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Your Body Doesn't Lie: How to Use the Mind-Body Connection in Street Photography

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This post is part of a series called Street Photography.
8 Practical Ways to Take Compelling Photographs on the Street
How to Assess and Edit Your Photographs

Throughout this street photography series, we've talked about a lot of the practical, more obvious concerns we have photographing: choosing a camera, preparing to photograph, gaining trust, using light, exploring interior settings, assessing and editing photographs, etc. But this tutorial gets at a deeper, more elusive lesson by discussing a concept that's tied to what intuition is and how it works: the connection between the mind and the body.

Making street photography requires you to be highly sensitive to your surroundings. But in public settings, when anything can and does happen at the blink of an eye, street photographers need to be just as sensitive to their own personal state of mind while they photograph, so that they can do more than just observe; they can respond to what they observe.

Being conscious of your personal reactions as you photograph keeps you safe, alert, and creative, and it is also the very thing that sets you and your images apart from other street photographers. Your response is in essence your personal vision, even when you have little or no interaction with your subjects.

With so much to observe and take in on the street, it's easy to forget to keep tabs on how it’s registering within you. One way to stay conscious of how you’re responding and gain some control of a subject that’s inherently fluid and unknowable is to understand and use the connection between the mind and body.

What Is the Mind-Body Connection?

The mind-body connection means that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are reflected in our physical body. Harvard-educated psychiatrist Dr. James Gordon, who founded The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, explains: “The brain and the peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed all of the organs of our body and all of the emotional responses we have share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with one another.”

We see the mind-body connection play out in a variety of ways: emotional stress can give us ulcers, exercise can spur feelings of euphoria, the sight of delicious food can make our mouth water, etc. But how does this relationship between the mind and body help street photographers? 

For one, it demonstrates that people can give physical clues that suggest their state of mind. Obviously many thoughts, feelings, and internal conditions people have don’t show on the surface or aren’t detectable during the time frame of contact on the street. But observations and gut feelings you gather about someone’s physical presence and body language can be one of several indicators that feed your intuition as you navigate public settings.

Intuiting People

All animals constantly take in information about their environment and the other animals around them. People are no different, but we often gather this information without even realizing we're doing so ("I don't know why, I just had a good feeling about him..."). We collect details and impressions, receive subtle clues and cues, and each react in our own individual ways. Simply viewing life unfold in front of you can cause a reaction: shoulders tighten, arms relax, you smile, or make a frown. In every moment, your body holds a tally of what's going on. Sometimes we can hardly point to the source of these signals, even if pressed.

The mind and the body are inextricably linked. In constant communication, the body affects the mind as much as the mind affects the body.

It follows that if it’s possible for you to gather an underlying sense of someone through physical clues, then it’s possible your subjects can form a sense of you through your physical presence as well. Whether you feel reticent, indifferent, or fearless while ambling around, there’s a good chance people can detect that state of being—not just through your actions, but in your posture, your physical appearance, and your vibe in general. We are all more transparent than we think.

Cultivating a Mindful Creative State for Street Photography

Starting Interactions Mindfully

When you photograph on the street, you set the tone for the experience you have: you initiate the dynamic by putting yourself in the mix to photograph. As a result, the mindset you’re in while you photograph has tremendous impact on who and what you encounter, in addition to how well you are able to respond to those encounters.

One simplified example is that you could be a tall, large man with a deep voice, but have the demeanor of a teddy bear. It’s quite possible your subjects will look past what many consider intimidating physical attributes and defer to the kindness and sensitivity you emanate instead, simply because your inner qualities—your values and intentions—come through so strongly. Moreover, the headspace you occupy when you photograph plays a significant part in the experience you have and the pictures you make. 

Creating an Effective Physical Presence

If you photograph people on the street, you can use the mind-body connection to your advantage by determining in advance the emotional response you want from your subjects and deliberately embodying that emotion while photographing. For example, if you want your subjects to feel comfortable, calm, and genuine in front of your lens, then the most powerful action you could take to spur that result is for you, yourself, to truly feel comfortable, calm, and genuine while you mill about. You have to be what it is you're looking for so that the law of attraction can take effect. (This can be powerful advice for our non-photographic life too.)

Your subjects will bring their own mindset to the interaction as well, of course, and it may be the opposite of what you are aiming for, but by providing an emotional foundation, you set the interaction on a course. Once your subjects get wind of your state of mind, it will at least plant the seed for them to follow suit—and, with a little time, it may even win over contrarian subjects.

Being in the World

Being in the world is both a physical and mental experience. We see, feel, and think about things as they're happening. We share a particular space and time with the people around us. As photographers, we need both the mental and the physical to help us make pictures of the world we live in. A big part of why techniques like setting a mindful intention and cultivating awareness of physical presence work is that they get you out of your head and into the world. They calm the mind's internal monologue and help you remember to actually look at what's going on around you.

F Train, New York City, 2014. Photograph by Amy Touchette
This charming boy and I exchanged eye contact only—no words—because the subway window separated us. I believe the reason he looked so willingly and comfortably at me is, in part, because there was something about my physical presence that compelled him to react that way.

Your Body Doesn’t Lie

Listening to Your Body When Your Mind Won’t

Unfortunately, we aren’t always conscious of our mental state, even when we have an express intention to be. In my previous article, Embracing the Role of Fear in Street Photography, I talked about an experience I had photographing in the American South when signals my body gave me explained what my mind wasn’t registering. I was so fixated on challenging my fears at the time that I put myself in a dangerous setting unnecessarily. Were it not for the signals my body gave me, I wouldn’t have known to remove myself from the situation.

We aren’t always aware of what we are feeling or why we are feeling a certain way, but your body doesn’t lie; it doesn't know how to. It can talk to you when your mind won’t listen.

Using Physical Experiences to Alter the Mind

The mind can also be encouraged to move in a different direction, if need be, by giving yourself various physical experiences. To cultivate a peaceful frame of mind, for example, you could meditate, garden, go on long-distance runs, listen to music, or take part in countless other activities depending on your interests and reactions. To jostle yourself out of insecurity or ennui, you could put yourself in physically challenging or new situations that force you to take initiative so that eventually that boldness leaks into your emotional state. For example, back-bends, handstands, and other similarly unusual physical actions have been known to increase confidence and risk-taking, but again there are numerous other options; it just depends on who you are and what you react to.

Realizing When the Mind Is Affected by Discomfort

Likewise, certain physical experiences can inspire undesirable emotions. You might go out to photograph embodying your most effective mindset, only to find your mood and thoughts drift into unwanted territory. Maybe your equipment is too heavy, and as a result you get tired, and irritable, and uninterested in the world-at-large. Or maybe it’s extremely hot out, so you're just going through the motions, creating subpar images without much passion or intention.

These are two very simple examples of how your physical experience while photographing can encourage an unwanted state of mind; obviously myriad situations could trigger your emotions to get off kilter. The key is to stay conscious of your thoughts, feelings, and mood in general, so you can initiate the experience and photographs you desire. Staying present—to both the world around you and your interior condition—is key in street photography.

Conclusion

The mind and the body are inextricably linked. In constant communication, the body affects the mind as much as the mind affects the body. Being aware of the mind-body connection can help you get a sense of your subjects from external signs, as well as help others get a sense of you. You can use this knowledge to your advantage by being deliberate about your mental state while you photograph, and, as a result, potentially compel your subjects to mirror that emotion back to you.

Using various physical techniques, you can encourage your thoughts and feelings to move in a different direction. Continually scan your state of being just as regularly as you scan your surroundings, so that you are aware when physical experiences usurp your intentions. Your mindset provides a foundation for your experience and the photographs that result.

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