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On Photographing a Flock of Pigeons

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Thinking and doing are mutually exclusive activities. Like the Pauli Exclusion Principle, they can’t both occupy the same space at the same time.

In traditional Japanese martial arts, advanced students are taught to embrace the concept of Mushin – the empty mind, or ‘no-mind’. In order to anticipate an attack and respond appropriately, the mind must be free of everything, waiting to be filled with nothing.

The paradox here is that you can’t think or act your way to an empty mind. While on the surface this conundrum appears insoluble, after many years of training, the martial artist learns techniques to deflate the balloon inside oneself that is cluttered with nonsense. Martial arts meditation / breathing techniques are a viable way of accomplishing this – and is how I proceed when I need to focus on a task that cannot be muddled by unnecessary thought.

Mushin is required for these photos of pigeons I have been chasing for about a week now. Standing in 100+ degree heat with gnats buzzing around your face waiting for hundreds of Rock Pigeons to take flight requires a drain plug in the back of your head to release the perpetually forming annoyances that riddle your mind at this time.

After five days of this I have begun to understand this flock of birds and their habits. They appear to be stuck in a loop that continues to play over and over again – until it doesn’t. While you may be able to predict their behavior for two or three minutes, the moment you think you have a lock on them, they break the pattern – nature at its finest.

While I loathe using the fast, multiple exposure mode of my Nikon D-850, it is required in this case to acquire photos that document the sheer majesty of the simultaneous movement of a flock of birds closing in on 500 in number. You are situated more in an act of discovery than revelation as you move with them, finger held down to record five frames per second. In almost every other instance I have ever photographed, there is a single moment that defines the photo (Cartier Bresson’s ‘Decisive Moment’), and I have always adhered to that precept..

That doesn’t work here, because the photo evolves faster than you can react to. The best I can do is set the frame as closely as possible, make sure the camera’s internals are adjusted properly to record the action, and proceed.

I am spent after 7 days, my creaking body is in need of a rest. You stand with your head craned upward, neck struggling to stretch in a manner God did not intend, both hands firmly grasping 4+ pounds of camera until they cramp -- and you need one hand to free the other, but how do you do that with both hands occupied? The pain shooting down my left leg reminds me of all of the fused vertebrae I am waging war against – and losing.

I will be back this evening to do it again.

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