Experience First

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Between ourselves and actual experience and the actual environment there now swells an ever-rising flood of images which come to us in every sort of medium—the camera and printing press, by motion picture and by television. A picture was once a rare sort of symbol, rare enough to call for attentive concentration. Now it is the actual experience that is rare, and the picture has become ubiquitous.

—Lewis Mumford

Some photographers make photographs spontaneously in response to, or as visual expressions of, meaningful life experiences. Other photographers do the opposite: they plan their experiences specifically with the goal of making photographs. The former group—which I will refer to as “experience-first” photographers—are a small minority of which I am a proud member. The second group—which I will refer to as “photograph-first” photographers—make up the great majority of photographers.

The reason we see so much repetition, derivation, and outright plagiarism in photography is that most photographers, sometimes without even considering the alternative, take the “photograph-first” approach: they plan their activities with the goal of making photographs. One can only plan for things one already knows, things one has already seen, or things one deliberately sets out to copy.

Experience-first photographers go about life seeking elevated and personally meaningful experiences, prepared to make photographs when circumstances are conducive to visual expression but never feeling compelled to make photographs, nor feel disappointed when an otherwise rewarding experience did not yield any photographs. Photograph-first photographers, who plan their experiences explicitly with the goal of making photographs, likely will consider their excursions as failures and feel disappointed if returning from a planned experience without photographic trophies.

For photograph-first photographers, other qualities of experience come secondary to photography. Some photograph-first photographers even go so far as to brag about difficulties and hardships—unwanted and unwelcome aspects of their experience—they endured to “get the shot.”

For experience-first photographers, on the other hand, photography comes secondary to other, more elevated and meaningful qualities of experience. These qualities, often ignored by (perhaps even unknown to) photograph-first photographers, are in themselves sufficient reason to engage in an activity: to spent time in certain places or with certain subjects, to set aside mundane preoccupations for a time, to become immersed in peace, silence, and beauty for their own sake, without feeling under any pressure or obligation to return with anything other than a clear mind and a fond memory. Experience-first photographers will likely avoid some activities, places, and subjects that may perhaps yield “good” photographs but fail to reward in other, deeper ways.

My reasons in making the distinction between experience-first and photograph-first photographers are twofold. First, I hope that at least some who are today of the “photograph-first” mindset may be moved to consider that the “experience-first” attitude may be more rewarding and beneficial, not only as a means of making photographs but as a life practice. Second, I wish to dispel the common myth that meaningful experiences are by necessity limited to just positive, joyous, fun, or easy activities.

Photograph-first photographers, relying on planning or on replicating the styles and works of others to produce photographs, implicitly forfeit or at least diminish their capacity to experience such things as flow, mindfulness, serendipitous discovery, and the great pride that ensues from having accomplished an original creation. Their attention is focused on their planned, preconceived outcomes so even if the potential for an exciting and unexpected new photograph may exist before their eyes, they are likely to miss it due to inattentional blindness or because their time is limited, governed by a schedule or a preconceived idea that is their only measure of success.

Experience-first photographers—especially if they are mindful to their surroundings, their thoughts, and their emotions, and are practiced in maintaining a beginner’s mind—having time and attention to spare, free of the tyranny of expectations and of the anxiety that comes from feeling compelled to photograph something at any cost, are more likely to notice things that photograph-first photographers might miss. Experience-first photographers are also more likely to feel at ease spending time experimenting, accepting the risk that their efforts may not always yield a successful photograph, knowing that these experiences will still be rewarding and worthy for their own sake.

It may seem obvious that photograph-first photographers will favor known locations—so called “honey pots,” where known photographs are all but guaranteed—as a safer alternative to venturing into new territory or to exploring new subjects or styles. Less obvious perhaps is what these photographers may be missing by focusing on such locations: the great joys in such simple experiences as just sitting on a rock and listening to the sound of the breeze for a bit, witnessing animals engaged in playful behavior, noticing signs of the changing seasons, savoring subtle sensations, allowing the mind to wander, letting go of the frenetic goal-driven mindset that characterizes so much of modern everyday living. Beyond the narrow concern for making photographs, such experiences in themselves may be so peaceful, clarifying, and rejuvenating as to be therapeutic.

It seems pointless to me to bring the same stressful and anxious attitudes that torment a person in the daily pursuit of careers, studies, social obligations, and other prescribed, unsatisfying, repetitive, competitive or just plain boring activities into one’s creative, artistic endeavors. If one can’t use “free” time to free themselves literally from the daily grind, from the tedium of the mundane, can this time be truly regarded as free? Put another way, is this truly the best use that one can make of free time—those rare periods where one is not bound by obligations and may choose an activity and an attitude that will yield one the greatest personal benefit? Are such things as a popular image or winning a contest sufficiently rewarding to justify sacrificing rare opportunities to elevate and to restore balance to a busy life?

It may come as a surprise to some that I often go to wild places with no other aim than to have a good cry, to contemplate in peace not only my good fortunes but also my sorrows and challenges, to “process” troubling feelings and circumstance, to grieve a loss, or to inure myself to challenges ahead.

“An artist,” wrote Francis Bacon, “must be nourished by his passions and his despairs.” What I have found after decades of coming to nature for solace, inspiration, and clarity of mind, is that all feelings—good, bad, sublime, and terrible—may, if approached with the right attitude, give rise to beauty. All emotions, when channeled consciously toward elevated states of mind, and (when circumstances allow) toward artistic expression, always deepen and dignify my experiences, whether they are blissful and painful. These deeper, dignified experiences, in turn, always arouse gratitude for the good and alleviate the bad, and always leave me better than I was. If this is not reason enough to practice my work with an experience-first attitude, what is?

Vallis Lacrimarum

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7 thoughts on “Experience First

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  1. Thanks for this powerful essay. I have been struggling with the same dichotomy now that I am retired and free to photograph when I please.
    In my photojournalism work, I often worked to find a different vantage point from my fellows and was mostly successful.
    Today, the examples of social media influencers have me questioning if theirs is the approach I should take with my landscape work.
    Your words reinforce what I feel in my heart, that I should go to the new vantage point, if for nothing else than the experiences. I think that’s how I make photographs with heart.
    Thanks as always for your images and your ideas.

  2. I see myself also as an experience-first photographer, although I am not entirely free of stress on my hiking adventures. Sometimes I go too far or allow for too little time to just sit and be still to enjoy the moment or stroll around aimlessly. I do appreciate the pleasure of discovery in hiking in new territory, in unexpected findings of whatever, the experience of stillness, of being alone, of getting lost in awe about the natural world, of experience of different weather conditions and that I am still safe or able to deal with them. I think I would have more time to put experience first even more if I would camp. So far I did not do that in the wild except in my neighborhood. It is so much weight to schlepp around. Because of that I am also a hiking-first photographer in order to get back home safe.

  3. “seems pointless to me to bring the same stressful and anxious attitudes that torment a person in the daily pursuit of careers, studies, social obligations, and other obligatory, unsatisfying, repetitive, and competitive activities into one’s creative, artistic endeavors. If one can’t use “free” time to free themselves literally from the daily grind, from the anxiety or boredom of the mundane, can this time be truly regarded as free? Put another way, is this truly the best use that one can make of free time—those rare periods where one is not bound by obligations and is free to choose? Are such things as a popular image or winning a contest sufficiently rewarding to justify sacrificing opportunities to elevate and to restore balance to a busy life?”

    My whole heartedly agree with this paragraph and also resonate with your final paragraph which sums things up beautifully. I am seeking to live an ” experience first” life consistently through all my waking hours. Challenging but worthy.

    Thank you for sharing both your words and your images honestly and from your heart. I am happy to support you. Keep it coming, I am grateful for all of it and for knowing others are living in this way as well…

  4. Guy, thanks for your pithy perspective on the different approaches to making photographs. In ‘being’ somewhere, whether sitting or walking, I’ve experienced an emotional call, a tug perhaps, from places, or things. Whether a rock, or a tree, a stump, a pond, or an ocean; it’s as if it’s asking me to make a photograph of it. I’ll confess that I do believe in the spiritual side of life; and in fact, that the things we encounter, the earth itself, is but the physical expression of the spiritual. I can’t say (nor do I care) whether my belief leads me to hear things that aren’t there; or whether my belief enables me to hear things that are. But, there is a clear and definitive emotional connection between me and what I’m photographing. Without that emotional engagement by the artist, I can’t imagine that someone looking at the photograph one or two generations removed, is going to be affected emotionally. So, again, thank you for your contemplations and for sharing them. Perhaps one or two will be convinced that the experience; the just being; is the most important part of life. And that the photograph, or painting, or sculpture, is the artist’s attempt to share that experience.

  5. Guy…

    Thank you for your heartfelt, experienced grounded words… I now have a deeper understanding of who and what I am about after all these years packing up mountains, paddling down rivers, gliding along on snowshoes in search of that last intuitive chord that just bubbled up and moved me once again, forward into the woods, often without a clue as to why here or there only to be surprised time and again by yet another artistic encounter with the unknown…

    Of late I find I am in want of improving the financial return on my investment in four decades of photography…I can frame the visual context and utter the story through words of some depth, but I’m not tech smart and marketing hip. More recent pitches to cast my work into the world of art and patrons has not panned out either, and socially, this is not exactly my cup of tea… I remain at a loss for how I might employ the values inherent in experience-based photography, values like openness-emotional connection-experiential depth-solitude, in the marketing and sales aspects of my creative works… This conundrum in and of itself might be good cause for further discussion. I’d be open to this possibility.

    Roger Merchant

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