Tunnel Vision

When we engage in the creative process – if we are lucky or have experienced how to do it – we enter a state of mindful connection with the subject we are photographing or with the situation in which we submerge ourselves into with the intention to photograph. It’s like a breaking point when it happens. Suddenly everything seems to come forward, things happen almost naturally and very brightly. And your own awareness reached a level that almost surprises yourself. You become a participant more than a spectator.

When this happened for me first time, I was studying in New York, and I went down to cover the Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown. Suddenly I lost myself in the event. I became one with whatever happened on the street, and my camera became an extension of my senses. In a way it was as if the camera became my seventh sense. My reactions were canalized through the camera – both ways. I literally got so engaged that I lost track of everything but the celebration in the streets – even myself. I was no longer in control of myself, but was lead around by the eventful activities happening all over Chinatown.

The result – photographically speaking – was different than anything else I had done up till then. Despite the fact that I was completely unconscious during the photographic process; the pictures were fully loaded with my soul and at the same time showing the event with a detachment that made them interesting for others, too.

In his The Widening Stream, the photographer, teacher and writer David Ulrich says: «In spite of our conditions to the contrary, we must try to give our full attention in the process. We strive to be present, to stay in touch with the relationship between our inner energies, those arising from our bodies, mind, and feelings, and the work itself. As we begin, it feels flat and lifeless. Something is missing. As we continue and try to bring a quality of attention to both ourselves and the activity at hand, something begins to open, a fluidity emerges, and a deepening connection to the process begins to take place. We enter the flow».

That’s exactly how it felt back then in Chinatown. I started out photographing without any focus, I didn’t get involved and I felt I wasn’t able to make anything with my photographs. I was rather thinking about my own photography – and rather badly so – instead of putting my attention to what was happening around me. I was about to give up. But I still kept shooting. And then suddenly something changed. I entered the flow as it’s often called or got the groove as a jazz musician would say. I got involved. Instead of focusing on myself, I started to focus outward. I actually started to focus in the moment. It was all now in this very moment. I got a sense of timelessness, a sense of vital energy and a sense of freedom. Everything – life, myself, the event, the universe – felt important.

Again according to Ulrich: «Like the moment in athletics when endorphins are released, entering the stream of creativity vitalizes us with a sharp inner clarity and buoyant feeling for ourselves and our activity. We feel a spacious inner joy, a vibrant inner stream, which as it begins to flow, attract more of the same much like a river slowly widens its course. Yet, to avoid dispersal of these energies, we must contain them, nurture them, and focus them. Again, as in athletics, the great pay-off of entering the zone, the flow, can only take place through energies that are connected in a desired direction».

For me that afternoon in Chinatown was a leaf turner. It changed my way of photographing, brought my soul into the creative process for the first time. And I learned that I could enter the zone, the flow or get the groove when I was photographing – even when I started out feeling disconnected. Still today my intention is the same whenever I go out shooting. Find that breaking point and loose myself. Back then what happened to me felt like being absorbed by a tunnel and spit out three or four hours later, completely wasted, but intensely happy. And that’s always how I have pictured that part of the process. Entering the tunnel. The pictures from the Chinese New Year celebration probably don’t hold up today, but personally I have a special relationship to them. They showed me how to connect with my creative well in the moment of photographing.

57 thoughts on “Tunnel Vision

  1. What a wonderfully descriptive post – I’ve been focusing so much on building my basic knowledge I’ve not yet thought much about potentially being in flow when it comes to photography, but that sounds such a great place to aim to be. Thank you so much for sharing your experience so vividly, in words as well as pictures, I always find your posts so very helpful… 🙂

  2. Beautifully described and something to aim for…Hopefully I will get there some day as I have taken a year off from my stressful work. At least I hope to find the bits and pieces of myself again. Nature and Photography are very helpful means. Always envigourating to read your posts!

  3. You have eloquently described that moment when the verbal left side of our brain goes silent, allowing the perceptive right side to operate. In that moment that can stretch to hours, it is as if we are leading with our soul, isn’t it? This is a beautiful post, Otto. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. It would be so fun to lose yourself in a fun event like that, and just photograph what you feel. I bet those photos are wonderful you took that day.

  5. It is a wonderful moment when this happens Otto and you article explains this so well. Our higher brain functions are always interfering in the creative process don’t you think when actually, if we can quieten those thoughts and voices that plague us, truly relax into wherever and whatever we aim to capture and how it’s making us feel, those captures are so much the better for it.
    So much of what is put out by photography websites and the photographic press concentrates on the technical side of photography, composition this and exposure that, they forget that this is a creative endeavour and photographers, those starting out and quite experienced photographers all over, are getting unnecessarily hung up on this in my opinion. The sooner we can let go of fussing over the technicalities of using the camera and focus, literally and figuratively, on where we are and what we are seeing, and more importantly what we are feeling, the sooner our photography can start to improve. I advise people that if they are not 100% comfortable with using the camera manually, that’s fine! Put the camera in auto and stop worrying about all of that and to start taking pictures. You can practise all that technical stuff at home. When you’re out in the field let go, see, hear, feel, absorb and feel again, take your time, slow down, let it all in and then start clicking that shutter.

    1. I see the same as you: Too many photographers, whether pros or amateurs get caught up in the technical and formal sides of the process, whereas they should concentrate more on the creative part, included connecting to their emotions. And, yes, I always advice people on my workshops to put the camera on automatic. Why risk losing a great shot!?

  6. I totally agree with you and see the same in myself. Normally I can see beauty anywhere I go, but on Sunday, I didn’t care about being out at the botanical gardens. I haven’t looked at the photos yet, but I think they will reflect that. I certainly didn’t take many either.

    I probably should have left the camera at home (it was too hot to leave in the car) and just taken a walk instead. I can definitely see when I’ve got passion in my photographs and when I don’t.


  7. Tunnel vision has a way of luring us into complacency. If we take time to remember to breathe that is when creativity can kick in. Last week I was totally focused on birds in flight yet the best shots came at times that I looked down to the ground. Stop by my last post and see if you agree. As always your posts are inspirational, thank you Otto.

  8. The hardest place for humans to be is in the present, which is what the creative process initiates. You’ve given an account of how one can discover that place really at any time in one’s life. It is never ever too late. That mindfulness–being present–is one of the keys.

  9. How wonderful! I would hope to get to experience the “leave turnner” moment some day. I am trying to observe what went on when outcome seems alright to me. Great post!

  10. It’s a little long and it’s complex, but I have just the article for you to tuck into your files for that odd half-hour when you feel like reading. It’s called “The Eureka Hunt,” and it was published in the New Yorker magazine in 2008. I’ve kept it in my files since, and read it every now and then. Here’s just a sample, which relates to what you’ve said up above:

    “One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.

    While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that we should be encouraging.

    Jonathan Schooler has recently demonstrated that making people focus on the details of a visual scene, as opposed to the big picture, can significantly disrupt the insight process. “It doesn’t take much to shift the brain into left-hemisphere mode,” he said. “That’s when you stop paying attention to those more holistic associations coming in from the right hemisphere.”

    It is true that the author, Jonah Lehrer, got dinged for plagiarism (some, self-plagiarism) with this article, but the insights are valuable enough to me that I held on to it, anyway.

    1. It looks like an interesting article, which I will look into (I am sitting in an airport right now, I will have to wait with the digging in). The stepping back of the focus is something I think we have all experience. Just think about when we can’t recall a name. As soon as we stop searching for it in our memory, it pops out of nowhere. Thank you for the link and the thoughtful comment, Linda.

  11. I get that feeling sometime when I find enough
    “models” on the beach. Then I get lost in what
    I’m doing. Once in a while I look up and stretch
    my back and see people watching me, smiling 🙂
    I must give a funny picture then 😉

    Have a great day
    Tinna ✐

  12. Molto interessante quest’esperienza che hai vissuto. E’ come diventare un tutt’uno con l’ambiente, le persone e le foto. Incredibile!!
    Un caro saluto, Pat

  13. Great reading, Otto. And as always, I absorbed every comment as well!
    It’s fascinating when it happens, thanks for sharing this with us.

  14. Great post, Otto. And I think the jazz analogy is apt. I’m a jazz musician myself and that’s how I think of my photography, which is almost exclusively street work. The thing about jazz, of course, is what you do on the bandstand depends on what you’ve done in practice. That’s when you work out all the technical stuff. And of course there’s always more technical stuff you could work on than you actually have time for. So you have to make your practice suit what you’re aiming for as a musician.

    As a photographer, I’d say I take 95% of my shots with the camera on automatic. Every once in awhile I’m after something different and so have to configure the camera to achieve the effect. I may even have to read the manual.

    I’ve taken a fair number of shots of flowers, a number of them “blind.” I want to get a shot from below the blossom. Since the blossoms are low to the ground, that’s difficult. In some cases, sure, I could get on my belly. But then I’d crush a lot of other flowers and plants, which I’m not willing to do. So I have to hold the camera below the blossom and point the lens up at the blossom and wait to hear the auto-focuse ‘click.’ Of course, I can’t see what the composition is in such cases (I’m using a DSLR), but I’ve found that a surprising number of shots are usable as long as I don’t mind unorthodox composition, which I don’t.

    1. The think the practice of technique is the same with photography as with jazz. Of course one can always get away with letting the camera take care of the technical side of photography, while that is not possible when playing an instrument. However in both cases, you need to let go of technique and work more instinctually when entering flow. Thank you for sharing your experience, Bill.

  15. An excellent post Otto. Your second paragraph captures and expresses the experience quite beautifully – far better than Ulrich in fact!

  16. A perfect description of ‘the moment’! My photographs improved no end when I stopped thinking about what I was doing and felt where I was instead …

  17. This is one of your finer posts, and I love the analogy with jazz ~ getting completely absorbed in the scene is one of the beautiful things I love about photography (and often why I find shooting with others difficult at times). Getting into the scene and letting it flow around you means being in sync and completely aware of all that is around you, just as with great jazz bands who toy with each other in every session they play ~ playing and altering the beat, the rhythm and making sure everyone is on there toes and when it all comes together: artistic beauty. Great art everywhere has this theme, drawing in all the sensations it is meant to capture.

  18. Excellent article Otto. It’s almost like reading a book isn’t it! When you really immerse yourself in it, every sentence begins to have a profound influence on you.

  19. you have such a gift of teaching, dear otto. some people can teach but their people skills are lacking. some remember what it’s like to learn, and share opening what they’ve learned. others are more arrogant and forget what it’s like to be learning and are blunt or impatient. you remember and share your learning progress, and you are tireless with your support of others. all of us are blessed by knowing you. thanks!

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