Photography as spiritual practice

As I wrote a month ago, the theme of the upcoming annual meeting of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) is “Being Centered in an Uncentered World.” The first evening session will be “Finding Truth and Beauty” where I will share my photographs “as a focus for how we find truth and beauty in the world.”  I had intended to try to organize my thoughts by writing here about that, but each day since, there were other things to write about. I don’t know what I will write about until I sit down in front of the computer and listen to what I am being led to write that day. Writing is a spiritual practice. But time is pressing because this presentation will occur next Tuesday.

This morning I will try to organize my thoughts to explain why photography is also a spiritual practice in preparation for that presentation.

I am so grateful that my parents took us camping for our summer vacations as I was growing up. We would camp in various national parks, but the vast majority of the time we camped in Rocky Mountain National Park which was everyone’s favorite. There were so many sights like Long’s Peak, Hallett’s Peak, Bear Lake, Sprague Lake, Dream Lake, etc. Our early campers were ‘fold-ups’, the upper part made of canvas. There wasn’t a heater, so we often awoke to (very) crisp mornings. But we felt immersed in the woods, could smell the pines and hear the birds. Each day we would choose a different trail to hike, and there were so many to choose from.

One of the many things I’m learning from Indigenous ways is the Spirit is in all things, including animals, plants, water, sky and mountains. I felt this deeply when I was in the forests and mountains. I’ve heard others express this in various ways as feeling closer to God, and that was how I felt.

I’m also very grateful that I learned the basics of film and paper development at Scattergood Friends School. I gathered the equipment needed to setup a darkroom in the bathroom of whichever apartment I was living in.

It was a real joy to try to capture what I felt when I was in the mountains and woods with the camera, and then make the photographic prints of those images. It was also frustrating to try to do justice to the views when constrained by two dimensional, black and white prints. But with a lot of practice, I began to get more satisfying results. I eagerly awaited each new visit to the parks.

This spiritual connection I ‘developed’ (pun intended) with the mountains, lakes and forests had profound consequences in my life.

When I moved to Indianapolis in 1971, the city was enveloped in smog. This was before catalytic converters, which began to appear in 1975. When I saw that, I had a profound spiritual vision of the Rocky Mountains being hidden by clouds of smog. The possibility that I would no longer be able to see the mountains shook me to my core.

From that moment on I saw cars as ‘evil’ because of the damage they were doing. I decided I could not be part of that, and have lived without a car since then. I began my lifelong study of environmental science and work to try to bring awareness about the catastrophic damage being done to Mother Earth. Although I give thanks that catalytic converters took care of the visible smog, I knew of the continued damage and consequences of the tons of carbon dioxide and other gases coming from the exhaust of ever increasing numbers of cars.

I also saw automobiles as the ‘seeds of war’.  For example, although other reasons were given at the time, the invasion of Iraq was to protect the oil fields there.

“I told [the Commonwealth Commissioners] I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars… I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.” George Fox

“Oh! that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not. Holding treasures in the self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast.” John Woolman

It was camping in the national parks, and spiritual connections to the lakes, forests, wildlife, sky and mountains, that made me become a lifelong environmental activist. And photography was how I tried to express that for myself, and others. I was still afraid environmental damage from burning fossil fuels would damage the mountains, so I tried to preserve those scenes with photographs. And that may happen with higher air temperatures, likelihood of forest fires, infestation with migrating insects, torrential downpours, etc.

I also hoped, as other photographers have, that sharing this beauty with those who hadn’t visited the mountains might make them care more about Mother Earth, though there is little evidence of that happening.

There were many other ways photography has been important in my life.

In 1971-3 I was part of the Friends (Quaker) Volunteer Service Mission (VSM) in an inner city neighborhood on the Southwest side of Indianapolis. My focus was working with the youth there. One thing I did was setup a darkroom in the bathroom of the VSM house, and teach the kids how to develop film and prints. I can still see their faces as the image magically appeared in the developing tray. That led us to take cameras on bicycle trips around the city, and then developing those photos. Through the magic of Facebook, recently two of those kids connected with me, and each mentioned those days when we developed photos.

Not having a car had several other effects. One was I became an avid runner, since running was often my mode of transportation. That, among other things, led to the joy of running in the annual mini-marathon for 22 years.

The other effect of not having a car was I was able to stop and take photos of things I saw as I walked to and from work and other places. I began to have to leave for work earlier to account for the time I was stopping to take photos. I also began to see more and more detail as I took more photos of flowers and other things. I was being taught to ‘see’ more, the more photos I took. I learned about the incredible shapes and colors of flowers, for example.

Another thing that happened was as I became more involved in social activism, I became a photojournalist, documenting the things I was involved in.  That included the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, Indiana Moral Mondays, Black Lives Matter, Dakota Access pipeline resistance and Poor People’s Campaign among others.

I’ll close with my experience with the Kheprw Institute (KI), which is a Black youth mentoring and empowerment community on the near north side of Indianapolis. It was an environmental event held at KI that introduced me to this community. They demonstrated their aquaponics system and rain barrel making enterprise. But I also recognized this as an opportunity to finally begin to learn about racial justice, which I’ve written quite a bit about.One thing I knew (from what I learned from Quaker Social Change Ministry) was it was important for me to wait to be asked what I could do in the KI community. It was important not to try to offer my own suggestions. After over a year of spending time at KI, I was asked if I would be interested in teaching about photography in the upcoming summer camp.  I was very happy to have the opportunity to do so.

 

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