On Maintaining a Healthy Perspective During These Difficult Times

In the visual arts we talk a lot about perspective, a compositional concept that allows us to explore the relationship between objects in a frame (i.e composing a photograph so that elements closer to the camera appear larger than objects that are farther away), or the relationship between the camera and the objects in the frame (i.e. photographing something from a lower perspective to make it appear taller than it really is).

Perspective is something that is part of our daily life too though, isn’t it?  It defines our attitudes and our point of view on any given subject.  Maintaining a healthy perspective is so important, especially during stressful times like these, but it can be hard to do when we are deluged by a barrage of non-stop scary news cycles.

Much has been written about protecting our physical health during the COVID-19 outbreak, but we also need to prioritize maintaining our mental health as well.  So many of my peers are going out of their way right now to do things that support the photography community:  my friends Kevin and Neale over at the FujiCast are doing their podcast daily, Zack Arias is posting again, photographers are offering tips on how to stay creative while photographing around the house, friends are giving away free education online… it is wonderful to see our community come together like this.  I’d like to take a bit of a different approach today and talk about how we can maintain a healthy perspective through these troubled times.  This is an area that I’ve had a lot of personal experience with via my time as a paramedic and with my PTSD. 

So, if you are struggling right now, if you are experiencing feelings like anxiety, depression, helplessness, fear or anger, I hope that this post will help you just a little bit.  It’s a long one, with some thoughts about how to stay mentally strong woven into the story of a short trip I took a while back.

Just before the COVID-19 outbreak really broke here in British Columbia, when it was transitioning from something we occasionally saw on the news to something that would eventually effect us all, my family took a quick trip to Victoria, BC.  My wife went to university in Victoria many years ago, so every time we visit this magnificent city we return to some of her old haunts.  You could tell at this point that people were starting to get a little bit nervous about COVID-19…. the streets were less busy, the restaurants weren’t full, etc.  Other countries, far away, were starting to talk about a quarantine and closure of non essential businesses, and there was a sense that those steps might soon happen here as well.

During the trip we visited my wife’s favourite restaurant, where I made the image above of a gentleman who has worked there for over 30 years.  My wife recognized his voice as soon as we walked in the door and he embraced us (in a non physical way) as long lost friends while seating us at our table.  We had long conversations while he served us, reminiscing of my wife’s college years and his years at the restaurant.

This gentleman has a lot to lose if he can’t work.  He has children.  A lot of children.  Like, Brady Bunch levels of children.  And, on top of that, he and his wife foster kids as well.  I’m sure he was starting to sense that the world was changing, just as we all were, but you’d never know it to talk to him.  All you could feel was his warmth, his delight and his pride in doing what he does so well.  A lot of people depend on this man, his work feeds a lot of mouths,  but despite any concerns that he may have had he maintained a wonderfully positive attitude.    We walked the city streets for the remainder of the day, spending time along the ocean and enjoying the warmth of the winter’s sun shining down on us.  The joy of being out was tempered of course, that unspoken awareness in the back of our minds that things would probably change very soon.As the days turned into weeks the distancing recommendations that are now so well know to all of us came to British Columbia.  I closed my business for the foreseeable future, cancelled or rescheduled my photography clients, shopped for groceries and necessities, and, finally, I squirrelled myself away with my wife and daughter at home.  

Since then, like many people, I have followed the news coming out of countries from all over the world.  I have watched COVID-19 spread, both through the eyes of a health care provider and through the eyes of a citizen.  I have heard fear when talking to people who are consuming a 24/7 diet of online doom and gloom, and I have watched horribly misinformed people become armchair experts in areas like virology and pandemic disease.

This constant barrage, this onslaught of negative news, can easily impact our perspective on life.  COVID-19 has brought us health concerns, financial concerns, worry for our families and for our neighbours.  For many people COVID-19 has brought very real loss and, because we aren’t yet at levels were the pandemic has peaked, we can’t see an end to the damage.

It is hard not to think about worst case scenarios right now, but the reality is that we need to take a vigilant but patient wait and see approach… this is the first step in maintaining a healthy perspective.  We don’t have crystal balls and no one, not even the world’s leading experts, can say for sure what the outcome of this pandemic will be.  Yes, we have projections.  Yes, I have my own personal beliefs on it, but in the end it is all an unknown (which can be the hardest part for somebody who is sitting at home with nothing to do but think).

It reminds me of the following story:

Once upon a time, there was a farmer in the central region of China. He didn’t have a lot of money and, instead of a tractor, he used an old horse to plow his field. 

One afternoon, while working in the field, the horse dropped dead. Everyone in the village said, “Oh, what a horrible thing to happen.” The farmer said simply, “We’ll see.” He was so at peace and so calm, that everyone in the village got together and, admiring his attitude, gave him a new horse as a gift. 

Everyone’s reaction now was, “What a lucky man.” And the farmer said, “We’ll see.” 

A couple days later, the new horse jumped a fence and ran away. Everyone in the village shook their heads and said, “What a poor fellow!”

The farmer smiled and said, “We’ll see.”

Eventually, the horse found his way home, and everyone again said, “What a fortunate man.” 

The farmer said, “We’ll see.”

Later in the year, the farmer’s young boy went out riding on the horse and fell and broke his leg. Everyone in the village said, “What a shame for the poor boy.”

The farmer said, “We’ll see.”

Two days later, the army came into the village to draft new recruits. When they saw that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, they decided not to recruit him.

Everyone said, “What a fortunate young man.”

The farmer smiled again – and said “We’ll see.”

What is the point of this story?  To me it is that we gain little from overreacting or worrying about things that are out of our hands.  Right now, more than ever, we should invest our time and mental energy on the things that are still within our grasp.  As many people have said before:  We cannot always control what is happening, but we can control how we react to it.

Our day in Victoria ended with a short walk back to the hotel.  The sun had set during dinner, so we walked back in that beautiful post sunset light that photographers love so much.  My family kept walking but I stopped to snap a few frames, knowing that this would be the last time I visited anywhere until it was safe to do so again.  I enjoyed the brisk winter evening, my camera in hand, and just let it all soak in.  This was a moment that I could control and I loved every second of it.

Over the days and weeks since that night I have seen so many wonderful acts of courage, kindness and love.  I have seen health care workers, paramedics, police officers, first responders, grocery store workers, teachers, neighbours, truckers and strangers go above and beyond.  As a former emergency health care provider myself I keep a close eye on COVID-19 out of professional interest, but personally I choose to invest my time and emotions into reading about the good that brave people are doing all over the world rather than the scary unknown that is constantly talked about.  I am making a choice to focus my energy on the things that I can directly control or influence, rather than the things that are out of my grasp.

One of the best comments I have read came from my friend’s father.  He said (slightly paraphrased):

“What we’re witnessing right now is not the end of the world, but the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever see.”

This is a wonderful comment.  And, it is a wonderful perspective.  It has been decades since the world was asked to come together to do something…. perhaps there is a silver lining in all of this that will eventually make the world a better place?  

I’d like to end with a Fred Rogers quote that I share often.  The quote says:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” 

We are definitely seeing all of those caring people right now, aren’t we?  The truth is that this time we are ALL helpers:  every one of us has an opportunity to save lives and bring this current pandemic to a close by following our local directions.  I don’t know when life will return to normal.  I do know, however, that humanity overcomes, and we artists will continue to do the important work of documenting that humanity.

Keep good thoughts my friends.  Take steps to ensure that your perspective is healthy.  Tune out the noise, turn off the TV, let the experts do their work (and you do your part as well).  If you feel stress or anxiety building remember the words of the farmer:  

“We’ll see.”

Take this time to invest in yourself, in your family, in your friends and in your art… for the busyness of “life” will return soon enough.  In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if any of you need anything.  I am always here.



Perfect Moments

There are times in our lives that are simply perfect, moments where we hold our breath for fear of disturbing what is happening around us.  These times are rare, fleeting, but they nourish us and make us stronger.

Such was the case a few nights ago, when I was standing on a beach in Hawaii photographing the most beautiful sunset that I have ever seen.  A gentle breeze drove away the heat, music played in the background, my daughter swam in the ocean and I was doing what I love…. making photographs.

When the light was gone my daughter and I stayed a little bit longer, looking out onto the dark ocean and listening to the waves.  

It was perfect.

I am back from this trip now, back to the world of photo editing, writing, podcasts and workshops.  I look forward to sharing much more with all of you very soon.

What Lies Behind : Photographic Insights – Volume Four

Camera INFO:  Fujifilm X100F | f/8 | 1/600th | ISO 200

Let’s talk for a minute about being prepared, both mentally and physically, when we are out shooting on the streets.

My approach to street photography is usually more methodical than reactive, working to build an image in layers with deliberate consideration.  It starts by finding something that could be the foundation for a compelling photo, such as an interesting framing element, a unique perspective, beautiful light, or perhaps strong colours.  I will then work the scene for a few minutes, trying different compositions, until all of the static elements in the photograph are arranged the way I want them.  Some photos are done at this point, but often I will then wait for the right dynamic element (usually a person) to enter my frame to complete the image.  This is a very mindful, zen like process that I enjoy immensely.

The danger in this methodical approach, however, is that we may not see or be prepared for any spontaneous photo opportunities that present themselves.  There is a very real risk of “tuning out” while walking through the streets of a city, only re-engaging our creative eye when we spot our next scene, which could lead to us missing wonderful moments.  Always seeing, and always being prepared to react, allows us to avoid this.

Such was the case with this image, seen as I climbed up out of a Paris Metro station on a beautiful sunny afternoon while en route to meet my wife and daughter for dinner.  I saw the composition instantly: the Metro sign framing the top of the steps perfectly, with bright sunshine backlighting the entire scene.  In a moment of pure serendipity this gentleman stopped at the top of the stairs for a few seconds and I knew I had my photo.  I loved his posture, and hats always make for a great silhouette.  I managed to snap 2 or 3 frames, standing on the steps as people moved passed me, and then my subject walked out of frame.

We have talked about the importance of seeing constantly when on the streets, but just as important is to ensure that your camera is ready to go.  I have worked with photographers who pack up between scenes, or who always have the lens cap on except when they are physically taking a photo.  These actions create a barrier that will result in missed images.  I prefer wearing my camera on a sling, allowing it to hang out of the way by my right hip.  I also always ensure my camera is set up to immediately grab an image.  Let’s talk about that for a second.

I often change my camera settings when I am deliberately building a photograph, perhaps manually focusing, manually exposing, adjusting Exposure Compensation, etc.  When I am done with that scene, however, I always reset my camera back to the same settings (my “home base”).  I have alluded to this in previous posts, but home base for me is Aperture Priority Mode (around f/8 depending on the light) with Auto ISO set to give me a minimum shutter speed of 1/320th (again, depending on the amount of light).  For other people home base might involve setting a manual exposure and zone focusing.  How you set your camera up isn’t the important thing, it is that you develop the habit of going back to those settings when you are just walking around, so that your camera is ready to capture an image that suddenly appears in front of you.

Always be seeing, always be ready.  






About this series:

Ansel Adams once said: 

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

This statement is absolutely true.  To quote David Hobby, “we should all strive to become thinking photographers.”  I love it when my students ask questions about a photograph because I can see their minds at work.  Sometimes these questions focus on how an image was made (the craft), sometimes they focus on why it was made (the vision), but they always show a student’s desire to improve their craft.

When I look at another photographer’s image I am always interested in the photographer’s thought process:  What drew their eye in the first place?  What did they see in their mind?  What was their process for the creation of the image?  How did they go about achieving success?

With this in mind, I have spent the last year writing a book featuring my images and the stories behind them.  The book will come out later this year, but in the spirit of open source education I have decided to publish 2 dozen of these photos and essays here as well.  My hope is that everyone can benefit in a small way from this sharing of ideas, much like I have benefited from other photographers who shared with me.