Oriental Philosophies and Photography


Art and philosophy are tightly intertwined. Contrary to science, where we try to find answers to questions, art and philosophy look for more questions. Finding the answers to these questions might be a welcome result, but the importance is the questioning process itself rather than the answers. Mystery is the fuel of both art and philosophy.

It is no surprise that many of the masters of photography have had an abiding penchant for philosophy. Wynn Bullock asked the deepest questions about life and the universe and used photography as a symbolic language to further, as well as document, his search for meaning. Minor White brought the concept of using the self as a guide, placing an emphasis on the spiritual and metaphysical relationship between subject and photographer. Alfred Stieglitz coined the concept of "equivalents", visual metaphors where the subject matter is freed from literal interpretation and can become the mirror of a personal stage of being. These artists frequently used philosophy as the subject and fuel for their explorations, which were carried out visually by means of photography. Photography for them was the tool through which they could explore and share with their audience the philosophical concepts which haunted them.

In my humble personal quest as a photographic artist, I have become increasingly interested in philosophy. In particular, I have been quite attracted by the oriental philosophies, how they can shape the way we relate and respond to the world and how they can be applied to photography as a way of personal and creative expression.


There is a concept in Japanese culture that I love, and that is strongly related to Zen Buddhism, and that is "Wabi-Sabi." These two words have seen their original meaning change slightly throughout the centuries, but fundamentally the term is connected to a certain aesthetic, based on a philosophical approach to the world that praises impermanence and an appreciation of beauty related to natural simplicity, imperfection, and incompleteness.

Wabi-sabi can be difficult to translate in western terms. On one hand, we could try to define "wabi" as the concept of rustic simplicity, of the imperfect nature of things arising from the process of their construction. Wabi is related to all those blemishes which in the end make things unique and irreproducible. "Sabi," on the other hand, could be defined as the consequence of impermanence, the beauty that comes as a result of the passing of time, of ageing and wear. It might be easier now to understand that wabi-sabi, as a whole, represents an identification of beauty in the flawed nature of things. Nothing is perfect; nothing lasts forever, and that is what makes it beautiful and perfect.

In western countries, we have based our traditional ideals of beauty and perfection mainly on the classical Greek ideals that revolve around symmetry, harmony, order, and regular balance.

Ideals of beauty based on these western values seem related to an idea of control, of a fight against the natural chaos to ensure order prevails. These values conflict with the universe rather than adapt to it, and conceive of the human being as someone striving to tame, shape, and structure the world in which he lives. According to this philosophy, we might wonder whether beauty is not inherent in nature but is instead the product of human action upon it.

The concept of wabi-sabi, on the other hand, relates to the eastern way of thinking, which praises the adaptation to nature, to the natural and inevitable flow of things. Rather than fighting against the boulders, the stream of water just flows around them, finding its way and eroding the rock. Nothing is permanent, and in the end, the boulders will ultimately wear away, yielding to the slow but constant force of the water. That is the beauty of the rock, a beauty that will increase as the nature of the rock accumulates the signs of the passage of time, as the moss, cracks, and erosion shape its matter, making it more refined at every second, more perfect, more rock-like.

We can reflect on how, even in our western culture, wabi-sabi can be seen and is frequently celebrated. The Parthenon temple, one of the best examples of classic harmony, order, and beauty according to the classical Greek values, today shows us a very different image. Turned into ruins, it is today a sculpture that represents the concept of wabi-sabi itself, made even more refined and beautiful by the passage of time. Where perfection and order once ruled, today stands a random chaos of ruins modelled by time.

What has all this to do with photography? Many of us who use photography as a way of personal and artistic expression are sooner or later obliged to confront the ideals of perfection and beauty, many times challenged by the nature and concept we are trying to put into visual terms. Many of us who share a western cultural background will tend to see perfection according to the more classical western values of beauty. We will praise resolution, consistent and reproducible results, sharpness and technical perfection, order, structure, and compositions filled with detail and order, symmetry and permanence.

On other occasions, more attuned with the concept of wabi-sabi, we will flourish in a practice of the medium that praises the individuality, the irreproducible and "flawed" qualities of subject and medium. In these situations, our lenses will point towards intimate and ephemeral subjects and our medium and tools of choice will favour surprise, inconsistency, and organic renditions influenced by the physical qualities of the medium itself. Photographic compositions will increasingly become less and less planned and contrived, subjects will become more minimalistic and intimate, and final products such as prints or books will acquire a handmade quality that celebrates the imperfection of us as human beings, of our tools of choice and of the materials used to express our message.

This debate is not new. During the last century, movements have gone from one side of the philosophical spectrum to the other, concerning how best to capture beauty and the world by means of photography. The pictorialist movement was an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries and which very much reflected the values of wabi-sabi. One reaction to this movement was the well-known f64 school, a group of photographers including Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston, among others, who promoted a photographic style characterised by sharp-focused and carefully framed images and which has very much defined the way landscape photography is conceived in western countries. During this time, a strong pictorialist "wabi-sabi-based" style has remained very active in eastern countries, with the best representation given by Japanese photographers such as Eiko Hosoe, Masahisa Fukase, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Yamamoto Masao.


On the book “The Tao of Photography – Seeing beyond Seeing” (from Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro) the authors mention that one of the main barriers to a liberated life is what they call the “constricted awareness”. For millennia of evolution, a survival kit implanted in our brains has taught us to discern between what we like and what we do not, to label things, to classify, to order, to categorise, to accept and to reject, to judge, to analyse, to rush. What might have helped us to secure a place in the wilderness might have become, however, a major barrier for a liberated life. So used to seeing the trees, we have lost the sight of the forest.

For the artist and the photographer, in particular, all these mental templates come with a major problem: the barrier to see, the barrier to feel, the barrier to connect, the barrier to transmit. The constricted awareness becomes the main enemy of the photographer: It blocks his vision, fills them with frustration and preconceived ideas, freezes them with fear and doubts, drowns them with expectations and goals, mines the way with smoke bombs and distractions…

One of the biggest advantages of using photography as a mean of personal expression is learning to see the world, and ourselves, in a different way. This is something we western photographers understand and embrace. Zen philosophy, however, goes further still and tells us the best advantage happens when photography or any other creative endeavour helps us NOT to see ourselves, that is, help us eliminate ourselves from the creative equation and fade away altogether.

I have personally realised as a photographer that all my best images were made when I engaged in a process where I just forgot I was there. In all those instances, I was so absorbed by the place, the moment, the light and my own thoughts that hours passed in what I would have said were minutes and I just totally abandoned myself to my photography. In those moments, as Henri Cartier-Bresson mentions, ”I blended in like a fish in water, I forgot myself”. This is something that has been studied in western cultures. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, coined the psychological concept of flow, "a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation, a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter".

In Zen philosophy, we find a very close counterpart to this very same concept. According to Zen, we would say a photograph of a tree happens when a true and genuine relationship between the photographer and the subject takes place, to the point where the duality of self and object disappears completely. The photographer, egoless and goalless, becomes the tool through which the photograph just "happens".

Sometimes it is really difficult to see through the smoke, that smoke that we tend to produce ourselves, a smoke which blinds us from seeing the world and leaves us alone with our rational consciousness. During our progression as photographers, we frequently go through phases where smoke thickens. This smoke can adopt different shapes: The fixation on the technological aspect of photography, the intrusive influence of other photographers works, the me-too behaviour, the search for public approval, the adoption of strong preconceptions. In western cultures, it is common for photographers to leave on a "photo trip" with a whole list of photographic goals to materialise; herded by images other photographers have produced from that place; organising days and planning shooting sessions as a military campaign; longing to create work catering for an audience they intend to impress.

Doing so can indeed result in impressive productivity in portfolio terms, with lots of “killer” images at the end of the trip which will surely harvest high levels of popularity and public acceptance. This might be a quick shortcut to become commercially/socially "successful" in the world of landscape photography, but it is a road that leads to obliteration of personal expression and creativity and wipes-out the value of the experience in detriment of the goal result, the photograph.

Zen teaches us to go out with our camera without expectations, with eyes open, trying to find the wonder in every single little thing, forgetting the fact we are photographers. It tells us to stop looking for photographs and rather look for "resonances" (like Minor White used to say), which might trigger moments of flow when the borders between us and the world fade away, and we reach a higher state of personal enlightenment. Zen philosophy tells us to forget photography as a goal and realise its beauty as a tool, as a means for something higher.

As there is no goal nor preconceptions, frustration is almost impossible when adopting photography this way. We are not looking for anything, but open to everything. Tags like "bad" or "good" disappear from our vocabulary. There is no more bad light, bad weather or bad subject matter for photography. In fact, things are not good or bad any more, they just are. All subjects reveal their poetry no matter how subtle and unimpressive they are at first sight.

As we free the bonds between our egos and our work, our photographs become independent of who we are and the opinion of other people about our images cease having any importance at all. Our images stop being trophies we use to elevate our value as individuals in front of society, appraisal becomes ludicrous and our ears become deaf to the opinion of critics.

Zen tells us how to use creative arts as a way of personal liberation. Photography, when properly adopted, can catalyse a feeling of being alive, here, connected to the land, the light and the moment.

In the same way, the water flows around the rocks in a stream, unhurried and unconcerned, adapting itself to the obstacles, we should avoid swimming against the current or in forced and contrived directions. It is rather easier to just float with it. Let photography become the boat.


Japanese aesthetics are more than mere design. They represent the core values of an ancient philosophy and are strongly coherent with a certain way of relating to the world. They permeate through architecture, pottery, calligraphy, ikebana, visual works, garden planning, and any other human activity where mind, soul and heart are put to work together into the creation of meaningful things with multiple levels of signification.

There are different terms core to the Japanese aesthetic principles which could be very well applied to photography, particularly to the way we articulate our messages through visual composition and visual design.


Which could be translated as "simplicity or elimination of clutter", is the oriental counterpart of "less is more". Visual work expressed in a simple manner succeeds at transmitting a clear and deliberate message, articulated through the use of strong composition and uncluttered visual design. When Kanso is applied to our work, we eliminate all those elements which do not add. Nothing in photography is innocuous, if something does not add, it will subtract and should go.


Another related concept urges us to be elegant, minimalistic, simple in our compositions, without being flashy. It tells us to whisper our message, rather than crying it out loud.


tells us to avoid artificiality in our work, contrived compositions which reveal their rigid existence, killing the message in the process. All photographic composition is a work of human control over chaos. Shizen reminds us to keep that control under cover, reaching that difficult balance point where the work of the photographer is not seen by the observer, but felt. Things like heavy filtration, too clinical and rigid compositions, too heavy post-processing or too prominent technical effects will quickly kill all Shizen and make our photographs cloying and overcooked.


Another concept related to Japanese aesthetics celebrates suggestion and connotation over direct revelation. This is a concept which favours mystery over beauty. Suggestion increases the attention of the observer since the message is not too clear or directly revealed and needs to be deciphered. As a result, the observer becomes part of the image and is lured into the magic of the unknown, the wonder of the mystery encapsulated in the image. The opposite of Yugen, direct revelation, can bring impact to our images, an ephemeral and brief demand for attention that will surely produce a short-lived boost of "visual insulin" in the observer, leaving the empty feeling of needing more.


Tells us to be free. Compose freely, without rules or conventions. Transcend the conventional, break with the trends of imagery we have seen so many times, be bold in our work avoiding the so-called "rules of composition". Inject surprise in our photographs, engage with the viewer with unexpected subjects, compositions and post-processing. However, we should be wary of making things different just for the sake of being different. Rather, we should try to engage into a life free of conventions. Free ourselves, then allow our work to speak for us, coherently and consistently.


Celebrates the beauty of stillness, solitude and calm. It is not a boring calm, but a calm whose latent energy can be felt. Our photographs can very well transmit the raw power of Nature through the static state of being of a rock, a piece of wood or a pond of water. Photographs in search of Seijaku become visual oasis where to find shelter from noise, disturbance and agitation of the modern world.


As always, none of these philosophies are inherently correct or incorrect. In fact, many of us will see our own attitudes shift as we grow and mature as artists, or we will embrace one philosophy or another depending on the message and concept we might want to reflect in our images. What is important, however, is that we are able to find a strong coherence between the philosophy we embrace and our conception of the world, our own way of approaching life and our personal intent at the moment of exploring a certain concept with the help of a camera.

Rafael Rojas