Taken and captured

IMG_2569.1-Edit-5Mindful Photos Sunday Reflection: Does the taking of certain types of photograph contradict Buddhist or Mindful ethics?

Any introductory book on Buddhism would be likely to mention the Five Precepts. They’re ethical guidelines designed to help us avoid harming, and to create conditions helpful to the arising of wisdom.

At number two is “not taking that which is not given” – a phrase that, taken literally, opens up a Pandora’s box of moral and philosophical questions for a mindful photographer.

Thankfully Buddha asked us to try his teachings for ourselves and make our own minds up – so the precepts are not commandments set in stone at all.

However, even still life photographs of inanimate objects are said to be “taken” and the word used for digital image taking – “capture” – to me seems to imply something even more suspect….. So why do we use words with negative connotations?

No pictures!

No Pictures!

I wonder if it has something to do with the belief amongst Native Americans, at the time when they first encountered photography, that photographs could steal their souls? By the early 20th century, anthropologists had observed a change in their attitude. By then many Native Americans cherished photographs as links to ancestors and integrated them into ceremonies. Perhaps though we have subconsciously continued the old belief into the 21st century.


Smile you’re on candid camera.

There is one type of photography, in my opinion, that’s the most challenging for keeping a mindful attitude – candids.

I’m a great fan of street photography and think it’s given us the gift of a visual record of mid and late 20th century life. Nowadays life on the streets is much tougher for photographers.


Increased suspicion by those in authority and even by the general population can verge on the paranoid  and has put candid photography on the “not for the faint hearted” list. Despite that, the ease of using digital cameras means there are more people taking “street” photographs than ever before.


So, when we capture a candid are we taking something from the subject that’s not being freely given?

This is a candid street photo that I’m quite proud of –


I noticed the subject in a crowded street, a space opened up behind her at just the right moment and I took the shot from a few feet away. She had no idea that she’d been photographed. Was that ethically right? Is it OK for me to publish her picture? It’s all legal, but I wondered at the time if I’d crossed a moral line. I’m OK with it now.


If a persons face is not shown, does that make it more ethical?

This is another candid that I’m pleased with. I literally walked down the street behind this man with my camera held slightly above his head and my finger on the motor drive! I hoped I’d get at least one image with the right framing because the light was just gorgeous. There were two out of the twenty or so frames that had nice composition.



I had the skill to know what aperture and shutter speed I needed for the effect I was after but an observer would have probably not thought me very skilful on the ethical front!


A 20th century street photographer supposedly justified what they did by saying “no one owns the light”. In a literal sense, it is all just reflected light focussed through a lens.

When I was starting out as a photographer, my adrenaline would pump because of being nervous. I’d over compensate by acting over-confident and on some occasions people were justifiably upset by me. During my time working for newspapers and more recently for television news, I felt I had to intrude into people’s privacy because I was getting paid and producers wouldn’t listen to excuses.

Because I’ve had to slow down, I’m a lot more mindful when out taking pictures now and ninety-nine percent of the time I think I get the balance right.


Buddha taught that the intention behind an action is very important.

If we create candid photographs because we think someone is interesting or a situation looks unique and we want to share the moment, to me that seems like an act of respect – so the intention is coming from a good place.

The famous war photographer Don McCullin said that he always tried to portray people with dignity irrespective of the situation they might be in – he had a good intention.

If our photographic intention stems from kindness and we communicate something of what it is to be human through our pictures, even if they are taken candidly, that can’t be bad can it? What do you think?


Please do have a read of the About Mindful Photos page. It explains the circumstances that have caused me to reassess life and and become a lot more mindful.


Thanks for reading. Hope to see you again soon 🙂



words and pictures © all rights reserved Miles Pilling


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