful for by mounting them on your wall, collecting them in a photo book, or just browsing through them on your phone!

Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Get into the process. When you want to incorporate gratitude into your life through a photography practice, your mindset is crucial. This form of photography is more about the process than the result. Let go of the attachment to the outcome and look at your photos with appreciation and gratitude. This also means you shouldn’t get too hung up on your camera or your photography skills.
  2. Be intentional. I really don’t want you to unintentionally snap away. Instead, step away from your busy life for a moment and slow down. Create space to truly observe what you’re about to photograph, so it becomes an intentional act. Allow yourself to be so present in the moment you become one with it.
  3. Stick to a daily gratitude practice. Every day photograph something or someone you are grateful for. At least one photo, but more is better. This works really well when you give yourself little prompts. It sets you up for actually seeing that specific thing. For instance, when you get up in the morning, remind yourself to be on the lookout for beautiful colors to photograph. Establishing and maintaining a daily photography practice becomes easier when you join a photography community.
  4. Take a gratitude photo walk. A gratitude photo walk gets you in a contemplative mood so you can observe your surroundings with appreciation and judgment-free. It’s best to go on your gratitude walk alone so you can let go of plans and just go where your curiosity leads you.
  5. Make it tangible. There is something magical about actually printing your photos. The tactile experience of holding a photo in your hands goes way beyond seeing them on a screen. It connects you more to the moments you captured. So, print your gratitude pics, and mount them on your wall or stick them in a photo book. This way, you have daily reminders of all the good stuff in your life.

Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?

When the pandemic arrived in Portugal, I was overwhelmed with feelings of panic. I was glued to my laptop, jumping from one news website to the other, trying to make sense of it all. Soon the Portuguese government announced a state of emergency, and to be honest, that freaked me out. Losing control of my life and my fundamental rights scared me.

Often when I feel overwhelmed, I pick up my camera and start to photograph. The simple act of picking up my camera in the midst of what feels like chaos creates a little overwhelm-free island of time. I am focused on creating something and when I’m photographing there’s not much else that can enter my mind.

I believe a meaningful answer in a time when things seem to fall apart is to make. Whether you consider yourself a creative human or not, the best antidote to loss is to create. Whether it’s a photo, a poem, an origami butterfly, a song, a bowl of comfort food, a drawing, a scribble in your notebook, or a silent dance in your room.

Make something!

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?

As I said earlier in this interview, I highly recommend the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

Also, anything written by Brené Brown will help you a long way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

In the past year, I’ve already seen a shift in the awareness of what photography can do for mental well-being. I would love to see that expand even more through a worldwide communal gratitude project.

In 1955 Edward Steichen initiated a worldwide photography exhibition titled The Family of Man as a sign of global solidarity after the second world war.

I say it’s time for another Family of Man movement as a sign of solidarity and connection in a hopefully soon post-pandemic world.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

They can find me at I also have an Instagram account @photography_playground and a very active Facebook Group.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings around this important topic!




In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Entrepreneur, angel investor and syndicated columnist, as well as a yoga, holistic health, breathwork and meditation enthusiast. Unlock the deepest powers

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