Photography is as much about what we include in the frame as about what we leave out of it.
I think the point applies to much more than photography.
What we call focus is not only about the thing we focus on. Monomaniacs are very focused persons but they’re dysfunctional. What they lack is the capacity to change focus and decide what they need to leave out of their mental frame.
It’s not so much the ability to keep our attention on a subject that differentiates us. It’s the capacity to choose our focus, shift our focus and choose what to ignore. This involves self questioning, self restraint, and the ability to differentiate between what’s relevant and what’s not.
There’s a whole world out there and we are looking at it through a tiny mental viewfinder. This is our in-built limitation, but it’s also a gift.
At the end of the day, for anything we set out to do, the clarity of our focus will largely depend on what we decide to keep out of the frame.
Stories are shared fictions. In contrast with other shared fictions, such as political ideologies, we accept them as fictions. We don’t take them at face value.
What speaks to us is not their literal truth or resemblance to reality, but their capacity to transmit things we consider valuable. Such things can include an intuitive understanding of complex life situations or an appreciation of social values such as cooperation and fairness.
“The story — from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace — is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” (Ursula Le Guin)
While the individual benefits of storytelling seem obvious, we don’t think too often about its possible collective benefits.
The experiment showed that “camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers, were associated with increased levels of cooperation” – meaning more tokens offered to the community.
A second experiment, carried out shortly after, showed that storytellers were more likely to be chosen by community members as people with whom they would be happy to live. Out of the 857 people designated as preferred life partners by their community, those who had been identified as good storytellers in the previous experiment were nearly twice as likely to be chosen as those who were not. Interestingly, storytellers were often selected as potential life partners over people who were known as good hunters or foragers.
As a species, we know only too well how toxic stories can be mobilized to gather people under the same flag and make them do things that would otherwise seem unacceptable to them. It’s high time we focused on the positive potential of storytelling.
Unless you’re living in a cave, it is impossible to avoid the assault of online self-improvement advice. It’s all over and it covers everything from stress management to changing habits. Pearls of wisdom are overflowing from all corners of the internet.
I don’t know about you, but for me this continuous flow of (mostly) unrequested advice makes me want to break something. I mean, I can live with the fact that so many people feel entitled to give advice. But often the advice is just generic stuff regurgitated from other sources. You can immediately tell when you stumble upon pompous bullshit.
Instead of breaking stuff, I will offer my own advice on how to be utterly and completely miserable.
I am well aware that many of us manage extremely well to be miserable without any external help. However, I feel that additional structure and reasoning can only improve the quality of one’s misery.
I. Follow all the possible advice on how you can improve yourself. This will offer a unique opportunity to feel inadequate, as it’s simply impossible to assemble it in a coherent whole that actually benefits you. To add insult to injury, you will also feel like a total loser for not staying the course. For not mastering self-control in five weeks, like this random guy that offers you a discount on his course on self-control.
II. Get into arguments on social media. Everybody knows that this is how people change their opinions – by being lectured or insulted online by strangers.
III. Publish everything you create (be it writing, photography, drawing, music, anything really). Then agonize over the lack of sufficient validation in the form of likes, comments, shares, or anything else you tend to consider a sign of interest or appreciation.
IV. Be harsh on yourself over every little perceived failure. Tell yourself that you are simply unable to get it right. Don’t let it slide. Squeeze all possible self-loathing out of it.
V. Don’t be satisfied with current failures. Dwell on the past and replay mentally your moments of low and embarrassment. This will ensure that, rather than going through the normal process of gaining perspective and healing, you have the chance of keeping these wounds open.
There it goes. Actionable advice for both amateur and professional self-saboteurs. My modest contribution, based on personal experience, to the underrepresented field of self-undermining therapy.
A morning walk in the forest. The fresh snow fallen during the night simplifies and clarifies what would otherwise be a busy, grey landscape.
I stopped in this small clearing. Everything is silent. The rusty leaves of last summer are still hanging on, like a nostalgic tune. The background retains some of the mist and snow dust of early morning.
There are visible doors that remain closed forever. And there are invisible doors that become visible only when they close.
Once upon a time, a man from the countryside wanted to get access, through a guarded door, to law (or justice). However, every time he tried to get in, the doorkeeper told him he cannot let him in just yet. The man was being told that getting access to law was possible. Months passed, then years, but the door remained closed.
The man started bribing the doorkeeper and he spent everything he had just to be able to return to the gate with an ever higher bribe. The man got old. Just before dying, he asked the doorkeeper why he never saw anybody else trying to enter through that door, since all people seem to be seeking the law. The doorkeeper replied:
“No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
There’s something haunting about this story, first published by Franz Kafka in 1915 and then included in his novel “The Trial”. And even if you can’t quite put your finger on it, you recognize and react instinctively to its strangeness.
It’s as if looking inside a deep, endless well. As if looking inside yourself.
It reminded me of a Romanian folk tale I’ve mentioned a few weeks ago. The tale starts like many other tales, with a hero embarking on a personal quest. In this case, the hero sets out to find immortality. But as the story advances, things turn dark and unpredictable. Although the hero emerges victorious from all the fights and traps he finds along the way, he does not find what he’s looking for. When he returns home, he finds Death itself waiting for him. But it’s not the Grim Reaper of everybody and nobody in particular. It is his own Death, waiting just for him.
Like any good story, Kafka’s parable is open to interpretations. Is it about justice, state authority, the crushing power of impersonal rules? Yes, but not only. Is it about alienation? Yes, but not only. The story is richer than any particular interpretation or moral message you could draw from it.
Maybe that’s what stories do. They speak about doors – about change, transformation, passage to something different. But they are not necessarily meant to help you open that door, only to make you realize it’s your door.
After so much rain, the forest is a giant sponge. My footsteps quickly fill up with water behind me. Millions of raindrops are suspended on the smallest, finest tree branches. The air is electric and thick with humidity. All the colors are saturated.
It hasn’t stopped raining since forever. The sky is one giant cloud. I can barely distinguish nuances of gray. I can barely recall the last time I saw the sun.
I am high from all the color, the fresh air and the climb up here. The forest is alive.
I am in downtown Lisbon. It’s not a photo trip and I don’t have much time. But I have the camera with me. I turn a corner and there’s this amazing back side of a building, with old water downpipes going across the run-down facade. I stop for a second.
Then I see this girl at the window. Her profile is drawn perfectly against the darkness of the room behind her. She’s lighting a cigarette and talking on the phone. I quickly take two photos before she disappears.
It’s only later, when I look at these shots on a monitor, that I see her expression. She’s neither happy, nor too sad. She’s inside her own story. Maybe she’s in a call with her boyfriend. Or maybe it’s her estranged mom. Among all these people carelessly walking by, she’s alone within the bubble of her own life.
With photos – as with many other things in life – we usually try to plan in advance and prepare for the “right” moment. When that moment arrives, we are there, ready to capture what happens. Then we disengage and wait for the next moment. And then the next.
This selective focus has the obvious advantage of building structure and order into an otherwise chaotic stream of stimuli. But it can also make us overlook the potential of everything that happens in between. The potential of all those moments in between what we prepare for and pay attention to.
The in-between is simply a reflection of life, fluid and continuous. Life happening, irrespective of how we decide to categorize it, fragment it, or distinguish between what we think is relevant and what’s not.
That day in Lisbon, there was no planning or preparation. The photo was a spontaneous reaction to what was happening there and then. There’s nothing wrong with planning, but sometimes the most interesting stuff happens outside our carefully-laid plans.
Capturing a bit more of this fluid continuum of life means training ourselves into staying open. Staying awake. Staying flexible. Not hardening too much into our own expectations, concepts, or plans.
Accepting that the plans we make are merely organized intentions.
Acknowledging that value and beauty often travel incognito and that it takes a trained eye to recognize them.
Relaxing in the knowledge that there’s much we cannot control.
Looking at the world with the eye of the absolute beginner.
Being present and working with the situation as it is, not as you have wanted it to be.
Our obsession with high points robs us of the quiet, continuous flow of interesting stuff happening around us.
I’ve been walking across the fields waiting for the first light. Everything is covered in dew. There’s a strange stillness in the air, as if all creation is bracing for sunrise.
Right here and now, everything seems possible. Everything seems to be still ahead, as if the world has been just created and none of its possibilities have been wasted yet.
Later in the day, the burden will maybe return on my shoulders. I will feel the full weight of my lived life and my unlived possibilities. I will feel as if the path ahead is narrowing. I will feel the weight of my past choices, like walls growing taller to the left and the right.
But right now, everything is lying ahead of me, still unborn.
One of my earliest memories is me lying on the bed while my dad was reading me a story. It is so early I’m not even sure if it is a real memory, or rather something I’ve picked up along the way and made it mine. I don’t remember what the story was. But I do remember how it felt to be told a story.
Stories are ways of telling one another things that matter. Telling them without simply describing them, without lecturing about them, and without forcing our moral conclusions on the audience.
I’m not only talking about popular tales, short stories, novels and the like. We are storytelling creatures and we structure our experiences and our past along narrative lines. The way we see ourselves becomes our story. One that we rewrite and redefine as we go along.
Long before we set out to tell a story, we listen to or read countless other stories. From grandma’s tales to the latest psychological thriller, we live among narratives. Many of them become part of us. We learn, consciously or not, about different story patterns and plots. About how good storytelling feels.
When telling stories or listening to them, we rely on this implicit knowledge of what a story is and how it should be told. We don’t need to know about narrative arc, plot and conflict in order to feel that some stories feel right and others not so much.
We are wired to look for stories, understand them as stories and extract personal meaning from them.
That’s why good stories are at the same time personal and universal. They speak to us directly, as if they were written for us. And they do the same with countless other people.
The photos are slowly turning to black and white before my eyes. It’s a cold and windy January. I’ve made it so far.
It’s not until we isolate that we realize how much we depend on the others, and how much we are connected to the rest of life.
Some activities are obviously social simply because we cannot do them on our own. But even apparently individual activities, such as taking a coffee in the neighborhood coffeeshop, or taking a solo daytrip to get away from it all, depend on many others. They depend on employees, public services, infrastructure and, often, on the kindness of strangers.
As there are so many things we used to do and cannot do anymore, I guess it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without.
And what are the things we really need, the ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.