Photography is the art of keeping smiles
I have lost my smile,
but don’t worry.
The dandelion has it.
— via Thich Nhat Hanh
Something I’ve been struggling with (that I think many of us who had unhappy childhoods have in common) is the need for recognition. It was rare in my life that any adult figure really took the time to get to know me, give me a chance, and praise me. The few that did are special to me, but sometimes did more harm than good. When people recognize us, it’s because we fit into their own agenda, not because we are especially special. In our efforts to help and to teach others, we may be so focused on who we are that we fail to make space for them to blossom as they are.
A lot of fiction centers around someone recognizing someone else, and then that person experiences a lot of success in their lives. That person attains great happiness because someone else saw what they were worth and selflessly propelled them into glory.
Over the past several months, I’ve taken a break from my artistic pursuits. I’ve been working through the realization that my own struggle is rooted in this need for recognition. About two weeks ago, I picked up my camera and my paintbrush again. Until yesterday, I had been struggling to find the joy I once had in my artistic practice. I realized my desire to establish myself as an artist and to plan a career in which art and photography is at the center, the effort to pursue some kind of artistic career and build reputation was polluting the joy I find in my artistic practice.
The joy I find in photography is simply in seeing. I serve others by making space for them to be seen the way I see them, as wonderful, beautiful, interesting creations that are worth looking at. This applies equally to human and non-human. When I make a picture, I am keeping a smile for someone who needs it. This is my joy. I don’t need photography to do this, it’s just what I happen to be good at.
I remember experiencing my greatest joy in making pictures when I went to Canon Beach last May. I was just getting back into film and I shot up rolls and rolls of trees and flowers. Someone liked one and I made a print for her. It isn’t a particularly groundbreaking photograph artistically, but it’s one of my favorites because I see her smile in it.
The joy we seek in recognition from others ultimately feeds less joyful feelings rooted in pride, resentment, or greed, and gets polluted with gaining ideas. Like some foods, it leaves us feeling hungry not long after we think we are full and happy. To transform this need in ourselves, we must recognize that others also possess a yearning to be recognized. We must recognize others in ways that are wholesome and inspire true joy. As artists, if our making and sharing does this, then it is the right kind of action.
Artistic Intention Self-assessment
- What is the nature of the joy that you find in your practice?
- When you practice your art, when do you find the most joy (both in the artifacts you make and in the making of them)?
- Is what you want to share with others what they want too? How well do you attend to your subjects/participants/audience?
- Are you only interested in making a statement? Or are you making space for questions?