I'm reading a book called The Untethered Soul, by Michael Singer, which I haven't finished. In fact, I'm less than halfway through it. But Singer began by describing the voice that each of us has, the internal voice that represents our consciousness to ourselves. It observes where we are, and what's happening to us and around us. It also provides commentary on all of that from inside ourselves. The voice often criticize us, as well as others, and frequently tells us what we should or should not do. It's strikingly wrong an appalling amount of the time.
Michael Singer is hardly the first person to have noticed this voice, this aspect of ourselves. It's what some writers have called the internal editor, or internal critic. It's what the writer Steven Pressfield calls resistance. It's the thing we have to learn to ignore if we ever do anything significant, that is, if we ever set the judgment and criticism of the rest of the world aside and do what matters to us. We might fail, but probably we won't fail completely. What's more likely is that the extent of our success will be less than we hoped for or simply different from what we envisioned for ourselves. That probably has more to do with a flaw in our expectations, than with our ability to do whatever we set out to do.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the voice is that it doesn't stop. If we're mentally and emotionally healthy, we have enough ability to turn our attention away from the voice's chatter and focus on something else for at least a little while. When we can't attend to anything else, when our thoughts loop through the same perceptions and commentary and conclusions over and over, we are in some form of mental impairment, or at the most extreme, mental illness. Yet behind the voice is another presence, another consciousness that can separate itself from the voice and what it's saying. That presence is more who we are. That identity, when you strip away all the labels seems simpler than we usually think of ourselves. I am a husband, father, brother, son, uncle, nephew, writer, photographer, and on and on. But those are labels and roles that I’ve accepted or that society has tacked onto me. Beneath all that, who or what am I? Singer explores that in his book. The salient point here is that our core selves can look at the voice with a degree of separation that we don't take advantage of most of the time.
But we can take advantage of it. If we can't make the voice be quiet, we also don't have to allow it to dominate our consciousness attention. Instead, we can take a figurative step back and just observe what that voice pays attention to, what it says, and how it says it. We don't have to react and in not reacting, we can open ourselves to much more of the reality swirling around us than the voice attends to. And it's less stressful for ourselves and others when we do that.
Increasingly, this approach is essential to me when I'm photographing. By this point in my career as a photographer, I have photographed enough, and maybe in enough places, that I have a collection of shots. More and more, I'm drawn to things that aren't the shot, the grand vista, dramatic view, or as a recent ad for a Photoshop tutorial put it, "the jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, eye-popping" image. So much of life is hyperbolic, attempting to live at 115 percent of capacity, lighting both ends of the candle with blowtorches, as loud and as fast as unreasonably possible. Yet sooner or later, we all end up in the same place. I wonder whether in trying so hard to make a huge impact, we in fact miss many, maybe most of the gifts that are offered to us along the way. In terms of image making, a lot of the most interesting images, the ones that remain interesting over time, usually aren't the most dramatic, eye-popping, jaw-breaking, concussion-producing pictures. The most interesting images—regardless of whether we photograph them—arise from little moments of presence that occur throughout a day. They're moments that keep me going more than all the stuff that's too bright, too loud, too enthusiastic, and too in-my-face.
I realize that the approach I'm defining might be limiting my audience—but that in itself brings up a subject for another blog post: who is the audience for photography. Still what matters more at this point than a huge audience for grandiloquent imagery is producing work that's more authentic for me and that connects with people who respond to the moment of awareness that I experienced when I made the photograph. To the extent that I can do that, I'll achieve a type of success that's deeper than metrics might suggest.