An Animistic Approach to Photography

Jason // September 12 // 31 Comments

Photography as my voice.

Parading on the rock strewn landscape above the boggy mire I must have appeared to any unfortunate onlookers as a deranged wanderer trying to conjure some unseen force from the tempestuous clouds that swirled in slow motion above the desolate valley.

Evoking the energy of a conductor directing an otherworldy orchestra, arms waving, strutting determinedly between the bog myrtle and heathers I was simply trying to earn my photos! The landscape around the Fairy Pools didn’t know me, so I had to negotiate with the spirits of the place as the rain poured down and the mountains receded into the grey mists.

From boyhood I’ve never seen myself as the ‘maker’ of my photos, my process has always been a collaborative event. Long before I heard tell of the Muse or the Spirits of Places I naturally thought and felt that it was a joint effort just as people photography is a co-creation between the photographer and subject.

The onset of my stutter as a young lad had much to do with that. As a 5 year old I could speak to nobody. My throat was locked, but only when people were around. Out of human earshot I could converse, sing to and generally make a vocal nuisance of myself with the beings out in nature. So I think my familiarity with other than human chatting stemmed from there, and it still serves me well.

Of course I’ve made up for it now as many of the folk who connect with Nicola and I will attest! Sometimes you just can’t shut me up, perhaps I’m making up for lost time!

Gather and share the stories.

When I discovered shamanism all those years ago the animistic foundation really spoke to me and gave a name to my personal, private practice. I quickly discovered my own menagerie of spirit guides, animal and otherwise, and continued my quest to discover what I was for. And it appears I’m a hunter gatherer of stories.

Again and again my guides have told me, during my shamanic journeys and dreams, that I’m to get out there in the landscape, make myself available and gather the tales of the land. I do this through photos, films and prose. I was commissioned by my guides to then share those stories in order to support those who were prepared to fall in love with the land.

Hence a working life of shooting photos and film for magazine and book publishers eventually gave way to gathering truth and beauty for our clan. During the embarrassingly frequent periods when I forgot what I was for nature would often turn up the volume and confront my lackadaisical approach with Raven, Black Panther and other beasts to nudge me back on track. In fact during one journey I was told I just had to be out there and the stories would clothe me like a cloak. Simple as that. So I redouble my efforts to be true to myself and Earthlight is becoming my voice.

The animistic approach to photography really does work. Engaging in a conversation with the subject opens up a dialogue and imbues a certain mystical quality to the images. No longer is the photographer the maker of the image, it’s not owned by us. At the very least the landscape or dandelion or fox or whatever we are pointing our camera at will cooperate in the way it wants to and gift a photo for the photographer to take rather than make. Of course back home, in the virtual darkroom we may then bring our own soul and spirit into play and make something of the raw image. But still, the piece is a collaborative event.

At best the Muse will speak in the artist’s ear and direct a full body of work that will drip honeycombs of connection. Such deep messages must be grasped with both hands otherwise the Muse will no doubt claw back the idea and offer it to another who may not be so tardy at running with the insights granted.

The animistic approach.

So, what could an animistic photography session look like? How does it differ from the usual approach of the professional or keen practitioner. I shy away from using the word ‘shamanic’ in this setting as I won’t be in a drum induced trance communicating with the other worlds during my shoot! Rather, I’ll be very much present and aware of my surroundings, giving credence to the sentience of all that is around me, and seeking a connection with it.

In my days as an editorial photographer I’d be given a brief by an editor or art director and would be expected to return with a set of images that met that agenda. I had a clear vision of what I would be returning with after a shoot and would research, plan and fine tune my approach to ensure a compliant result. Often this could even mean creating photos that matched a sketch given to me by the commissioner of the piece. No wiggle room for either my creativity or the voice of my subject.

Now, in contrast, I rarely go out with more than a very loose idea of what I want to find and often I’ll use a set of homemade oracle cards to determine where to go in search of my visual stories. I leave so much to chance, to the vagaries of the weather, to the mood of the place in order to leave room for the magic to happen. Nailing it down removes the possibility of the voice of the place being heard above my own inner chatter.

This approach never lets me down. Admittedly I don’t always come home with telling images that wow viewers and invoke a sense of awe… nowhere near. However I do always get a story, sometimes just a personal one that will help guide my direction and give me assurance that I’m doing ok.

Standing near the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye, to continue my opening story, I was stunned by the unnerving beauty and savageness of the mountains. I had a vision of what I wanted to catch with my camera and set about trying to force the landscape to comply… and it steadfastly refused. It was January, I had been wet to my bones for a couple of days and I wanted to portray the harshness of the land.

I asked the place to show me it’s beauty, it’s truth, but the door to this imaginal place was firmly closed. I couldn’t create anything of worth. Two hours later I relented and stopped to consider what I was doing wrong. I had a sense of the mountains looking down on me, an incomer without a relationship to this place, and laughing at my insolence. I knew it needed a gift. A gift for a gift. A courtship even.

So I told the fairytale ‘The enchanted princess and the hostile mountain spirit.’ For some forty minutes I regaled the place with this tale to the very best of my theatrical ability, putting my all into the telling. And you know what, as soon as I’d finished this telling the light changed, the veils lifted and the spirit of the place gave me its best side.

Communion or communication.

Being in communication with the land in this way does evoke a certain connection and sense of co-creation that a more egocentric approach will lack. While this open, accepting approach can be edgy it does pay back dividends to any who hold true to the animistic tradition. Walking through a landscape in commune with the beings that live there is hugely informative and nurturing. In fact the concept of photography as a communion with the subject rather than just a communication is deeply thought provoking. What does the land get in return for cooperating with our artistic efforts? How does this confluence of conversations engage and nurture both parties?

So much is written about the benefits of being outdoors and photography is a great way to foster this relationship. Being out in nature, fully in the flow of a creative life helps to reset us after the ravages of our suboptimal ‘civilised’ life and can go a long way to addressing various mental and emotional maladies. Also, when we are truly in the state of flow, with no notifications pulling our focus and no day to day worries impinging on our mind we can gain a sense of wonder and awe at the world we live in.

Curiosity is aroused when we ask questions of the land and nature around us, and photography is a great way to engage this particular conversation. The technology of today is sufficiently advanced to allow us to forget about the technicalities and focus on the wonder. We can use our phone cameras to conjure a connection with the spirit of place and push ourselves further into relationship with the other than human world.

Of course if photography is important to us we can have a desire to master the craft and it’s good to follow this call. However I always advocate alternating such deep technical learning sessions with periods of simply following our eye, switching everything to auto if necessary and just going with the flow. The end result isn’t necessarily important, the connections created always are.

As the photographer who kneels down to catch the beauty of the flora, or to portray the patterns in the sand, the ongoing conversations will deepen your respect and love of the world around you. The camera may well become a bridge between the physical and the other than human and begin to create the visual stories that bring you into communion with the interconnectedness of life.

When I find myself in the presence of a waterfall during the twilight hours, kneeling on a damp bed of mosses or in the thrall of a young Roe buck in a dawn meadow I find my place in the mystery of all things. Shamanic journeying brings me home to my guides, time out taking photos brings me home to Gaia. Surely both are different sides of the same silver spoon.

  • That’s it!
    I’m going to pick up the camera again. In my early 20’s I tried to teach myself photography, I failed!
    I could never get across what I was seeing in nature, I’d sit for hours upon hours waiting. But I love what you say Jason and I quote,
    “The end result isn’t necessarily important, the connections created always are”.

    Thank you for your insight and inspiration 🙏

    • Thank you Jacinta! This is lovely to hear. Hold on to the fun too, weave into your learning sessions time out to play with creativity. This helps to keep the inspiration and curiosity flowing.

  • I love the idea of co-creating with nature, Jason. It really changes the whole approach to photography, doesn’t it? Also… homemade oracle cards? What a brilliant idea that I now want to steal! Thanks for all these gifts. Also, WHAT are those mysterious undulating terracotta formations with green and mist? (If you don’t mind revealing that photo’s secrets.)

    • Thank you for your comment Melanie. Yes, the oracle cards, each with a local place, prove to be so useful when I can’t make a decision.
      Those formations are actually sea worn sandstone rocks dotted with mossy seaweed. The mist is the incoming dawn tide caught in the twilight with a slow shutter speed. They’re not far from St Bees Head on the west coast of Cumbria.

  • Thanks for sharing some of your process Jason it has helped me to begin to understand some of my process especially connecting to the spirit of a place and listening to the whispers of my muse.

  • “I’m a hunter gatherer of stories”
    Wow, that’s such a powerful sentence Jason and so descriptive of all your work.
    This article has touched me deeply.
    As I battle with my lack of knowledge and simple photography equipment, to record the beauty of what I see all around me, I forget sometimes to just ‘be’ in nature.
    Thank you 😊

    • Thank you Rod. I think, as we explore the tech stuff about our photography it’s important to schedule in plenty of explorative ‘play’ time too. And to remember to allow ourselves to just be present, rather than looking through the window of the viewfinder. Using the camera as a ‘door’ instead to gain access to rather than simply look at.

  • Fabulous pictures Jason, I have my iPhone ready all the time when walking my dogs, I’ve managed some half decent pics, I’m learning how to commune with nature……. It’s a journey x

  • Fascinating thoughts and insights here, Jason. I was very wary of the shamanic approach when I joined the mystery school a few years ago, but it has become a core part of my life. We really can connect to nature in this way, and you are teaching us how to do that. I am now finding that this is my way to connect.

    • Thank you for this Pam. Yes, it’s a great way to be in collaboration with the living world isn’t it. Great to hear of your journey.

  • This is beautiful Jason- and so inspiring, thank you so much for sharing. The image of the rocky mountain ravine portrays such power, it’s tangible! I’m fascinated with the elementals; do you think these are who you converse with, out there in the wilds? I was already planning to take my SLR camera to Scotland next week- but it’s going to be used in a whole other way now!

    • Thank you for this Karen. Yes, the mountain showed me the rocky ravine and filled it with mist and drizzle. I was so blessed to be there. For me, they are the spirits of the places, however they are very elemental in their form. What an interesting question you pose here. Thank you. And enjoy your trip to Scotland, don’t let weather deter your adventures, this is how the landscape shows it’s mood.

  • I find your pictures very evocative , l don’t know if it’s the fact that that they bring back my home to me in a way my minds eye cannot , but l loose myself in them.
    The writing is beautiful and l can immerse myself in the story and conjure up the scene.
    Living so far away it’s amazing how much your work comforts me and l thank you for that .

  • Thank you for your inspirational images and thought provoking words Jason. You always lead me to a desire to re-immerse myself in nature. Thank you for your honesty.

  • Beautifully put, Jason. I always try to remember to say a greeting to the places I visit, now I will definitely deepen this side of things. Thank you.

  • That teamwork between you and your “subject” has produced some amazing images. Stunning in their own right.
    Yet what really caught my attention is that you described yourself as a teller of stories, albeit with a strong visual element. As I am embarking on a healing journey spanning seven decades, I sense that stories, the re-telling of them perhaps, will play a major part for me. Nature too will be a strong player, encouraging me to head off into unknown constructs and processes. So I look forward to discovering my own particular and peculiar way of communicating my stories, with her collaboration. Your narrative gives me courage. Thank you!

  • Thank you for this wonderful piece of writing….sometimes I love your words , thoughts and ideas8 even more than your photography, which I adore 🙏🩷

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    About the Author Jason

    Jason follows his lifelong vocation as a countryside photographer who tries to catch the spirit of the places he visits. After decades working as a professional editorial photographer he now focuses much of his time on conceptual fine art photography, visual storytelling and in aiding others to follow their creative calling.

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