Stoicism and Photography
Although Stoicism is intended to support a life of fulfillment, a lot can be learned from it and applied in other ways. In fact, Stoicism is more so concerned with intent rather than outcome when it comes to actions. Modern definitions of stoic refer to enduring discomfort or hardship while remaining calm, even-keeled, showing no emotion, and without complaint. You may have heard the idea of a stoic warrior. Most would agree this appears in keeping with the general public’s perceptions of ideal members of the military.
I toyed with the idea of discussing Stoicism in relation to the military as well as photography, but it would have resulted in an extremely long post. So, although this post is mostly about Stoicism and how it can apply to photography there are a few military elements as well. However, further understanding of the Stoic philosophy, beyond standard definitions, is vital to comprehending more of this concept.
Stoicism was founded c. 300 B.C.E. in Athens. The original stoic philosophers met in the open market, Stoa Poikile (painted porch), to discuss and teach Stoicism. It eventually made its way to Rome where the philosophy thrived.
Nowadays, when we think of Stoicism, we generally think of two of the most famous Stoic philosophers – the Roman philosopher Seneca and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Seneca was responsible for an abundance of writing that became important for the basis of ancient stoicism. Marcus Aurelius’ popular contribution to Stoicism, Meditations, contains his personal ideas on the stoic philosophy. These personal writings were intended to help him reflect, act as guidance and assist in self-improvement.
Yet another well-known Stoic philosopher was Epictetus. The Greek philosopher, came to Rome as a child slave, and studied Stoicism under Musonius Rufus, another famous Stoic philosopher of Rome. Epictetus lived in Rome until he was banished and spent the rest of his life in Nicopolis in Greece.
Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: Not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always take full not of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating herself as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.
Foundations of Stoicism
Ancient stoicism is based on three topoi (areas of examination): physics, logic, and ethics. These terms were viewed in a broader scope when compared with today.
1. Physics – Physics essentially revolved around understanding how the world works. This incorporated all the natural sciences, metaphysics, and theology.
2. Logic – Logic concerned itself with formal logic, but also informal reasoning, rhetoric, and elements of psychology and cognitive science. In essence, it focused on anything in regards how to develop strong reason.
3. Ethics – Lastly, the wide definition of ethics included more than just right and wrong. It included how to live a fulfilled life. One that is worth living.
The three topoi were considered interdependent. Moreover, physics and logic were the groundwork for ethics. In ordered to obtain a strong understanding of ethics, it was believed to be necessary to have a good understanding of physics and logic. It is necessary to understand the world and how to reason well, in order to understand how to live a good life.
The three topoi of Stoic theory give way to further Stoic concepts that are more for practical application.
General Ideas of Stoicism
Obviously, this is all a general overview of Stoicism. It should be further understood that, beyond translation from Greek to modern English, the concepts were likely stretched by Stoics to adhere to and explain their philosophy. Additionally, these are only a single perspective of virtue and clearly not definitive.
The Four Cardinal Virtues
The virtues of Stoicism promote self-improvement, but Stoicism is not self-centered. Furthermore, it would be wrong to assume Stoicism takes a passive stance. This perception of passivity can be a misleading assumption based on misunderstanding of Stoicism. I would assume it stems from the common usage definition of the word Stoic, which was mentioned before. It brings to mind an idea of “do nothing, just grin and bear it.” However, the personal development is seen as necessary on the basis that only people with virtue and self-control can bring about change in others.
Practiced Wisdom – The ability to address complex situations in a logical, informed, and calm manner. It includes an understanding of what is good for you and what is not. It’s possible that the virtue of practiced wisdom was seen as a connection to the logic topoi.
Temperance – Self-restraint and moderation in all aspects of life. It is the avoidance of not only overdoing, but also underdoing. Temperance can be seen in connection with physics.
Courage – To face daily physical and moral challenges with clarity and integrity. Courage, along with temperance, may have been connected with the topic of physics.
Justice – In general, this is how we interact with others. To treat others and act with fairness, even when experiencing wrongdoing. To know the difference between right and wrong and to have the courage to act appropriately. Justice might have been perceived to be in correlation to the topic of ethics.
The Dichotomy of Control
The dichotomy of control is one of the main Stoic tenets. It promotes the concept that certain things are up to us and can be controlled by us, whereas other things are completely out of our control. According to Epictetus, “Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, our reputation, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”
Now, there are things we can do to influence the things out of our power (such as body, property, and reputation), but much of the final result is out of our control. We still get sick, grow old, and die. A tree falls on our car or a tsunami destroys our home. And no matter what we do there is no guarantee people will like us.
The dichotomy of control urges us to worry about the things we can control since so much in this world is out of our control. It promotes internalizing our goals and not being laser focused on outcomes, which so many of us are focused on today. With so many outcomes being out of our control, focusing on our intentions and our individual efforts offers freedom and power.
There is a stoic analogy about an archer, but given my background we will modify it slightly for a sniper.
A sniper can choose his rifle. He can craft it lovingly with the best parts, he can spend hours practicing and improving his skills, he can load his own ammunition, physically and mentally prepare for combat and he can care for his rifle. He can adjust the scope factor the environment into the shot (By observing the effect of wind on grass, trees, bushes, debris and heat mirages we estimate and speed and direction of wind at the target location).
But, for a long range shot (and more applicable for an archer), as soon as the trigger is squeezed and the bullet leaves the muzzle break, the round is no longer in his control. Strong gusts of wind can push the round or the target might simply move.
As you can see, some things are under the sniper’s control, the preparation and the execution of his abilities. Other things are not in his control. What matters is how he controls the controllable and how he reacts or adjusts to the uncontrollable. Hitting the target is no guarantee. What matters is not that you hit the target, but that you work to become an expert sniper. Being an expert does not guarantee success, but it provides you the best opportunity for success if fate should go your way. Of course, as a sniper you better hit the target…
If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hinderance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.
Three Disciplines of Stoicism
According to the French philosopher and historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot, Stoic philosophy was described as as “living according to nature” or “living harmoniously.” The three disciplines were intended to provide a way to practically apply Stoicism and live a harmonious life.
The Enchiridion, a condensed version of the teachings of Epictetus, describes the three disciplines of Stoicism.
1. The Discipline of Desire – Hadot surmised the goal of this discipline as the loving acceptance of one’s fate. It is in practical notion within the topic of physics. This acceptance of fate was summarized in Enchiridion, “Seek not for events to happen as you with but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely.”
2. The Discipline of Action – This discipline revolves around the idea of philanthropy or the love of mankind and coincides with the topic of ethics. According to Stoicism, virtue is the one true good that, in and of itself, can lead to a good life and fulfillment. The four virtues above would be seen as virtues applicable to the discipline of action. Moreover, it is because of discipline of action that Stoics do not necessarily sit idly by and watch fate determine everything. However, in wishing well for others, and attempting to act in support of others, there is still a Stoic acceptance that others’ wellbeing is out of their control. Therefore, Stoics do their best to act in a virtuous manner, but remain somewhat detached from the result, whether it be success or failure.
3. The Discipline of Assent – The third discipline covers mindfulness of our judgements and is a practical application of the topic of logic. Hadot considers this discipline the “inner citadel” as it requires continual awareness of the true self, which is responsible for judgement and action, and therefore, virtue and a good life. Hadot saw this as the virtue of living in harmony with our own nature as rational beings, to live in accordance with reason and truthfulness in our thoughts and speech.
I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will hake my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.
Stoicism: Photography and Beyond
Obviously, we have only scratched the surface of Stoicism. Nonetheless, it does provide us something to work off as we discuss what can be applied to photography and why. Hopefully, the following sections will give you something to think about for photography. Ideally, they will help beyond photography as well.
Preparation and the Dichotomy of Control
As discussed, the dichotomy of control (DOC) suggests there are things that are in our control and out of our control. Understanding that is further basis for increasing our knowledge and as well as bettering ourselves. Bettering ourselves in a form of preparation.
There are several stoic exercises that can help develop a stoic mind. One exercise is called negative visualization. The exercise is simple. It entails imagining how you would feel in various situations of loss in your life. For example, this could be imaging the passing of a loved one, loss of your home or other, and even all, possessions, or loss of physical or mental abilities. Simply consider no longer having or being in a lesser condition or state that you are currently. Just consider this occasionally, not constantly.
One benefit of this is to develop a sense of gratitude for not currently needing to endure those loses. Additionally, it prepares you for potential situations and realities of loss. What are the potential things that could go wrong in life? How would you react, adjust, and handle such a situation? Would you be able to overcome and can you plan for it? How much of it is actually in your control?
In the long term, it can also help you realize that things aren’t as bad as they could be. You can always imagine a worse situation than your current state, even after loss. This supports a mindset to help you overcome future misfortunes. Understanding this “could be worse” mentality brings perspective and peacefulness in our lives in the current state.
The body cannot go where the mind has not gone first.
– Brain Germain
In the military and working in the counter-terrorism field, we use a similar visualization methods. We visualize our actions and how we would react in certain situations. Visualization and mental rehearsal/repetition is also a popular technique in sports. Mental rehearsal is about imaging yourself performing an activity perfectly. In the my former professions, we utilized the technique in various forms. Visualizations could be of quickly drawing a weapon from a concealed holster to engage a threat. Or something larger like conducting mental repetitions of responsibilities for clearing a building (ideally based on having physically practiced in a pre-constructed kill-house, or something of the sort, before hand) containing threats and potential hostages. We also imagined how we would react in certain situations, in order to mentally prepare ourselves.
The DOC, negative visualization, and mental rehearsal can help you succeed. Consider the potential issues that may arise when you are shooting. Understand what is in your control and within your ability to address issues if they arise. If what might occur is out of your control, what can you do to adjust and to the situation.
For example, perhaps you are planning a wedding shoot. When you arrive there might be another couple at your planned location. How would you adjust to this situation? It might not be the best idea to have your clients standing around waiting. Maybe you want to have some small filler ideas, to wait for that perfect location to open up. Or what happens if your lighting kit fails you? Do you have some a back up or ideas to work without a kit?
Anticipation of problems helps to mentally prepare you to react and react according to still get your shot. In the most simplest form it ensures you have the necessary equipment to get the job done. The DOC also urges you to become an expert at your craft. Understand your equipment and the technical skills required to allow yourself the freedom to be creative.
Never Stop Learning
The Stoic areas of examination, physics and logic, call for a continual and diverse pursuit of knowledge. It begs for you to satiate your curiosity. Knowledge and understanding is vital to Stoicism. We cannot implement logic without well-rounded knowledge. Furthermore, Logic influences how we comprehend this knowledge.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on perspective, the pursuit of knowledge is a never ending process. As Socrates said, according to Plato, “I know that I know nothing.” This notion was mirrored by Einstein asserting, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Education should never end. To cease educating yourself is to succumb to arrogance.
The same goes for photography. Never stop learning. Enjoy and analyze the work of others. Consider their techniques and what elements you think work or don’t work. There is also something you can learn to apply to your work. It might be from another photographer, who could be more or less experienced than you. It could also be from something completely unrelated to photography, as often discussed in this blog, such as Buddhist philosophy, Marine snipers, or anything else that interests you. You might learn knew skills or develop new visions and perspectives for your work. If anything, you might learn what you don’t care to implement. There is always something to take away.
This is in the same category of increasing your knowledge. In the Marines, we submit after action reports (AAR) immediately following operations. Perhaps I will cover this in more detail in the future. For I’ll just say that the intent is to better understand what happened, why it happened, sustain strengths, and improve on weaknesses. While visualization and mental rehearsal focus on the building proper actions and reactions, this is learning from your, and others’, actions and reactions.
While writing a full report is overkill for photography, writing things down in a journal or at least contemplating things is beneficial for your growth. Writing things down can keep you more honest. We are less prone to lie to ourselves if there is something physical in front our us.
Consider the intent of an AAR:
1. What things occurred throughout while taking photos?
2. Why did some of those things happen?
3. Were the things that happened, both in and out of your control, beneficial or detrimental? How so? How did you act and react?
4. What were some of the things that didn’t go as well as you would have liked? How can you improve on your actions and reactions to try to get better results in the future? Did your visualization and mental preparation better prepare you and could you have been better prepared?
Although we could more in-depth by digging into AARs and military leadership this general information is enough to help and it’s in keeping with Stoic ideals. Understand your strengths and your weaknesses. Adjust accordingly. Play to your strengths and when you must face a weakness in the future you should be better prepared.
Balance and Restraint
Part of Stoicism is about balance. It’s about finding cohesion between the acceptance of fate and the controllable, while at the same time acting wisely and with a sense of justice. It’s about balance between acceptance and action in order to live in harmony.
The Stoic virtues of temperance and practiced wisdom and the discipline of desire suggests living life with balance and restraint. We also learned that various forms of reflection can provide better understanding of importance and actual need. The act of reflection is in some ways an acceptance of imperfection (previously discussed in Appreciating Imperfection) as well as awareness of the DOC. This again leads us on a path of balance.
In Stoicism ideas of moderation and self-restraint extend to both the emotional and physical. This can be applied in a few ways for photography.
Don't Be Overly Attached
So since we have practiced negative visualization we have considered the possibility of having less photographic equipment to work with. We are prepared for this situation. Having more is great and not necessarily against the idea of Stoicism, but not having them is just the same. We are indifferent in regards to worldly possessions. This includes having the ideal lens, perfect camera body, or astounding lighting set up. Having or not having makes no difference in ones happiness and well-being.
From time to time, leave some equipment at home. Work with the basics and force yourself to be creative and overcome challenges. Find new ways to accomplish your goals and work with what you have. Focus on what you have, don’t focus on what you don’t have. That will make it even easier when you have the rest of your equipment.
This Includes Your Work
Don’t be overly attached to, or concerned with, your photos and work process. Accept what you have. Appreciate it. Enjoy it. But remember moderation.
This is also about reflection. Marcus Aurelius was a fan of it. So, why not try it out? Be critical of your work and the mistakes you made. Learn to adjust. How you can improve on that or tweak things to accomplish these with more efficiency? This is how you better yourself to do everything in your control to face fate. Don’t be overly critical. Accept the flaws as opportunities for adjustment and improvement. On the other hand, don’t be so enamored by your work that you lose yourself to arrogance and limit yourself. If you are overly attached to your work, you hinder development. You close yourself off to adjustment and improvement. There is always something new to explore and avenues from which to grow.
A great deal can be learned from Stoicism, even if you rather not accept it in its entirety. Take what works for you and apply it to life and photography. These photography based suggestions are just a few of the ones I’ve considered, but there are plenty more applications.
If you’re interested, I suggest learning a bit more about Stoicism and coming up with your practical applications. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a popular read. The other two go to books would be Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus and Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. You may also want to consider reading or listening to some stuff by Tim Ferris, as he has claimed Stoicism has been influential in his success and discuss these ideas fairly often. If you come up with some ideas you’d like to share feel free to leave them in the comment section below.
Also, If you’d like to share some of your photos, tag me on Instagram, @ted_stanton_photography.
Lastly, check out my free ebook, 5 Unique Photo Challenges, for some inspiration. Sign up for the Photography Insight Journal using the form at the bottom of the page to receive the link to download a copy.
1 thought on “Stoicism and Photography”
This is a fascinating exploration of how Stoicism has influenced your photography and your philosophy of life. You think much deeper than most photographers. The way you relate your photography to your experience as a sniper in the US Marines is as thoughtful as some of the best literature to come out of warfare, works like The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. You have developed a deep understanding of Buddhism. The way you relate Buddhism to western philosophy, as you do here with Stoicism, has deeply influenced your photography. Thank you for sharing your insights.
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