What Buddha teaches us about Street Photography

I happen to believe that one of the great teachings of all time comes from Buddha and is called The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which forms the basic beliefs and is the foundation of what we know today as Buddhism. Now, don’t worry, I’m not getting all religious here; I just happen to think that The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path provide a really good foundation to living a good and happy life, as well as a powerful and rewarding set of guiding principles for my work in Social Documentary and Street Photography

My initial idea was to ‘translate’ the whole of the teachings into street photography terms, jargon and make it a bit ‘clever’.  but then I thought that would be trivializing something too important. What I would rather do is present a brief commentary on the teachings here so we can reflect on how they might apply to our life and our work.

We often read about the ‘Zen of Street Photography’, and ‘getting into a Zen like state’ when photographing on the street. I guess all I want to do here is lay a foundation on which we might be able to build an approach to the work, and to our lives.

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path was taught by the Buddha about 2500 years ago and as I mentioned is really the core or essence of Buddhist teachings. And the great thing about this teaching is that there is nothing in it that anyone on a sincere spiritual quest would object to. I should say at this point I am not a Buddhist; I am a Humanist. But as a Humanist, I am at liberty to ‘borrow’ teachings that resonate and help me in some way.

Anyway, here are The Four Noble Truths:

Life is suffering. Essentially this means just what it says: all of us suffer.

The cause of suffering is desire. Or to be more precise, it is the attachment to desire, the clinging, that causes the suffering. This truth really means that it is the attachment to wanting things to be other than they are that is the cause. A trivial example might be a person who ‘desperately wants’ a new car just like their friend’s, but can’t afford one. The more s/he wants the car, the more suffering there is. Of course as I say, this is trivial but familiar to most of us I think.

It is possible to end suffering. In other words you can learn to let go of attachments.

The way to end suffering is to follow the Eightfold Path. This really is a list of precepts, or what you could call ‘guides to living’ that can help us to let of of the clinging, the attachments. Here they are:

  1. Right Understanding. This is where you learn about the nature of reality or life. You seek to discover the truth in all things.
  2. Right Aspiration. You make a commitment to live in a way that will help you end your suffering. Aspiration is different than the desire or clinging mentioned in the Noble Truths in that as you aspire to something, you are not attached to the outcome.
  3. Right Effort. Really this is another way of saying, just do it. Whatever ‘it’ is. And don’t make excuses.
  4. Right Speech. Speak the truth all the time. But do so in a helpful and compassionate way.
  5. Right Conduct. This is about living a life that is consistent with your values. Not easy for any of us, of course, but that’s where Right Aspiration and Right Effort come in.
  6. Right Livelihood. We all need to work to make money in order to live. Right Livelihood is about finding a way to do this that doesn’t hurt other living beings.
  7. Right Mindfulness. Living and being in the moment as much as you can. Recognize the value or significance of every moment.
  8. Right Concentration. This one is about expanding our consciousness through meditation. We don’t have to learn to sit cross-legged, or chant mantras (though it has to be said these can be useful tools). Meditation can take many forms: sitting and reflecting on your day; walking quietly with an open mind and heart in nature. Or for those of us who are street photographers, we can do the same in the busy streets of a city. Right Concentration is really about quieting the mind, opening the heart and finding a still place within.


And that’s it. It all seems pretty simple and straightforward when you see it written like this. But, it is the work of a lifetime (or the Buddhists would say, many lifetimes) to even come close to achieving that elusive end to suffering. The key is to aspire, to try. And to follow the Eightfold Path as closely as we can. And importantly, to not worry if we don’t quite live up to them all. After all, if you think about it, that’s an attachment to an outcome and is of course the cause of the suffering in the first place.

I’ve presented this short commentary because I find The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path are great guidelines to think about and act upon when I am able. I try to always have them in mind.

As for their role in my work, well, here I can mention Right Aspiration. I aspire to apply all the guidelines of The Eightfold Path when I am photographing on the street—and afterwards too as I edit and post my photos and when I write about them. On the street and at the computer I always try to be in the moment, with an open mind and heart. I try to not have expectations and to just be available to receive. Knowledge of The Four Noble Truths and following The Eightfold Path is really about the effort to achieve precisely that I think.

Does it work? Yes. Well, sometimes it’s possible to get a glimmer of that ‘Zen like state’ we read about; just sometimes I reach that state of being fully present in the moment and in exactly the place I’m in. But, of course it quite often doesn’t work. But, hey, I’m only human and not quite a Buddha just yet!


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