Parallels: Photography and Running

When I run, I carry a tiny camera in my pocket. My itty-bitty runner’s camera bit the dust recently, bashed during our move to a new apartment. Feeling naked without a camera in my running shorts, I hastened to replace it.

The new Sony DSC-W700 is miles beyond the deceased Canon SD700IS, which I loved. (Most of the photos in the “Best Running Trails of the San Francisco Bay Area” galleries were taken with the Canon.) The Sony has a 13.6-megapixel sensor and wonderful photographic controls. That said, however, I confess I can’t get too excited about photo hardware, perhaps because 42 years of picture-taking has reduced camera gear to a degree of comfortable familiarity. Perhaps also, because a former girlfriend took a stunning photo of pelican flying over the ocean at sunset. The framed photo hung on my wall for years. The lab guys were awed. Yet she took it with a $9 Fuji throwaway plastic camera.

hawk(Photo: The best photos seem to magically “come to me” when my heart’s in the right place and I’m not anxious or over-eager – like this hawk hunting in the Palo Alto Baylands. I was feeling unusually relaxed in the moment, at one with the run and my surroundings, when he passed within 10 feet. Photo taken with my deceased Canon SD700 IS pocketable camera.)

Shopping for a new camera put me in mind of the parallels between running and photography. As you know if you’ve cruised the Fitness Intuition archive, I believe the secret of good training is in the heart. And the same goes for photography.

Folks who’re obsessed with cameras and the mechanics of photography never seem to take great pix, just as the runners who seem to get the most fun from the sport are those who approach it with a certain level of feeling, instead of being consumed by numbers.

Anyhow, just for the fun of it, I dug up this old article about my early experiences as a photographer, gathered from roughly the years when I worked at Runner’s World.

Ironically, working at RW pretty much sapped the joy of running for me. I had run for joy, as an adventurous exploration of my personal edges. And now I was surrounded by experienced, authoritative, talented runners who seemed to talk of nothing but race times, heart rates, intervals, etc. And, well, I was young and impressionable and confused. I couldn’t see how to reconcile the “numbers” with my inward, subjective, spiritual approach.

(I hasten to say that Joe Henderson was an exception – Joe was always, and remains today, a gentleman with a wonderful heart. Joe is the spokesman for running with heart, as far as I’m concerned.)

Eventually, of course, I discovered that the link between the mind and soul of running was the heart. Once I realized that the quiet, subtle feelings of my heart were telling me how to train, I understood that there really was no conflict at all between the numbers and the intuitive approach. Disciplined, mentally acute, precise training was the necessary mirror image to the intuitive art of adjusting the day’s training by listening to the body’s voice, as it can be heard the heart. Joy, joy, joy – seriously, I was profoundly relieved and grateful to have stumbled upon a Universal Field Theory of training.

I had pretty good success, in those early days, approaching sports photography from a spiritual perspective. Changing my training would take another twenty years.

By the way, the “five sports magazines” I refer to in the article were offshoots of Runner’s World, the first of several magazines that Bob Anderson started in the mid-1960s. (The others were Soccer World, Gymnastics World, and Martial Arts World. Bob would lose his nascent magazine empire in a difficult divorce. It was very sad – RW was Bob’s labor of love. I saw him several years ago at the Stanford Invitational track meet; we exchanged a few words, and he seemed fit and happy. You really can’t feel too sorry for a guy who is running 35-minute 10K’s in his early fifties!

On the day I describe in the first part of the article, I was shooting pictures for Aquatic World.

In the early 1970s, I was working as a photographer for five sports magazines. One year, on assignment at the Santa Clara International Swim Meet, an event attended by Olympic-class athletes from around the world, I decided to do something really crazy.

With hundreds of athletes and officials milling around, I visualized a circle 12 feet in diameter at one end of the pool, and vowed to photograph the entire meet from that small space. It was nuts. On one hand, I would have that severe limitation. On the other, I would have the power of inner inspiration.

In fact, I conceived the experiment not without prior experience. I’d been on a spiritual path for about eight years, and I’d had many experiences of receiving answers to my prayers.

Before the meet started, I prayed with total abandon, offering myself with all my energy and with focused attention as an instrument to take pictures as God pleased. I prayed: “You are the camera. You are the film. You are the subject. I am Yours. Use me as You will!”

Over the next three hours, I took 200 pictures, 190 of which would eventually be published in various magazines and advertisements. Not a bad average, considering that most professional photographers are satisfied with a far smaller proportion of “keepers.” The National Geographic, for instance, uses fewer than one in 500 photographs taken by its cameramen in the field.


(Another photo that “just happened.” Mary Ellen and I were walking along, holding hands and feeling relaxed, when I spotted this kitty in the field next to the parking lot. We stopped and knelt and I waited with my little runner’s camera, feeling completely relaxed and un-craving in my heart. As he passed at the closest point, he paused and posed for a picture. This is a young bobcat – you can tell because he’s small and his hindquarters haven’t developed the rugged musculature of an adult.)

I began taking pictures in the late 1960s, during my recovery after being paralyzed from the chest down for 2½ years. A benign tumor had compressed my spinal cord in the area of the heart, and the tumor and two surgeries appeared to affect my ability to feel. Borrowing my father’s 1930s-vintage camera, I took up photography as a means of meditating on visual images that awakened my feelings. I walked for hours on the beach, in the city, and in parks, praying and watching for things to photograph that made me feel joy. (Sadly, I have none of those photos.)

In those days, the controls of the camera had to be set manually. I knew little of the technical side of photography, and nearly all my pictures were poorly exposed. Yet whenever I had a strong sense of inner inspiration, the exposure would be perfect. In fact, those “God-tuned” pictures seemed to take themselves: I’d be walking along praying, and a moment later I’d have taken a picture without knowing quite how it happened.

The surgeries had left me mentally and emotionally wasted. I couldn’t relate well to others, and I was excessively hard on myself, blaming myself for my inability to feel. In my relationship with God, I was brutally self-critical – I believed that I had to be extra-perfect before God would be pleased, and I was only too aware when I fell short of the mark. In my desperation to feel God’s joy and love, I over-reached, praying during all my waking hours, raising an unrelenting wall of prayer-noise. Unfortunately, my very prayers prevented me from sensitively hearing His answers. Eventually, He backed away, and I spent several years looking for Him in the empty chamber of my mind. Various spiritual counselors had urged me to “relax and enjoy the spiritual path,” and not to be so hard on myself. But I had refused, fearful that if I loosened my grip, I might fall off the spiritual path completely.

It took many years to discover the sweet science of offering myself to God just as I was, faults and all, and feeling his love and joy. As I entered a more natural relationship with God, I found my photography improving. Instead of praying tensely for hours to take just one God-tuned picture, photography became a more flowing experience. I learned to pray at the start, then set out with high energy and alertness, while relaxing and offering myself with a calm heart and focused mind. Often, more than one picture on a roll would reflect God’s sweetness.

Photography became a healing practice, a release from heartless duty, an expression of inner communion. Sometimes, God gave me pictures that were ordinary in their content, but somehow expressed His joy. Other times, He seemed to be laughing through my photos – as when I took a picture of an gigantic steam power plant in Moss Beach, California. I wondered, “Why in the world am I taking this picture?” But it was sweet in a quirky, postcard way – my girlfriend even asked me for a copy!

For me, taking pictures with God is a three-step process:

1. I begin by praying with complete sincerity. “Complete” means that I pray with every fiber of my being, hiding nothing, holding nothing back, leaving as little as possible of myself outside of the prayer. (Amazing, how well my running goes, when I do that at the start.)

In my prayer, I express a wish to step outside the boundaries of self-preoccupation. (“Wow, I’ll take great pictures!”) and instead serve as God’s instrument, in a childlike way, knowing that He’s aware of my desire to commune with Him.

2. Relaxing while keeping my attention focused and rejecting distracting thoughts, I set out with high energy to take pictures.

3. I vow not to take photos of subjects that fail to evoke genuine, unforced, unfeigned feeling in my heart.

For my kind of photography, it helps to keep my gear simple. Photographic equipment can become a spiraling obsession. Yet the more energy you spend thinking about cameras, the less you have for taking pictures.

bobcatstanford(Bobcats certainly do seem to be a theme in my outdoor photography. Again, this photo “happened” while my girlfriend and I were hiking in the hills behind Stanford and enjoying the moment. The photo is a still captured with an older Sony digital videocam.)

Of all the photographic gear I’ve tried, I think the most useful is a simplified attitude. Simplicity is an art that can be cultivated. When I’m out in nature with my camera, I flatly refuse to pictures that are born of thinking. I’m particularly wary of “ought-to” pictures. “I ought to take that picture because it looks like a postcard.” “I ought to take that picture because it looks like a print by Ansel Adams.”

Whenever I promise to take only those pictures that evoke genuine feeling in my heart, and stubbornly refuse to take “mind-born” photos, even if it means that I’ll risk coming home empty-handed, I’m nearly always rewarded. It’s mysterious, because I’ll often feel attracted to take a picture for reasons that I can’t explain with the rational mind. Yet those pictures will grow on me. Days or weeks later, I’ll bring them up on the computer and feel refreshed by spending time in their company.

I don’t much care if my pictures are clever or complicated, or if they impress others, or even, within cautious limits, if they’re technically perfect. It’s enough to enjoy the simple process of taking pictures with God.