Yesterday I attended a philosophy lecture by Britni Weaver-Forsman who was speaking on the stoic philosophy of Epictetus. As I listened to the presentation it resonated deeply with what I have come to know for myself in wisdom won through experience. Her presentation was a lecture I would give to my younger self about having the wisdom to know the difference between what is in your control and what is not.
What really caught my attention was the discussion of how to achieve cognitive distance from a problem. The application of stoic philosophy in one’s lives allows the person to separate what is not in their control and focus on what is. Stoicism is the foundation of the serenity prayer and key contributor to cognitive behavior psychology.
I don’t want to go into the details of stoic philosophy and psychology. Suffice it to say I think any individual who is a seeker of wisdom will go on a journey from existential crisis to happiness via the same timeless path Epictetus, Augustine, and Nitzche walked. It is a journey of self discovery and mastery of one’s cognitive processes to recognize what is in your control and what is not. In many ways the stoics, taoists, zen buddhists, and transcendentalist have a lot in common in the way they advocate for the removal of unnecessary suffering caused by external factors beyond our control. It is a process that lets go of a need for control and moves towards acceptance and eventually to gratitude.
Where all this ties into photography in a profound way for me is how I have intuitively adopted a stoic mindset about photography. When asked what the purpose of my photography is I have historically responded by saying, “My work intends to create a philosophical gap for self-reflection.”
What I realized is so correct about this description is really photography is a means of creating cognitive distance from the subject depicted in order to provide mental space to adopt a philosophical understanding of what it is we are looking at and an self examination of why.
Photojournalism and social documentary images allow us to think about what is of greatest civic need. Images of the landscape have inspired legislation to protect it. Images of loved one provide a path towards acceptance of faults and gratitude for the relationship we have with that person. Artistic images of the self can help us previsualize our future in a positive mindset that leads towards self mastery. Photography is philosophy put into practice.
Photography and all other mediums of art are really about making sense of the world. A sculpture commemorating the life of an astronaut killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia accident is a way to put in perspective the valuable contribution of their efforts and aspirations on behalf of all mankind. A sculpture creates cognitive distance to find a balance between the grief of death and the aspirations of flight that goes back to antiquity with the story of Icarus.
A philosophical gap is really the cognitive distance needed to view our lives with clarity and gratitude.