Seeing life beyond the ‘selfie’

There was a time when I regretted the day someone had the bright idea to embed a camera in mobile smart phones. It gave birth to “Self-taken Camera Picture” or simply selfie.

Since then, it seems that the world can’t go through a day without pausing for a selfie shot. After a meeting at the office or chatting with a friend in a coffee shop, it’s always “let’s have a selfie first.”

One can’t even get a break from socmed friends who cluelessly, freely, and unceasingly inflict their selfies on our mobile screens. Would you believe 50 to 65 selfies all at once? 3 to 5 shots taken from the same angle?

But having said that, I must admit that built-in cameras can also be useful. When we park our car in a big basement parking lot filled with other cars, I make sure to click on the slot number just in case I forget. During a talk or lecture, one no longer needs to take notes, just shoot the text or images projected on the screen. When meeting people for the first time, it’s a good thing to take a selfie so one can remember their faces.

Thanks to the longest pandemic shutdown my love-hate attitude towards smart phone cameras has changed. Here’s how. With nothing better to do and to document a frustrating period of our lives that may never come again, I took selfies of my face every 3 days at the same angle to show my beard growth and my increasingly unkempt look.

Then just a few months later, I looked at the series of selfies again and the more I viewed them the more I discerned an artistic dimension about them. I thought maybe I could even do a minute video on the sequence of facial shots, with a narrator reading from the jumbled thoughts I randomly scribbled during that time.

Then one time when my granddaughters started to attend online classes, I chanced upon paper cutouts on the table in our terrace, probably products of an online art project. Wanting to record their works for posterity, and fascinated by the melange of colors, I took shots of them with my cellphone from all angles using just natural sunlight. When I re-viewed the still shots, I thought that they looked like Pop Art. I like Pop Art because it’s fun and lighthearted.

And all this time, I was taking this technology for granted because I thought it’s only good for selfies.

It gave me impetus to shoot wildly all kinds of objects, happenings, sceneries and of course people including family, friends and colleagues.

Framed by the limited view of the camera and seen in light and shadow, I began to see the casual, the ordinary, the every day in a new light, to use a hackneyed phrase. Within the limits of a frame, there’s a fresh perspective to them.

One can view them closely again and again and see things you never saw before. The Antonioni film “Blow up” came to my mind. They become images that say much more than meet the eye. We quote novelist Henry Miller: “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

This is how I have stumbled into what I coin as “Mindful Shooting.” By “mindful” I mean it in the Buddhist sense of putting your consciousness into what you’re doing at the moment and being more aware of your action. Don’t just click and click. Mind what you’re clicking at.

Being a closet poet, I try to capture the poetry of the moment in my snapshots. I now prefer to shoot without being rushed so I can look at the angle that best shows the play of light and shadow and would soften the edges. It’s all very amateurish and intuitive.

In general, to me less is more because I am a natural minimalist. Oftentimes, a close-up of a detail is the best way to tell a story, that’s why we have the phrase “telling detail.” I like using the power of suggestion and engaging the imagination of the viewer, letting him complete the picture.

For example, I have a shot of a shelf of books that I still have to read, showing a cobweb and dust on the books. Is the owner a hoarder or just too busy? Maybe no one reads books anymore.

In keeping with my minimalist leaning, I like to shoot objects with blank space around it. In traditional Japanese arts and culture, an empty space often holds as much importance as the rest of an artwork and impels the viewer to focus on the intention of negative space in an art piece.

The images in your photo archive can serve a number of purposes. They can be a record or a mirror of the realities of the world in which we live now. Or simply be a conversation trigger when posted on your social media account. They can also be purely for private aesthetic enjoyment.

But if you’re spiritually inclined, the images can serve as a prompter for self-reflection or spiritual contemplation. There’s a book called “Photography As a Christian Contemplative Practice” written by Christine Valters Paintner. To her, “Photography as a spiritual practice combines the active art of image-receiving with the contemplative nature and open-heartedness of prayer. It cultivates what I call sacred seeing or seeing with the eyes of the heart.”

So, for selfie maniacs, here’s the message: let’s use this marvelous tool to enable us to receive and perceive the life we live at a deeper level than surface realities.

Shoot the everyday objects and things in your home: a cup, broom in a corner, a chair, keys, a picture on a wall, a plant in a pot. Then like the opening of our neglected third eye, we may begin to see meaningful “thoughts” beyond the usual, trivial selfie image you are so familiar with.

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