The camera in your pocket. From selfies to life-changing creativity

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By David Ulrich

Why selfies? I get it—to some degree. The camera proves I was here, in this place, in this time, and with this other.

It’s reassuring to have a memory prompt. Further, we all have our insecurities and need to feel loved and acknowledged. It’s a normal, healthy, human need. But it does not and cannot give real love. Counting likes is not equivalent to the earned satisfaction of accomplishment and personal triumph.

It can be very difficult to feel good about yourself in the face of media distortions, especially if you don’t fit the look or body type of supermodels. Thus, many people flock to selfies. It’s a way of recognizing one’s personal power. But is there another way? Something happens on the path toward maturity. We stop giving our primary attention to the ego self and begin to focus on the reality and needs of others, and of society itself. We begin to explore the deeper aspects of self and others.

Do we want to perpetuate negative stereotypes in our own images and on our own social feed?

What we pay attention to, where enthusiasms are found, can inform the content of strong, meaningful images. The camera provides a path back into the world and it offers a means for genuine self-exploration.

Here are five ways to use your camera to stimulate and enhance deep creativity:

1. Take pictures daily. Keep a visual journal of what touches you, moves you, angers you, or delights you. Use the camera to deepen your experience with a subject: try different angles, points of view, and times of day. Keep exploring until you find the moment and composition that reflects your true inner feeling. Often, the strongest photographs are made after this kind of intentional engagement.

2. Use a file browser to see your images in thumbnail form on a page, like Apple Photos or, better yet, spring for a good image editing program like Adobe Photoshop and its companion browser, Adobe Bridge. Look at your images. Which ones shine and jump off the page, for you. Discriminate and accept only the true “gems.” Put these in a separate folder.

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3. Make images that show who you are without using yourself as the subject. Use allusion, metaphor, concept, mirroring—and find resonance. Seek your inner reflection in the outer world. Self-portrayal through images that reveal your unique background, character, and circumstances—not just your appearance—is one of the great aims of art. Here we use the camera as a mirror.

4. Pass over common clichés and overworked Instagram tropes. Seek your own highly personal response to the world that grows from your passions, strong interest, commitments, or even your sense of outrage. You are looking to find your true nature through a camera.

I recommend a form of “camera practice,” learning to trust your own experience and the veracity of your own perceptions. It’s a path of growth for your creative capacities.

Zen tradition teaches that at every moment in our lives, we have a choice. We can be present to the moment in an open, non-judgmental fashion, or we can stay in our usual distracted, often self-centered state of being. With a camera in our hand, we are encouraged to cultivate a mindful awareness that simultaneously encompasses self and subject equally. A moment of seeing with a camera connects our inner states directly with the realities of life beyond our eyes. Photographs made from this standpoint have magic and force that far transcend the shallow selfie-aesthetic—and can truly change our lives.

David Ulrich is a photographer and author of “Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography.” He is a professor of photography and co-director of Pacific New Media Foundation in Honolulu, HI. 

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