Without the beginner’s mindset, I would have missed the opportunity to capture a once in a lifetime photo.
Most people don’t practice The Beginner’s Mindset or comprehend its value in their daily lives, sadly especially the visual artist. People living next to a well-known photographic subject become desensitized, and the photographic impact seems to decrease in their perceptions because they are exposed to it often. Mt. Fuji is in my backyard, and I have photographed it at least 1,000 times. On each visit to Mt. Fuji, my aspiration is always to return to the wonderment I experienced when I first laid eyes on Japan’s largest active volcano during the golden hour as the sun rose in a pool of crimson and gold, spilling light over the peak, then enveloping magnificent Mt. Fuji.
I know that Mt. Fuji will never appear exactly the same due to how the light projected from the sun interacts with the particulate matter at different levels of atmosphere surrounding the earth, from the Exosphere all the way to the Troposphere. The hues, saturations, contrast, and sharpness are ever-changing and essentially infinite, so my perspective stays fresh. As the zen master, D.T. Suzuki said, “I like zen because everything is zen.” A beginner sees myriad possibilities in each theme and pursuit, so that is the mindset I bring to each project I participate in, and I hope for the same from other visual artists that I work with. For my students, however, I understand that the paradoxes created by the Beginner’s Mindset requires time to grasp fully. Many colleagues and fellow photographers feverishly hold onto their pride and feel that because they are “professional” photographers, they know the best expression of a theme and therefore limit the potential of the photographic subject. As an instructor of the visual arts, I feel this is a catastrophic mistake.
Japan is a place I never thought I would call home. My career has taken me to every continent. Some of my favorite locations are in: Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, Israel, and the South Pacific. However, while on sabbatical in Banff, Canada, I met my future wife Manami. Our first date was a hike on a chilly day, and I asked her if she had a Goretex jacket, but she didn’t. I walked into my sponsor’s storefront, and immediately ‘procured’ a Hansen jacket that was just her size, and off we went. We traveled together for a year and then settled in Manami’s hometown. Now, after 20 years, I understand the beauty and appeal of Land of the Rising Sun. Part of my affection for Japan stems from my bride, Manami, who introduced me to the essence of this magical land. As an amateur historian and sociologist, the uniqueness of Japan’s past captured my heart and soul, bonding me to the society and culture that is now a part of me. This society has embraced me, and I am no longer a visitor; I have recast myself as a cultural hybrid, always updating my identity with the rich cultural information from the past into the present, and, invariably, the future.
Returning to Japan’s iconic peak, Mt. Fuji has much to teach my fellow professional photographers and me. Yet when I say ‘professional’ about myself, I always say it with a grain of salt. Professional is such a loaded term. Unfortunately, in order to work in the field of photography and lead expeditions in Japan and all over the world, I need to refer to myself in that fashion. Also, among my peers, we call ourselves professional photographers because we have spent years honing our craft and acquiring experience. On many different assignments in Japan and across the world, the title professional fits as a testimony to our dedication to constantly improving our knowledge of the visual arts, our medium the DSLR, mirrorless, film, large format, etc. However, while I was on a photography expedition a few years ago, with a respected mentor and master photographer, Jim Zuckerman, showed me that Mt. Fuji still has much to teach. For the first time on my hundreds of outings to Mt. Fuji, I was able to photograph a “Guardian Dragon” (as you can see in the image below) was paying us a visit. It warily approached over a fifteen-minute period, as its protean form seemingly elongated to reveal the majesty of its true form, until it was precisely where I needed it to be. It seemed to me, Jim, and our group that the dragon was ceremoniously bowing to Fujisan as is the custom or it was hovering at the precise distance to check the mountain’s volcanic activity.
Without the beginner’s mindset, I would have missed the opportunity to capture a once in a lifetime photo. Part of the mindset is being prepared for any contingency. Having a narrowly set domain of expectations, it is easy to overlook essential elements of photography even as a professional. With that in mind, I always have 2 or 3 camera bodies with lens’ fitted due to weather conditions and fogging when changing lenses. For this blue hour photo op, I had prepared two bodies. One had the 14 – 24 mm; the other had the 24 – 105 mm. It is only because I approached Mt. Fuji with a beginner’s mindset, not knowing what the golden hour would bring, that I packed that lens to take the picture of Mt. Fuji with its cloudy custodian. My colleagues and clients packed a 24 – 105 mm or something similar depending on the type of lens they were using, leaving their wide angle lens in the vehicle or back at the hotel. Because the Beginner’s Mindset is such a complex concept to digest, only one photographer beside myself in our group was prepared because she double-checked with me about what equipment I was preparing for the sunrise photo op at Mt. Fuji. Everyone else ignored my pleas to prepare a wide angle lens just in case. Afterward, when everyone compared pictures of the same event, my photos and my prepared client had the Japanese dragon on full display, but Jim’s did not. He asked me after the day was over: “You used the 14 – 24 mm lens, didn’t you?” All I could do was smile and say, “Yes, yes, I did.” I never know what I will encounter on my photo ops, so I prepare with the expectation that anything is possible. When I go out on tours, I bring my 14 – 24 mm, 35mm f1.8, 24 – 105 mm, 120 – 300 mm with 1.4x and 2x teleconverter, 800 mm, a 105 mm micro with extension tubes, a flash with a better beamer, and two very sturdy tripods, a Gitzo with a gimbal head for wildlife and a Uniqball UBH 45XC ballhead with x-cross clamp paired with a IQUICK3POD 36.4 tripod. And the last and most important thing I bring on each photographic expedition is the beginner’s mindset.
Observing the Beginner’s Mindset means dispelling misguided, preconceived notions…
My camera of choice, but not choice, rather sponsored, is Nikon from the days past when I first visited the snow monkeys in Nagano. However, the preconceived notions of the Japanese Snow Monkeys always set me ill at ease. Photographers or tourists have ideas primarily crafted from the narrowly defined results of internet searches. Most of my fellow photographers visiting for the first time expect to see snow monkeys striking zen-like poses as they calmly soak in the rejuvenating waters of the hot springs. This expectation is the first mistake and requires a strengthening of the Beginner’s Mindset. The disappointment or shock can be avoided by reformulating the photographer’s mindset. Before I embark on any photo op with friends or clients, I describe the location and the photographic subject in detail using photos showing what conditions will most likely be, as well as digital maps and layouts of the location. In ideal conditions, the photo op of the zen-like posing monkeys that the clients are hoping to take is possible, but I am very clear with clients and students that in order to meet their expectations, the climate, as well as many other factors, have to be functioning in complete harmony. Without the correct preparation or mindset, a photographer may feel dissatisfied with the pictures he took and will need another day with a fresh perspective. For these reasons, I tend to spend more than one day photographing the snow monkeys or any other subject or scene. Observing the Beginner’s Mindset means dispelling misguided, preconceived notions and photographing the snow monkeys with the goal of capturing them in their natural environment and treasuring the small window of opportunity that a visitor to Japan has. Again, when people allow their expectations, not reality to guide them on a Photography Expedition, it is a catastrophic mistake.
Another example of the Beginner’s Mindset manifested as I was photographing snow monkeys. In this case, it was of a personal nature. A young woman, not in any way connected to my photography workshop group I was co-leading, struck up a conversation and started asking questions about photography and how to make the most of her experience with the snow monkeys. Our first exchange occurred over 30 minutes as we sat poolside while she took photos with her smartphone.
Our dialogue continued through many different topics, and she mentioned that she was on layover working as a Cathay-Pacific Business Class cabin attendant, so she decided to visit the snow monkeys. We exchanged business cards, as is the custom. She was a prototypical cabin attendant, tall, beautiful, elegant, and clearly educated. Everyone remarked on her attributes, including my lovely wife, Manami. I learned that the cabin attendant also had the same misguided expectations of snow monkeys before she arrived. I became a person of interest for her because, due to my years of experience with the snow monkeys, I know all the best locations to sit and wait for the perfect photo opportunity. During a brief pause in the conversation, we realized we had a young primate visitor. A snow monkey only a few months old had decided to visit us and sat within arm’s reach of the both of us. Suddenly, many people started to try and crowd behind us, but because of our strategic location at the intersection of a rock wall and the hot spring, we were able to preserve the zen of the moment for ourselves. Several people in the party, including my co-leader, inserted their own expectations into my personal conversation. We were just two individuals sharing an exceptional moment in experiencing the Beginner’s Mindset. No one expected the baby snow monkey to be unattended and that close. Eventually, the mother returned to collect her young, and our conversation naturally came to a close.
As my co-leader and I walked down the hill from the hot springs area, a 1.6-kilometer return course, another example of the need for The Beginner’s Mindset appeared. By coincidence, as we were descending, the same young woman matched our pace and started to continue our previous conversation, asking, “May I join you down the hill?” Without even thinking, I replied, “Sure.” I was happy to talk to her again, as I felt that she had an open mind and was strictly interested in improving her photographic skill and mindset. My co-leader, however, was confused why a beautiful young lady was interested in talking to me, and he actively tried more than once to remove her from our conversation during our descent. His exact words escape me, but once we reached the end of the trail, the tenor of his reaction spoke volumes to me. I had invited the cabin attendant to join my wife and the rest of the group for hot tea, but it was at that moment, our paths diverged. Before we rejoined the group, my co-leader blurted out, “that was weird.” He continued expressing a negative vibe about the young woman’s desire to continue our interaction. The young woman and I exchanged email addresses, and we will probably meet in Dubai or Europe this year or the next. She has already booked a private photography workshop and has bought camera gear based on my recommendations. I wonder what surprises the blue hour and the snow monkeys will hold on our next adventure.
My mother would be proud that I continued my lessons from my childhood in Northern Canada, where my education in The Beginner’s Mindset began. My family spent two months of every summer canoeing in the backcountry of Northern Canada; our provisions were airlifted in once or twice during that time. In the autumn and spring, my father would take the family to meet up with polar bears and killer whales. African Jungles, deserts, and rain forests; South and Central America, the South Pacific, Asia, and every continent all carry a special place in my heart and mind. My family, my friends, my colleagues, my Buddhist mentors, and virtually every interaction with emotion has taught me what D.T. Suzuki put into words: “Everything is zen,” yet I know I still have much to learn. My team and I believe that every location warrants a re- examination or more in-depth exploration in the paradox that is the Beginner’s Mindset.
Written by Blain Harasymiw & Matthew Diaz
Blain is doing his very best to help Matthew understand the Beginner’s Mindset while they chase the light across Japan. They are working together providing photography tours/workshops and collaborating on commercial photography projects throughout Japan and globally, but Japan is home base. They also mediate for companies around the world who are interested into entering the Japanese market.