The past present

I woke up early, too early, like so many times before. There’s a beautiful sunrise out there, for anybody who’d care to witness it. Not me. I am struggling to wake up after I struggled to go back to sleep. Not feeling quite ready to start the day, yet far away from that coziness of being under the blanket and just turning over for another hour of sleep.

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The stories we live in

I would lie if I said that I started this blog having a detailed plan for going forward. But one thing I knew well: it would be about the spellbinding power of stories.

It would be about how stories take hold of us, enlighten us or push us into submission, make us happy or miserable. How we get to live inside our stories for years or even decades, and what this does to our life and our sense of self.

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Photography as meditation [English/Français]

There’s nothing to pushing the shutter button. It takes a fraction of a second. Unless you’re using a film camera, you can take as many shots as you like, delete most of them, and then take some more.

You can do it as an ego-affirming gesture, as yet another form of narcissist expression. You can do it to kill time. You can do it to escape anxiety and depression.

But you can also turn it into an act of awareness and presence.

I’m always wary of “spiritual” language because there’s so much misuse and abuse of it. But awareness and presence need not be “spiritual”; they are basic features of our inner experience.

Remember the last time you felt absolutely present with whatever you were doing. Fully involved in that activity. Losing track of time. Being aware and focused without trying too hard. Without trying at all.

Walking with the camera in my hand does that for me. Not all the time. Not fully. But it makes this state of flow possible.

Sometimes I have a pretty good idea of what I want to shoot and how. Sometimes I have a vague idea but I remain open to whatever I encounter. And sometimes I just go with what’s there, with no plan and no expectations. Regardless of the situation, the way I pay attention, notice, and focus on things is different from the day-to-day scattered awareness I usually experience.

Even if I am not constantly looking for possible compositions, there’s a certain background awareness that accompanies any time spent with the camera. A form of attention to detail that, after a while, does not require any conscious effort.

In this sense, photography becomes a way of cultivating the art of noticing in the age of scrolling (to use Brandon Stosuy’s words). A form of spontaneous meditation.

There’s nothing complicated or esoteric about this. Its beauty lies exactly in its simplicity. Live and let live. Welcome whatever there is around you.

I took these photos on a cold sunny morning at the end of October, in a nature reserve close to Leuven, Belgium.


La photographie comme meditation

Appuyer sur le déclencheur est une bagetelle. Cela prend une fraction de seconde. À moins qu’on n’utilise un appareil photo argentique, on peut prendre autant de photos qu’on le souhaite, supprimer la plupart, puis en prendre d’autres.

On peut prendre des photos faire comme un geste d’affirmation de notre ego, comme une autre forme d’expression narcissique. On peut le faire pour tuer le temps. On peut le faire pour échapper à l’anxiété et à la dépression.

Mais on peut aussi en faire un acte de conscience et de présence.

Je me méfie toujours du langage « spirituel » parce qu’il y a tellement de mauvais usages et d’abus. Mais la conscience et la présence n’ont pas besoin d’être « spirituelles » ; ce sont des caractéristiques fondamentales de notre expérience intérieure.

Souviens-toi de la dernière fois où tu t’es senti absolument présent dans tout ce que tu faisais. Pleinement impliqué dans cette activité. A perdre la notion du temps. Être conscient et concentré sans trop essayer. Sans essayer du tout.

Marcher avec l’appareil photo à la main me rend dans cet état.

Pas tout le temps. Pas complètement. Mais cet état de flux devient possible.

Parfois, j’ai une assez bonne idée de ce que je veux photographier et comment. Parfois j’ai une vague idée mais je reste ouvert à tout ce que je rencontre. Et parfois, je me contente de ce qui est là, sans plan ni attente. Quelle que soit la situation, la façon dont je fais attention et je me concentre sur les choses est différente de la conscience dispersée au jour le jour que je ressens habituellement.

Même si je ne suis pas constamment à la recherche de compositions possibles, il y a une certaine conscience d’arrière-plan qui accompagne tout temps passé avec la caméra. Une forme d’attention aux détails qui, après un certain temps, ne nécessite aucun effort conscient.

En ce sens, la photographie devient un moyen de cultiver l’art d’attention à l’epoque du scrolling (pour reprendre les mots de Brandon Stosuy). Une forme de méditation spontanée.

Il n’y a rien de compliqué ou d’ésotérique à ce sujet. Sa beauté réside précisément dans sa simplicité. Vivre et laisser vivre. Sois en accord avec tout ce qu’il y a autour de toi.

J’ai pris ces photos une froide matinée ensoleillée de fin octobre, dans une réserve naturelle près de Louvain, en Belgique.

Chosen paths and dead ends

We usually talk of dead ends metaphorically. What we mean is that something didn’t work out. We feel we cannot continue along a certain path. But sometimes dead ends are real endpoints – there is nothing beyond them and we cannot turn back either. And while there may be warnings along the way, there’s no gradual build-up to this moment, no preparation and no obvious red flag.

A few years ago, during a visit to my home country, I took a day trip in the mountains. It was a sunny and cold January morning. I caught a very early train, then the first cable car going up. Around 9:30 I was already on the high plateau, enjoying the view all around me. Snowy valleys to the left and the right. Silence. Hardly anybody else around, for as far as I could see.

View of the valleys and distant mountain ranges from the high plateau

I wandered around for a while with no plan, freezing but happy. When I realized that it’s getting late and I have a train to catch, I chose one trail that was supposed to take me to the train station in about 4 hours.

As I discovered soon enough, this trail was closed during the winter. I passed by several warning signs, thinking whether to go up all the way back and take another path. Each time, I decided to go on. It was less a matter of careful reasoning as much as a combination of overconfidence, unwillingness to go all the way back up, and sheer inertia.

At first, the hike was pleasant. The snow was frozen, which helped me advance faster. On the steeper areas, I could follow the trail created by previous climbers and step on the shoe marks dug in the snow. I took out my camera. I was at ease. From time to time, the trail opened up to reveal the whole valley and the huge drop separating me from the villages below.

Frozen snow

But then the shoe marks disappeared. I could only follow the trail by the trail signs and posts, and they were few and far in between. I was descending in zigzag on a steep slope that was almost never exposed to the sun, and thus the snow was frozen solid.

For a while, I could still advance slowly, making sure each foot is firmly in place before I move the other. Then it all grinded to a halt. I could not go forward because the slope was too steep, and I couldn’t go back because the simple gesture of turning around could have broken my unstable balance.

The first part of the descent. Looking back at where I’ve started from.

Ahead of me lied a portion of 30 meters or so with no trees, no bushes, no rocks, nothing to hold on to. All of a sudden, I looked around me and I felt like walking on a tight rope above the abyss. Clinging to a slope that got steeper without me realizing it. The slope was opening, to my right, into a straight drop into the valley.

Seen from the outside, there are several possible exits from such a situation. I could have walked backwards, retracing my steps in the snow. I could have searched in my backpack for something I could use to dig in the snow. But our brain works differently under stress. It’s not that I could not envisage all these possibilities. It’s that they seemed irrelevant to me. There was only one thing I felt I needed to do: to cross the 30 meters of ice in front of me and reach the tree on the other side.

And so I did – otherwise I won’t be here writing this. But they were the most labour-intensive 30 meters that I ever walked. I dug and clawed my way forward, not knowing if I’ll be able to keep my balance on the next step. Before placing each step, I had to hit a dozen times in the frozen snow in order to dig a small indentation that could support my weight. It wasn’t the digging that took most of my energy; it was trying to control the trembling of my legs, so I don’t lose my grip.

Although I was fully immersed in digging my way forward, somewhere at the back of my mind I kept on watching myself as if from the outside. I thought about the stupidity of dying on the mountain, after having bypassed so many warnings. One more metal cross on these lonely slopes. I was not sad. There was something slightly amused and ironic in how I regarded myself: “So that’s how it happens.”

The whole thing did not take more than 20-25 minutes, but it felt like forever. I got to the tree on the other side and I held on to it as you would with somebody who pulled you out of the water when you were about to drown. The rest of the descent was uneventful. I got to the train station in time. In a few hours, I was back in my hotel room, seemingly far away from the cold and the drama.

The crossing. The photo was taken just after having reached the other side. Obviously, photo focus was not my priority.

Up there, I was close to facing a real dead end. And this made me think, later on, about how the world would have looked like without me. The simple answer is that it would have looked exactly the same. The sun would have risen just the same, the people would have gone on about their lives just the same. Everything I was doing or planning to do – the earth would have kept on spinning without it.

Back then, this realization used to fill me with sadness and discouragement, as if it showed my own insignificance. I saw what happened as being about me, my life, my impact on the world. We all have a hungry and demanding ego.

Now I tend to see it as a liberation. Like lifting a burden from my shoulders. What a relief that the world does not depend on any of us. We can simply continue doing what we are doing for the sake of it, for the pleasure of it. The change it may bring is for us to try but, ultimately, not for us to decide.