Miksang in Commercial Photography


I received the following question recently from an old Miksang friend. I hope you find my response helpful:

“I have a question that I’m struggling with and I would like to have your opinion. I’m doing commercial photography where images are extensibly manipulated to basically give what the client wants. How does one remain true to Miksang when doing commercial work? Do I put on my commercial photographer hat when I’m working on my business and switch to my Miksang hat for my personal work? Your insight is appreciated. Best, Henry”

Hi Henry.

It’s good to hear from you. The answer to your question is simple, so I’m happy to put an end to the struggle you are having with it. If you are hired to give the client a very slick “professional” photograph of their product (which you do very well) such as an office building or a dishwasher, then it is unlikely that the result will be based on fresh perception. It will be based on your idea of what the client expects as well as your idea of the subject matter. The question of being “true to Miksang” is an interesting one, as it suggests that there is the fresh-perception approach as well as the conceptual-based photography approach which you believe to be necessary to be a successful commercial photographer, and you are unsure if the two can ever come together for you.

Whether or not this can happen for you depends upon your level of confidence in your ability to express more than standard product photos. When you begin to put that confidence out there, the opportunity in your commercial work to see more and express more and still accomplish the desired result for the client will begin to manifest. You don’t have to call yourself a “Miksang photographer”. It’s more of an inner way of regarding yourself. If you think of yourself as a standard commercial photographer then that could limit the kinds of assignments that come your way. If we go into a situation expecting that we have to shoot a certain kind of image, then that’s what we will shoot. The obstacle here is that our sense of what’s expected becomes our expectation, thereby limiting what we can accomplish.

Product photography without the ‘Good Eye’ produces a dead, lifeless, portrayal of the products from the outside that doesn’t express anything fresh or perception-based. For clients who haven’t seen or don’t know what a really stunning photo can do to enhance their advertising bang for their buck, that may be all they expect. Still, if you can, why not give them more?

You can do it and they may find that they love your work, that you are special. Or they may not get it – but find it is adequate. There are clients out there who are looking for more. And they cannot find you if you are not putting all of yourself out there in the world of commercial photography. Clients who want their advertising to communicate the qualities of their product could be your market.

So far, I have explored this subject from what we think about what is expected, and how that limits us in our work. Let’s go further below the surface and explore the inner aspect of this. The fundamental issue concerns the degree of freedom you feel you have to shoot your perception within the confines of the particular situation. Isn’t that how it always is? Doesn’t every situation or environment have its boundaries and challenges? If our minds are open and our awareness is fully present, we can have fresh perceptions anywhere, anytime. When we allow ourselves to connect with the subject or object of our perception, whatever that is, the confines or boundaries cease to be relevant to our experience and its expression.

Even if we are working within a highly structured situation and within a narrow framework, we can take the time we need to look and see the subject, to notice the line, texture, light, color, and when we feel we have fully appreciated its visual expression, then we are ready to photograph it. The more accomplished we are as a Miksang shooters, the more stabilized our discipline, the more quickly and effortlessly this can happen. All visual phenomena have these qualities, and it is up to us to connect and express our experience of the subject or object.

Then the image will be startling, attract attention, expressing the essence of the subject/object. Just because the client doesn’t know that this is possible, we don’t have to hold back. It’s like giving a child fresh milk for the first time after years of drinking powdered milk. Who wouldn’t want the real thing? All this can happen within the confines of a specific arrangement and subject matter. If we think, “it’s just a boring microwave”, how is this different from “my wife, she’s just my wife. There’s really nothing worth looking at particularly. I have seen her for so many years.” The obstacle of familiarity and labeling is at the root of not being able to shoot a product with freshness, and as usual we need to get beyond these limiting views.

Let’s compare this situation with portraiture. In this case, the end product is an image of the person we are taking a portrait of. In Miksang Training we do one-on-one shooting and stay still with each other until our projections fall away and we can connect directly with the subject. When this happens we begin to see and feel, with sharpness and clarity, the subtle aspects of the manifestation of our subject – the line, the light, the texture, the totality they are presenting to us. Here are a couple of examples of my portrait work:

How is this different from product photography?

There are people out there photographing their commercial assignments in this way. There are numerous examples. Check out the Apple advertisements for their new mouse, or their computers. They understand that their clients appreciate the beauty of line, the simple elegance of style, and the total integration of form and function. The photography expresses those qualities. For example – the Mighty Mouse:

Michael told me about an episode of “American Chopper” in which they hired a commercial photographer to come in to photograph their motorcycles for a magazine. You probably know that their bikes are well known for their unique design which expresses something essential about the person or organization who has commissioned the motorcycle. Their bikes are works of industrial art. The photographer took a long time looking at the bikes before he began because it was important that the images express the essence of the bikes. He took his time taking in the detail of each bike, deeply noticing all of the elements and how they were coming together to form the whole. They chose the photographer no doubt for his ability to photograph in this way.

I have never been a commercial photographer, so I asked Michael about your question. Michael has always said that you can’t do both conventional template photography and Miksang photography, that you can’t have one foot in each world. How can you walk with one foot? How can you turn off your awareness, your presence of mind and eye? It’s like putting ourselves on autopilot for our job rather than being full present while we are working. Why would we want to reserve the time we are fully present for when we are not working – just because of an idea we have about what we think somebody else’s idea is?

Michael said that in the end he just couldn’t wear both hats anymore and abandoned shooting any other way than Miksang. He had done a lot of commercial photography and portraiture, but found it difficult to incorporate Miksang principles and experience into these assignments, at least in the beginning. But he stuck with it, blending the two worlds, and was eventually hired on the basis of his Miksang photography portfolio as the Visual Arts Producer and Photographer for the Maritime Region of Parks Canada.

They asked him to photograph the national parks in the region and he did so based upon genuine fresh perceptions of the subject matter. His slide shows were very well received because they expressed some inner quality about the places. His images were also used as the background for the National Parks’ promotional campaigns in magazines and brochures. If you really do what you do completely and go deep with it so that your images express genuine direct experience of what is really there, who is not going to be able to connect to your images?

Michael was commissioned by the owner of a yoga studio in Halifax to produce images for her website and brochure. She wanted images that were visually stunning and expressed something about the inner quality of what she was presenting in her work. I came along as an observer.

We met her at her studio and she dressed in a very blue yoga outfit. She began going through a variety of different poses and we just watched her for a bit. There was a wall of windows along the front of the studio through which indirect sunlight illuminated her form. Michael didn’t instruct her, she just did what she did and he moved around while photographing her. The images were absolutely stunning, and there was no doubt they were flashes of perception arising from within that particular situation.

These types of assignments are quite perfect for the open, awake eye of a disciplined contemplative photographer. If this kind of work is what you really want to do, then I suggest that you apply yourself to whatever the assignment is with all the awareness and fresh mind that you have, and that you deepen your ability to be in a receptive, open state of mind continuously so that you don’t have to struggle going back and forth. Then there is no question of doing it one way or another, changing hats and so on. These limitations will become transparent, and you become a person whose passion for perception, whose heat for what is seen, will be communicated in whatever you shoot.

© Julie DuBose, Michael Wood 2010
May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author