Priest and photographer Steve Radley explains why the camera and smartphone are deeply spiritual and talks about his mission to persuade a nation of visual storytellers to pause before they snap…
STOP PRESS: Steve just won the Amateur Photographer Unsung Hero Award for his contemplative photography work.
Sitting opposite me, the policeman who would be taking me on my first advanced motorcycling lesson was chatting about things to remember. “Always concentrate”, he said. “Some motorcyclists will tell you they cannot remember riding a section of road, they are so in tune with their bike and familiar with the road – that’s dangerous!”
He went on to tell me that to stay alive you had to notice everything and a good way to do this was a running commentary in your mind. “Car at junction, positioning to the centre line away from danger;” “catching up the vehicle ahead, moving down a gear and decelerating ready for a swift pass after the bend.”
The reality is many of us go through life without noticing what is around us. How many of us remember every detail of that dash to catch the bus, or the walk to the post box this morning or the feeling of water on our skin as we showered? Our minds are co-conspirators in this lack of awareness, often urging us to think about the future or dwelling on the past.
When we fail to notice the present moment, we miss out on life. All we have is the present because, lacking a time machine, we cannot live in the past or future. Rushing through life means we fail to notice the rhythms of nature; the bird song in the trees; the beauty of the flower pushing up through a crack in the pavement; the love of a friend or partner. And God is a God of the present so when we miss these things, we miss a myriad of opportunities to encounter God.
But I believe through the digital camera, God in their loving kindness has given us a way back to encounter them. We have become a nation of visual story tellers through our posts on social media, and when we create an image, we are being present to what is happening around us. Like St Paul, who understood the spirituality behind what people were doing when he spoke on the altar to the unknown God, this gives us an opportunity to help people explore their spirituality, what it means to be alive. That camera and smartphone are deeply spiritual.
I started exploring contemplative photography when I left the military five years ago during study for a diploma in professional photography. My direction was shaped through the CMS Make Good course and I branded these ideas as ‘Soulful Vision’ last year.
Leading retreats and running workshops, I aim to take something we all do, take pictures, and through some mindful and photographic exercises help people move from: that’s nice – snap to: that’s nice – PAUSE – snap. I believe it is within the pause we encounter life in all its fullness, and it’s where we can learn about ourselves and our interdependence on others and nature. Both the taking and the sharing of images has the potential to build relationships which is so desperately needed in society. Living in the present is the only place we can find hope for the future.
I don’t pretend the journey has been easy. I have been racked by doubt on many occasions – wondering if I should do something ‘more normal!’ But I have been blessed by the support of friends and family and an amazing wife. Through this journey into contemplative photography I have found healing from some of my own experiences of war.
You can hear a little more about my journey in this webinar on Post Traumatic Growth I gave to the Guild of Photographers, where I’m a members’ ambassador.