This month we’re thinking about images with a purpose. There are lots of purposes for photography — to persuade or document or earn a living. But what if the act of taking the image is its purpose? We talked to Ja Soon Kim, a photographer and veteran yoga and meditation teacher about photographing mindfully.
Finding your vision, not someone else’s.
Ja Soon is thinking a lot about Instagram these days. “I’m older than most Instagramers,” she says. “I see all these young people hopping in a car, driving thousands of miles, or flying to faraway lands, and they end up taking pictures that look a lot like what everybody has already posted. I think, ‘You went there, but did you really see what was there?’”
In Ja Soon’s view, photographers of the Instagram age can be so focused on capturing that “it” shot that they forget to experience the moment and develop their vision. “Your own vision has value. Post what you like, and post what you see,” she advises. “You don’t have to go far. I live in the desert, so that is what I see. I see the changes in seasons. I see the beautiful natural phenomena in a desert that’s carved by water and wind. I travel, too, but I always take pictures of what’s right in front of my eyes.”
Wander (not too far), and bring a bag.
One of Ja Soon’s signature techniques is the flat lay. She gathers items, arranges them thoughtfully, and captures their images from above. The subjects don’t have to be exotic or even traditionally beautiful. Instead, they are the bits and pieces from a walk, or a moment that captures her thoughts.
“Wherever I go, I usually have a little bag with me to collect things. Sometimes the things don’t have any value to the general public, like a leaf, but I bring them home,” she explains. “I have a very simple setup by the window, and I arrange them until I’m really happy with them. For me it’s a time of quietness, a time of contemplation, and even meditation. It’s just being with what you’re seeing and being with that particular moment, because our memories are made of moments. They’re not made of days or trips.”
After a recent desert snowstorm, Ja Soon watched her neighbors sweeping away bark that had fallen from the trees. But she saw beauty in the shades and textures of the dropped pieces, and collected them for a future flat lay. “There are even days when I go outside my door and collect a few pine leaves,” she says, “and that can be a satisfying flat lay.”
Ja Soon is fortunate to live close to an expansive scenery of mountains and desert, but her favorite photography strategy is to lose herself in the small details of a moment. “Things present themselves to me, but you have to look closely. If you look really close, you’ll see this tiny nest in a tree, and there’ll be a little bit of a cracked egg in it. That’s beautiful.”
Paying attention means Ja Soon witnesses life in ways that are small but also profound. For example, recently she was walking through a park and noticed feathers on the ground. “I realized a lot of the feathers were from a crow. They’re black. Then, I saw a few that were the chest feathers of an owl. There were more black feathers, so obviously the owl ate the crow. I was astounded, looking at it and thinking about this battle of life, so I collected the feathers and made a picture. It was a documentation of how life really is.”
Be in the moment.
As Ja Soon describes it, an in-the-moment approach to photography doesn’t just change your photographs, it changes you, too: “It makes me more mindful about what’s around me, and it makes me more present. That sounds so abstract, but it just means that you are paying attention to each and every passing moment. When I am out collecting, sometimes I totally lose myself. I am no longer identifying myself with who I think I am, I’m just lost. That’s the crux of meditation, too — you lose yourself to much bigger things.”
See more mindful images in our dedicated Visual Trend Gallery.