“We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.”Ralph Hattersley
What would happen if you conducted an experiment that combined the best thinking around the psychological benefits of photography, insight from growing research about practices in gratitude, and the age-old human intrigue of collecting things? How about a 10-day personal experiment that is at the intersection of these three?
Gratitude is a hot topic in positive psychology, particularly when it comes to looking at simple practices that can sometimes drastically improve a person’s mood and sense of well-being. One practice, described by Martin Seligman in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, involves ending your day by writing down three things that well well, and why they went well. The benefits of this short and simple daily ritual make it a compelling experiment for anyone interested in cultivating optimism and combatting negative thinking. Of course, there are many other practices related to gratitude that also boost positive thinking. Each of them draw back to a central practice, namely setting aside time to acknowledge and think about what is going well in our lives, or about that for which we are grateful.
The psychology of collecting is a lesser known but equally fascinating body of research. Why are so many people compelled to collect items? While there are concerns about the dark side of collecting, as evidenced by hoarding, a compulsion to control, and the need to objectify, there is also a beautiful side to collecting. On the positive side, collecting taps into a sense of adventure and the experience of discovering something new. When we are choosing what to include and what not to include in a collection, we are drawn into deeper thinking and reflection. Beyond this, collecting gives us a concrete means of remembering and connecting to things and experiences that are important to us. And for those who collect with others, there is the sense of connection, community, and camaraderie.
More recently, there is increased interest in the practice of what some refer to as mindful photography. As the name suggests, this is the practice of combining mindfulness with taking pictures. Be mindful of the world around you. Pay particular attention to color, texture, people’s faces, or the influence of wind upon the visible world. As you see and recognize, capture it in a photograph.
By blending these three growing areas of research and practice, I came up with the idea of a simple 10-day life experiment called “The Gratitude Photo Challenge.” If you enjoy photography (or want to explore it) and you are interested in connecting with more positive things in your life, this might be the experiment for you.
- To get started, you don’t need to know anything about photography, nor do you need expensive equipment (but I do include some tips at the bottom of this article). Use what you have, whether it is your mobile phone or whatever other camera might be in your home. As Chase Jarvis is quoted as saying, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.”
- Next, you are committing to a 10-day daily search for 3 daily pictures. You can take more, but your goal is a minimum of 3 every day. Each picture should represent something for which you are grateful. This might be as straightforward as a photo of an item that you value, one or more people in your life, or a beautiful view in nature. You might also think of something more abstract, perhaps you are grateful for a hobby, a job, the gift of life, weekends, your freedom, or some inspiring story or idea. Regardless, your task is to take a picture that captures or represents that for which you are grateful.
- You might want to quickly record what you were thinking about when you took each picture, just in case it slips your mind later in the experiment.
- At the end of each day, take a couple minutes to review your pictures, remembering why you took each one, and why you are grateful for whatever it is that the picture represents.
- Repeat this practice for 10 days, but at the end of each day, you will not only revisit the picture from the present day. You will also review the ones from before. Take your time with this. Savor the pictures. Share them with others.
- At the end of the 10 days, you are going to curate and organize your final collection. You can print them out and put them in a traditional photo album, or even attach them to a poster, making a collage of your gratitude collection. For the more digitally-minded, you can turn them into a simple presentation, a video, a photo essay on your blog, or a stream of images on your favorite social media outlet. If some other way of collecting, organizing and arranging comes to mind, do that instead.
- In this final stage, it is fine and encouraged to curate. You will have a minimum of 30 pictures, so aim for a collection of your 15 favorite.
- Share your collection with one more more people, briefly explaining each picture and what it means to you.
- This is a personal exploration, not a formal scientific experiment, so if you want to put your own personal twist on this challenge, go for it.
- Are you feeling inhibited by your lack of knowledge about photography? Give yourself permission to experiment and learn by doing, but just to give you a few key ideas to keep in mind, here is an excellent starting point: 8 Tips for Any Photographer Using Any Camera. If you plan to use your iPhone, then the iPhone Photography School Website is a great place to start. Consider starting with A Beginner’s Guide to Incredible iPhone Photography. You can also sign up for their free iPhone photography tips via email. 11 Mobile Photography Tips over at Creativelive is also a fine place to start.
- While you can adjust the experiment, there are two important elements. The first is to capture at least three pictures every day, each of which represent something different for which you are grateful. By the end of the 10 days, you will have 30 pictures representing 30 different things that are important to you. The second critical element is to spend a couple minutes at the end of the day reviewing and reflecting on your pictures from the current and previous days. This is connected to past research on effective gratitude practices and will likely make a big difference in your experience.
- If step 7 is a barrier for you, no worries. Sharing your collection with others can be rich and meaningful, but even if you choose to keep it to yourself, you are almost certainly going to have a valuable experiment in the power of creating gratitude rituals in your life.
- If this is meaningful, maybe you want to continue it indefinitely, creating an ongoing collection of gratitude photos. Imagine this. If you repeated this daily practice for a year, you would have 1095 visual reminders of what is important to you in life. Now that would be a meaningful collection to pull out and ponder after a difficult day.
“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever. It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”Aaron Sisking