Kyoto Story

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Recently I was asked to write about an experience I've had with photography, as a precursor to an upcoming workshop I'm attending. This is what I came up with.


Early morning in Kyoto, Japan. I woke up around 4 am, nowhere near adjusted to the time difference and all too eager to see the morning light in the land of the rising sun. Passing taxi cabs forming meticulous rows at the bus station and legions of street cleaning crews, I headed out in search of coffee. It wasn't long until I spotted a little shop with a few weary eyed salarymen sipping coffee in the window. Wide-eyed and ready to explore my new surroundings I turned onto a street flanked by a thick stone wall on one side, behind which towered the high sloping rooftops of a temple complex. A few elderly patrons gathered outside the entrance began to stir as a bell sounded from within the complex and the heavy wooden doors opened slowly, revealing a passage back in time. I walked timidly through the gates, expecting to be stopped at any moment and politely told to turn back, but no such thing occurred.

The thick walls seemed to guard against time itself. The scaffolding covering one of the main buildings, was made of bamboo and rope, and a conservation team worked with wooden mallets and hand saws. I spent a few minutes walking around the pristinely manicured grounds before approaching one of the other buildings. I could feel cool air faintly emanating from the entrance as the sun had already started to warm the air around me. Again I hesitated at the threshold, peering into the dark cavernous interior of a large room. As my eyes adjusted, I could see a few people scattered about sitting on the floor and a huge altar on a stage at the far side of the room. Momentarily, a man sitting near the stage met my eyes and smiled as he motioned enthusiastically for me to come and sit by him. I took my shoes off and arranged them neatly next to the others by the entrance and kneeled down next to the man. I had not yet raised my camera once inside the complex, and now took it off my shoulder and placed it squarely in front of me on the floor. The man said something to me that I did not understand, but his hushed and easy tone was comforting and it soon became obvious what he wanted me to witness.

Almost as soon as I laid down my camera more bells sounded, followed by a pure silence. The dull hammering sounds of the construction outside, and even the birds, all seemed to fall completely silent. A moment later, a procession of monks dressed in colourful robes emerged from recessed archways on either side of the altar carrying incense, bells, and other objects. A spectacular array of prayers, chants, rituals, and meditations unfolded in front of me and the handful of others in the room. Afterwards I turned to the man and thanked him for sharing this experience, bowing awkwardly as I did so. He nodded, with a hint of satisfaction written on his face, and I left the temple ruminating on this experience. Experiencing this kind of connection and understanding, without a shared language, is uniquely satisfying. And yet I hadn’t taken a single picture of this event, and for a brief moment I wondered if I had failed as a photographer.

Over time I have come to recognize these impromptu experiences as one of the most important aspects of my work, whether I get a shot or not. Simply by leaving space to allow these moments to happen, and accepting when they don’t, is a critical exercise in observation, awareness, and patience. And like meditation to a monk, it is an ongoing practice.