What if we stopped looking to new gear to make us better photographers and instead embarked on the difficult journey to master the medium?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately on the idea of mastery and what the path toward mastery looks like. The popular photography media and the non-stop buy-me messaging of the makers of the tools of our craft seem to imply it’s as simple as owning or, more specifically, buying the right gear. And the voices in photographic education aren’t helping, preferring tips, tricks and shoot-like-a-pro promises to the longer, harder journey of craft. It’s not an easy field in which to raise a voice in search of the latter.

What I’ve discovered is that the journey to mastery—and it is a path and not a destination—is cyclical. The road toward mastery, in any endeavor, takes us from unconscious incompetence (we don’t know what we don’t know) to conscious incompetence (suddenly we know just how much we don’t know) to conscious competence (we learn and acquire skills, but it takes conscious effort and awareness) and finally to unconscious competence (the state where most of us might call our skills intuitive). But it’s there at the point we might otherwise call mastery that we become aware, all over again, how much we have yet to learn. And we begin again, skipping that first stage.

Edward Weston once said, “The fact is that relatively few photographers ever master their medium. Instead they allow the medium to master them and go on an endless squirrel cage chase from new lens to new paper to new developer to new gadget, never staying with one piece of equipment long enough to learn its full capacities, becoming lost in a maze of technical information that is of little or no use since they don’t know what to do with it.”

As new cameras and lenses come faster and faster on the heels of advances in technology, it’s no wonder photographers are frustrated. Perhaps we’d do better to spend more time reading the wisdom of past masters, but we’re more likely to be found reading our camera manual. We struggle with the technology and just when we’ve gotten to the point where conscious competence is about to give way to unconscious competence, where we enter that state of creative process called “flow,” we sabotage our journey by buying a new camera, a new lens or whatever new shiny thing promises to make our photographs better, and we take several steps back.

Voices like Weston’s are getting harder and harder to hear. And that’s a shame because those other voices convincing us the newer gear will make better photographs are the voices making so many photographers so frustrated. How much further along would we be if we stuck to the gear we have gear, which, by the way, is light years ahead of what masters like Cartier-Bresson or Weston had and they didn’t seem to suffer—and instead spent our time working on those things that truly make better, more compelling photographs?

All of this came back to me hard recently. I spent 10 days photographing the Orthodox pilgrimage to Lalibela, Ethiopia, for Christmas; I followed that with January in East Africa, a 10-day safari in Kenya, and a couple weeks learning to dive in Zanzibar. With learning to dive came learning to make photographs underwater. Despite 25 years behind me as a photographer and a beautiful new camera in a technological marvel of waterproof housing, I was completely unprepared to take my gear below the surface and spent a couple days thrashing about in frustration before I recognized where I was all over again, in that place of beginning, that place of becoming aware of just how much I didn’t know.

The word “shoshin” describes a Zen concept that’s translated as “beginner’s mind.” It’s the internal posture of humility that gives birth to curiosity and patience on the road to mastery. In Zanzibar I was surprised by how long it took me to shake the frustration, and it only happened when I realized I’d left my beginner’s mind on the shore. Sure of myself and what I thought I knew, it shocked me to find myself unable to make a single decent photograph. What an astonishing new world it is to be 12 meters down surrounded by blue! I found it hard enough to remember to breathe and to avoid drifting into or stepping on anything that might poison me, lacerate me or eat me—never mind make a photograph while doing so.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is give up, and that’s where I think I’m going with all this. The beginner’s mind, apart from being a necessary posture to walk the path to mastery, is also the one vital internal state we need as we learn to see. It’s what makes a photographer of someone who otherwise is merely a camera operator. Receptivity. Seeing the world as it is and not as we wish it were. Being open to what’s right in front of us. Seeing is, after all, not merely something we do with the eyes; seeing is about perception. It happens in the mind, and it happens best in an open mind—a mind ready to entertain possibilities and what-ifs, a mind curious about new directions and willing to consider that old ways may no longer serve us. That’s what makes a photographer. It’s not the gear. It never was. The gear, like the eyes, is merely the way we physically capture the world we see. The seeing happens elsewhere, and it begins with being open and receptive.

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