By Lawrence Ripsher, Pathwise Member 

For years, I’ve loved photography, but I never really knew why.

I’d go to great lengths and expense to research and purchase equipment. I’d drive or travel hundreds of miles to photograph a scene I could view from a book. Or I’d relentlessly network without hesitation or shame to gain access to a behind the scenes look at something I could read about. My theories for why I’d subject myself to this (and enjoy it) varied over the years… At first, it was the novelty of learning a new skill. That soon wore off and so I assumed it was through critiquing and sharing of photographs amongst the photography community that was the big draw. However once I established myself and formed a core set of connections, I found my desires in this area waned. I checked things off the list one by one… Getting published – that was exciting at first but soon wore off. Access to interesting/unseen places – this remained interesting but not the reason itself. Shooting professionally – it turns out that getting paid for photography nearly made me quit it altogether. None of my ideas stuck.

I finally thought I’d landed on a theory when I wrote about how photography simply allowed me to create treasured memories of loved ones. This was and still is absolutely the case. But the inconvenient truth was that it was more a side effect than a reason in itself – and it never really explained to me why photography made me feel the way I did during a shoot. That feeling – calm, happy, connected to what I was doing – yet disconnected from life’s usual stresses and pressures that normally required great effort to keep at bay. I was without a good explanation so “treasured memories” sufficed.

Then around the same time, I was starting Pathwise, I began reading a series of books on positive psychology. One of them, a book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, was particularly enlightening. After just the first chapter, the answer for why I loved photography so much became clear. In this book, Mihaly writes:

“I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

That described my situation perfectly. He goes on to write:

“First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes.”

It was clear to me – Mihaly was writing about me and how photography made me feel. A form of suspending attention that I’d stumbled upon without realizing. There is some irony in that I had been unsatisfied with the simplest explanation of all – that I  photographed because I enjoyed it. It turns out that the real answer was more complex but in many ways, it was just as simple.

I’ll add one more quote that I think particularly relevant:

“The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces. It is no longer necessary to struggle for goals that always seem to recede into the future, to end each boring day with the hope that tomorrow, perhaps, something good will happen.”

So the reason I’m sharing this is because through photography, through Flow, through Pathwise & suspending attention and through the discussions that have come out of all of these things, I’ve started to stitch together a framework for better understanding my life. I’m becoming minutely clearer of what drives me, what makes me happy and what I aim to seek more of in the future. Photography is part of that, but not all of it. We have all experienced flow, just as we’re all now beginning to experience being present and I hope by sharing this you’ll get a further sense of what drives and makes you happy also.

Lawrence Ripsher is a business leader, software developer, photographer, and dog lover. See Lawrence’s portfolio at http://lawrenceripsher.com.

One thought on “Photography and Flow

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