The Spirituality of Seeing with John Stanmeyer

Join VII photographer and founding member John Stanmeyer for a thought-provoking discussion as he takes you through his often deep meditative approach to telling visual, audio, and lyrical stories for magazines such as National Geographic.

In this event, John will share the mysteries of letting go of the obvious to feel and see beyond the expected, past simplicity into unexpected ways of telling long and short-form narratives. He’ll take you to visit his archive and illustrate the therapy of editing through one of his stories. Place your pragmatic self aside while John takes you on a spiritual journey in creating photographic possibilities during this VII Insider gathering, the Spirituality of Seeing.


00:00:05  [music plays]


Paul Lowe: Thank you very much to our partner, PhotoWings, without whom it would be, we wouldn’t be able to offer this platform for free to everybody, which is amazing. Please do go back and look through the archives of the recording sessions, the previous sessions, a really rich body of material that we’re developing. And we’ve got some very exciting plans for expanding the programming that we do with VII Insider. So look forward for some announcements very soon about that, and how we’re going to be doing even more fantastic content for you moving forward. Anyway, without further ado, as we say, John, the floor is yours if you’d like to get us started. Thank you very much.


John Stanmeyer: Thank you, Paul. And thank you for everyone that’s here. I’m just looking at a picture of Paul on my screen. Not that I don’t want to look at you, Paul. But I feel like you’re just staring at me. And it’s lovely. Let me open up the chats as well so I can see what’s happening here. Well, so I have been, for a while, a bit bored. Bored by what I’m seeing, sometimes bored by what I’m making, what I’m creating. And for a long time—and for a short time—I’ve often noticed that when I’m bored, I’m not going into myself. And when I’m bored by what I’m seeing—and I’m being very daring and saying this— I’m not saying that all the photography and visual storytelling that I’m seeing is boring. No, it all has meaning and purpose, especially if there’s much giving to it. But I’m seeing things over and over the same. And as we continue to suffer and torture ourselves with terrible events that take place across our planet, and beautiful events too. But just the torture of it, I began quite a while ago, to get pained and exhausted by noticing or feeling, more so noticing, that there was not an end result.


And if you’ve been to some of my workshops, or maybe these webinars or other things  I’ve mentioned at times, that when I’m behind the camera, I’m seeing the same thing. And I was torturing myself, and I mean that in non-destructive way but sometimes mentally destructive in, I hope, a good way to try to see beyond the obvious of myself. And it’s not about me, it’s the obvious that is occurring before me. So that somehow in my extremely insignificant speck of a much vaster universal spec within a much bigger, limitless essence of specs that we all are in this universe of specs. How can I somehow give more to express and yes, to make us think? And I often wondered if, because I’m seeing it the same way, am I giving enough justice or enough love in this need of storytelling. And I began to feel within myself that I needed to stop when this occurred and to literally put my camera down, this tool, this extension of myself. It doesn’t matter the tool, I just happen to have this almost often with me, and then to pull back, always removing myself because these topics and narratives that we work on are, of course, not about us. It’s the removing yourself to beside yourself, and if you have that unbelievable will to put yourself behind yourself. And, and to see it in a way that would give to a greater understanding of the enormity that any one of us are standing before and are in the presence of so that we can be these simple vessels of visual communication. And, you know, I call this, I can’t come up with some name, this, on this zoom, spirituality of, I think it’s of seeing or feeling or photography. And but it’s not about religious spirituality. And you could probably walk that way if you want, that sometimes muddles things, or puts too much emphasis in one sort of orbit because there’s multiple orbits of our collective humanity. And what I wanted to share or try to give to all of us is these moments when you put down the camera, when you put down the tool, you put down the microphone, when you put down the pen, when you put down the cello, when you put down the the ladle of your cooking or when you put down the shovel and you’re working in the garden. And you stop a minute, and you think you think on how do I give to this garden. I want to garden to be a forest. And I want the stories that I work on to be a forest, I don’t want to maintain a garden. The garden, if you try to structure everything, you will spend a greater part of your life sustaining it, where nature is probably the best gardener that ever existed. It’s already in balance with itself. And how do I put balance within myself? How do you put balance into ourselves so that we can sort of find the vast forest within ourselves. That’s naturally there, but we at times tend to suppress it or try to organize it, we overthink it, we over chew it and the vastness of trying to organize the enormity that’s before us, which again is just this forest of beauty and madness at the same time. A lot of times when a forest has gone mad with— many ways like humanity—it’s when something invasive has been put into it, causing conflict in that in that space. And how do we as just people who happen to use a tool—whatever that tool may be, I just don’t really care—for a greater way of seeing, for a greater way of communicating so that we can think deeper. And if possible, and I firmly believe this—I know this, and you know this too—


that we can raise consciousness and understanding for the betterment of all. Now, we’re not going to change the world. But if we can play a role or a piece of shifting thought and sort of wonderment, right? Like the wonderment of the world around us, and that’s lifting other people into a, into another space, whether it’s wandering into a forest that, that breathes life into you, or a meal that you’re cooking that expands you, or a novel that you’ve read that takes you somewhere that you haven’t been before. Otherwise, if I’m photographing the same thing, if we’re all kind of doing the same thing that we’ve always done, it’s sort of like reading the same novel. Or reading the same lyric. And I found, in a sense of my own attempt to understand this, was in this stopping, in the sense of looking through this thing called the camera, this blinder box, because it is— there’s so much more going around us, right. It’s all, it’s multi dimensional, it’s more than three dimensions. It’s four, it’s five dimensions, it’s almost limitless. And in those times, I find that the most inconsequential element of a story, or a moment, within the vastness of this forest is where, sort of like a door opens, has nothing to do with anything that I’m maybe photographing on the story. It can be in this, in this webinar, zoom or whatever we call this, I put together if you go to the VII website, these little gifts of— I love Instagram storie.  I mean, call them whatever you want, they’re little like mini films. And it’s just this sort of multi dimensional space of creating. And, and we’re, I’ll be just at a fruit stand or a sweet stand, in this case in India, and it doesn’t matter where you are, it could be in your own home, right? How many days have I photographed windows in this old house. And you know, just the theater of life playing out and it had nothing to do with anything. I don’t know if Giana, you asked me if you wanted to share links. I’ll try to do that later. I’ll try to show you that little quickie thing. But anyway. And those moments, sort of like, pull me away from this over absorption of what I think I’m there for. Because you really don’t know what you’re there for. You think you know what you’re here in this life to do. Well, you may kind of know, sure. We all kind of know. But we’re always searching for more. And that more is when you, not just let go, but when you go into—you know some cultures—we have two eyes, so the the two eyes can see—and in some cultures, it’s many, many different ways of calling it. A very simple way, you know, the third eye, and in many ways I find it’s not always easy to feel that third eye. But it’s in that space that you begin to feel. And in many ways I’ve sort of, I feel it’s when we— I sense it’s when we begin to actually see. Otherwise we see that which is before us. We can compose it, we can have it come over here, whatever, whatever. But where you absolutely deconstruct yourself and everything around you in order to understand the magnitude of it, the simplicity of it, the suffering of it, the beauty of it, so that we can actually see. And so, the reason why I wanted to share all of this is really not to so much discuss me. I’m not so interested in myself, but I would love to open some of these slots up to all of you.


You know, we can spin this if you like into, you know, career and all that other stuff, but you know, I wonder if your careers, if you feel that there’s a struggle, which there always is, everything in life is a struggle. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be so beautiful. Every alleged struggle is a lesson and but it’s this—I’d love to hear from from as many of you as possible and as Paul mentioned, I wanted to visualize this, connect us with each other to this amazing thing called video and zoom, instead of just type messages.


To hear how, you know, are you stuck, because we all get stuck, and how we can unstick ourselves. Because most of the time, but this muckily sticking, we do to ourselves. You wake up in the morning, and you’re born again, it’s like it’s a rebirth. And you have this vastness of all that you can do. It’s not about possessions, about wealth. It’s about doing something with your hand, with your mind, with your feet, with your eyes, your voice and, but, oftentimes we muddle it by overthinking, by chewing too heavily on something that distracts us from the incredibleness, whether it’s pouring down rain outside or bright and sunny or mystically foggy, we just tend to muddle ourselves. I often have found that when you’re in a space that isn’t so internally— isn’t becoming internally muddled. These moments of opportunities, let’s say, and call that career, okay, begin to open. Expect nothing and be, of course, thankful for everything. And that connects to your careers. This, you know, I want to do this, I need to do that, I want to work for this magazine. Okay, well, great. But what are you giving to it? It goes beyond just pretty photographs. Everyone can make pretty photographs, everybody always has been able to make pretty photographs.


Even meaningful photographs at times. But there’s more. And it’s not something that I can teach you and nobody can teach you. Don’t believe anyone that they can teach you how to see. It’s something that is so inside of yourself, that you have to, for the lack of another word that I can come up with at this moment. It’s this need to give to yourself, to kind of let go and not like a garden all the time, trying to construct it, because you will spend a greater part of your life and your career and your photography trying to manage it, distracting you from the greater possibility that is already before you and within you. How do we open this? Does anyone have questions? Or thoughts? Or raise your hand? How do we do this? I can’t see questions.


Paul Lowe: John, if you look in the q&a box, there are a couple of questions already. But if people want to type some questions into the box, and then we’ll invite those of you to speak. But before we do that, I just had a question for you, John, on this. How do you let go, you know, if you’re on an assignment, let’s say, and, you know, you have to sort of do these more mechanical things that we have to do? Do you have any kind of practices or strategies or ways that you allow yourself to tune into this sort of different way of thinking? Do you have things that you do consciously or is it more of a unconscious relationship with the world around you that you try to engender when you’re actually out in working in the field?


John Stanmeyer: No, no. Well, it’s conscious and subconscious. Depending on, I really can be anywhere. I stop and go to the little tea houses by the side of the road or a coffee house, or walk down a little alleyway or a place where there is nobody, or there’s very few. And sometimes I’ll just sit. Now, of course, that’s easier said, when you’re covering a war or a conflict, things are moving intensely fast, or you’re covering a crisis of some sort, or you’re on a very short assignment, let’s say, or things are happening, you know, rapidly around you. But not everything is like that, right, Paul? You have, you know, probably even more experience in this vastness than I do. But where you, these letting go moments. So these rewiring moments where you see things that have nothing to do, or you feel things that have nothing to do with the assignment, are what give you life, what nourish you, so that when you are in these moments of intense movement, or intensity or difficulty, all of that. We are a product of everything we experience and the more we give to ourselves for these, these quieter times, I find them to be incredibly loud when I’m in those those moments, and not loud in the sense of audible, but in the sense of sort of profound giving of what I was oblivious to see, because I was so preoccupied in trying to, you know, allegedly presume I knew what I was there for. So yeah, it’s often, Paul, to literally stop. To completely just stop, again, if the situation allows for it. If you’re going to go photograph a portrait of somebody, you’re at somebody’s home, you carry with you, every moment of your life, all of your past. And so you’re there to perform, right, you’re there to do ballet, you’re there to play the violin, and you’re there to perform. But all that past memory is already in you. That is if you give to it, it expands you in those moments. And that’s why I want to share that as often times that you can, give to that in those more solitude moments. They will help expand us, all of us, into understanding why were there at that given situation. And in many ways why we’re here in this life. I don’t know if that directly answers your question, Paul, but because I don’t know if it’s fully answerable. Because every situation has its own sort of…


Paul Lowe: Of course, of course. John, I have a suggestion. Do you have any images that you could pull up that you could talk us through to give us some insight into that process? And then we’ve got some good questions coming through. So perhaps share an image or two and then we’ll have a question, then maybe share another image. That might be a nice way to do this.


John Stanmeyer: Yeah, that would be nice. How do I screen share? Oh, all panels, okay. Can you start sharing when someone else is sharing?


Paul Lowe: But nobody else is sharing except you so you go ahead.


John Stanmeyer: Did that work?


Giana Choroszewski: John, click on the big green button next to the smaller…


John Stanmeyer: Oh, yes. Okay, hello. Oh, there’s all sorts of stuff floating here. Oh, that’s the thing I was pressing wrong. You know, I’ve been doing this sort of series on what was playing out in the Middle East. And let’s hope this can be a little tranquil now moving forward. And I, like all of us, like many of us, I’ve been somewhat sequestered here in the house for a very long time, mostly because I work primarily on long form narratives and a project that I started before COVID began is now beginning to manifest again because I can internationally travel. Just waiting for a new passport renewal. But so, I started to think— really, it began yesterday morning. I don’t know if you saw my Instagram story. It’s just one video yesterday along the river. Right in the back here is a river that passes by. The sounds of birds were all around and the mist was coming off the river. It’s really simple stuff really like, oh, it’s so simple. But there was some beauty to it, sort of a mysterious beauty. And I thought, What am I going to continue? What am I going to move into? And I remembered this moment that I published yesterday on Instagram last night— I usually usually publish in the evening— from a story place that profoundly affected me. And that was in Armenia a few years back. And, and it was this simple—I don’t know if you can see this. Sorry. Got everything open—a simple fence that had nothing to do with what I was there for. Absolutely nothing. And it was, just driving by it, like, oh, my goodness, look at this. I don’t know why. I got out. And there was this beautiful sound. Let me see if I can— let me see something here. I don’t know if you can hear. Or you can go to my Instagram feed. I don’t know, I do a lot of field recordings. And I don’t know if it plays. Can you hear it? I don’t know if you can hear it. But it’s a little shaky, because it’s coming through the internet. But I did this field recording of the birds above the trees and what have you. And it’s a simple picture, Fiona. It had nothing to do with anything. I was there doing a story on the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. But it was these moments or, or this room of a train station that used to connect Armenia with Turkey or other moments. Oh, cars that were used as like, fences. Just this beautiful landscape of art. This family’s home with this pink, not pink, but like a lime, lemony green umbrella on a table. And this beautiful wall. And these are things that we all do photograph. Right, and but I really fall into them. I mean, I’ll maybe spend 10-20 minutes on it just like getting lost in it. Oh, these pipes, where we’re, I think they’re, you know, heating fuel or cooking fuel, serpentine everywhere around the landscape of Armenia. You see them in Georgia and other former Soviet nations. And they have nothing to do with the story, Fiona. Nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. But I can I think we went here two times three times to photograph these pipes. Because I couldn’t get enough of it, and yet I was there to do you know, a story about centarians, who were still alive 100 years later in their homes, and in many ways, just getting lost in a semi-structural way, because I have to sort of compose a visual, you know, script or little symphony, so to speak. But it was all of these—What is this? Why is this?—that have nothing to do with anything that open these abilities. I don’t know if they even open any ability, but it’s that I let myself go so I’m not trying to hold on to something that I believe in. Because it’s not about me. It’s about being in this space, universe, whatever you want to call it, that everything then starts to present itself. And that is a very simple way of maybe explaining it. I’m trying to see if, and maybe also because I do audio, can anyone— can you hear when I do an audio? Here, I’m just gonna do it.


Paul Lowe: I think we heard the birds from before. So give it a try.


John Stanmeyer: Do you hear the birds now? This is the audio recording. Do you hear anything?


Paul Lowe: Yeah, it’s very faint, though.


John Stanmeyer: Ah, okay. Okay, because it’s coming over in the other speaker in the other room. Anyway, so I do a lot of audio recordings… And where is this? It’s in images archive. Okay. And so I find that— let me see if I can try to get out of this. Give me a second. Sorry, I’m totally distracting everyone here. But it may help or give an answer to, give an answer to something. There really are no answers, there’s just sort of a limitlessness of possibilities. Oh, I can’t see it because I’m not on that computer anyways. And so, but I do a lot of audio recordings, again, that have nothing to do with the story. And they are another form of therapy for myself that, you know, just photograph cars. And, yeah, okay, it helps that AutoDot is in the background. This is not toned. I’m showing you, you know, deep into my vulnerability of the the archive here. And here, I was back at that pipe again in daylight. And I just kept going back and back and back. Again, having nothing to do with it. So I don’t want to drone on one question, because I hope there’s some some other things here. But I hope that that answered your question. Or gave you some enlightment that I hope expanded.


Paul Lowe: Thanks. Okay, let’s see if we can try and invite someone to speak. So Sakshi Patwa, you asked a couple of questions there. So if you want to kind of try and combine them.  I’m going to try and give you a microphone. There you go. So it’s actually, can you? Shakshi, you should be able to…I’m not sure whether the video is enabled. But I think you should be able to speak. There you go.


Shakshi Patwa: Ah, yes. So there are some times when I really want to capture a moment. And at that point, maybe because of the surroundings because of the people I am around with, I am not very much with photographers or some people who are very much open with themselves. But at that point I am, I see that I want to take that moment. Yes. But it doesn’t make sense with the complete environment. Why is it that out of so many things that could be very much attractive when you post it or something like that? But that moment when I am like no, I do not want something which is very attractive or something, but I just want to take that nail on the table or which I feel it is very much— I had a feeling when I see something and when I want to capture it. But also there are many, many times and there are people around me or giving me some thoughts like that. No, that’s not something. So, have you experienced any things before like that? And how should we get over it? And don’t listen to stuff around and just follow or capture what you want to.


John Stanmeyer: Sakshi thank you for being here. Would you like to be captured?


Sakshi Patwa: Ah, I, oh…


John Stanmeyer: No, no, no, no, no. Listen to the word. Would you like to be captured? Would you like to be taken?


Sakshi Patwa: No.


John Stanmeyer: Okay. Words mean something. Nobody wants to be captured. Nobody wants to be taken. You’re there to give. If you’re, if your energy is is subconsciously—and again, words mean something—I’m going to speculate, but you’re from this beautiful magical place called India. Or somewhere in South Asia or maybe at least ancestrally on this incredible planet that we all live on. And I hear it in South Asia often, you know, clicking. Clicking? What’s what’s a click? Words mean something. Nobody wants to be captured. Nobody wants to be taken. Make something. Become curious with that thing on the table, or that person, because they’re sensing that— we all put out— this is not kind of being like overly heavy or you know, spiritual. No, this again is more universal understanding of humans, of how we are. We all have an energy. And everywhere you go, only make something through giving. And build a relationship with that nail on the table because it’s fascinating, or that woman or man in the markets or give to that curiosity, and shows them, if it’s a human being, even if it’s not a human being, give to that inanimate object its value. Because we’re putting out an energy that is felt by everything, especially everything that’s living. Trees can feel if you’re unkind, and not that you’re not kind, Sakshi. Everything can feel something, right? Be around a tree or a plant and give to it and that tree will give to you. Take from the tree, capture the tree, and the tree is going to notice that it’s uncomfortable. And people feel that way too I found. So if I may give something to you, change your wording. Because words mean something. You’re not going to capture anything ever again.


37:01 Sakshi Patwa: Definitely.


John Stanmeyer: You’re definitely not going to shoot anything. Only guns shoot. You are going to give and make something and you’ll find the more you open yourself to that, this possibility, of everyone around us actually can feel that from us. And I sense that you will have the world start and the magic and the beauty and the suffering and the pain and that nail or that piece of paper on the table, you will start to then see it differently. Because you’re not trying to take that piece of paper. You’re trying to give something about it telling its story.


Sakshi Patwa: Thanks, John. This is really, really helpful. And changing the point of view.


John Stanmeyer: You just —words mean everything and our words connect to actions and our actions mitigate altering of space. We’re not here to alter space. We’re here to be in in this dimensional space. And that’s when we can actually start to see more. Who would love to join us with a another…


Paul Lowe: Oh, Camila Vazquez Mellado, I think you had an interesting question, if you want to comment.


John Stanmeyer: I’m not looking at the comments here because I get distracted.


Paul Lowe: Yeah, I’m gonna try. I’m trying to moderate them for you, John. So Camila, do you want to try…


John Stanmeyer: You’re too kind, Paul. Thank you.


Paul Lowe: Yep, we can hear you go ahead.


John Stanmeyer: Hello, Camila.


Camila Vazquez Mellado: Hi, I’m such a fan of your work. I love spirituality of all the work you make and experience things and accepting them as they are. My question for you is whether you’re making an assignment or use photos because you want to create those photographs of the moment you’re experiencing. My question is, Do you often think about how people perceive those images? Meaning if you saw something that felt in a way unique to you, you think if people are going to feel the same way, or you just don’t think about where other people will experience from seeing your your work?


John Stanmeyer: Well, if I’m going to imagine that I can even fathom, let alone comprehend 7.7 billion of us on our 7.7 billion different fellow human beings perceive something, I think I’ll go mad. And if I were to even try to imagine what you are thinking, well, I can’t. It’s not possible. Nobody—I cannot read your mind, you cannot read mine, nobody can. We think we can, sometimes, but we can’t. And that’s beautiful. You carry and we all carry with us, this wealth of being and we will interpret every color differently. This orange coffee mug may look red to somebody. On this video it almost looks pinky. I kind of like it pinkish. So I, you know, if I’m, let’s use this, you know, incredibly powerful platform called Instagram. And we can use it for any publication, whether it’s, you know, a publication that services and gives to 10 people or it gives to 10 million people. No one is better than the other. But I can use Instagram for an example because it’s such a public forum. And, oh, I can get people completely upset. I photographed—this was a few years ago—but after the peace accord was was signed— a few days ago, I wanted to end on something a little bit lighter, with this watermelon, with this gentleman named Halum, I met on the side of the road outside of Nablus. And you know, there’s always going to be somebody who’s going to find something negative about it. I can’t make everyone happy. And I’m using that one example where I can give you others from these that sort of every other day for over 11 day period when the war was going on. And the fighting and the madness was happening. Oh, you know, everyone holds onto a— I’m using this as one example. There’s many different ways to elastically look at this. But we hold on to these beliefs that we have, sometimes rightfully so, sometimes that are a little bit too affirmed into a set point of view. Not willing to expand or see things beyond what what we’ve been convinced through memory and from from experience to be. I don’t mind. I get attacked all the time. All the time. I’ve had death threats, a few years ago, one story that I did on social media that was shared on social media and on the Nat Geo account. And but you know, what am I gonna do about it? Right? You can’t make everybody happy. But I actually sometimes like that, because I’ve made someone think, so you’re a bit too sure. Sakshi’s question about not taking or capturing. I’m not trying to pick on you, Sakshi. But it’s about trying to go into everything that we do. And I don’t like to always just think about photography, because photography is like, yeah, it’s beautiful, it’s fine. But it’s like everything that we do, give to it, and present it in its absolute incredibleness, or create and make in this absolute incredibleness that is in all of us. So we can stop this internalized muddling. And that we open this possibility to see further because we ourselves are holding on to a certain constitution within ourselves, of what we perceive is it. And I, you know, I want us all to believe and I want I want the 7.7 billion of us to all believe in 7.7 billion different things. But in a common goal of humanity, and so you can’t make everyone happy.


Camila Vazquez Mellado: Thank you so much.


Paul Lowe: Anne Grasso, I think you had an interesting question, which is sort of a slightly more pragmatic approach to the spirituality of how you actually make this work in in with with clients and so and so, Anne, do you want to ask your question?


Anne Grasso: Hi, can you hear me?


John Stanmeyer: I can and how are you?


Anne Grasso: Great, good, how are you? Thank you so much for giving us all this great advice.


John Stanmeyer: I’m just sharing some love and having some coffee with you.


Anne Grasso: Well, your work is amazing. So thank you for that.


John Stanmeyer: You’re too kind.


Anne Grasso: I guess my question is that, to your point about seeing content that is so similar over and over and over, and on Instagram or in the media, any kind of publication really lately, it’s been kind of a sort of warped, similar view of things like, death in the pandemic, or, you know, bombs falling on Palestine, I feel like I’m seeing a sensationalized viewpoint over and over and over again. And I, my question to you is, how do we as photographers see past that, not create more of the same? Find our viewpoint, find something different in the frame?


John Stanmeyer: Yeah, I know, I do feel the same way in I think there’s no one answer to your incredibly brilliant, meaningful question. And it’s again, like everything, 7.7 different answers, billion of them. And in 10 years from now, it’ll be 9 billion answers. But there’s sort of, you know, one wholeness, that connects to all of us. It is, we do need to see the, in this case, the pandemic, the suffering that has occurred across our planet, by those who have had COVID. I’ve had many friends who’ve had COVID, have known some people who’ve died. The economies that had been wrecked. What’s happening in India and Brazil, but let’s say India right now, is just tragic. We need to see it. But so how do we see it differently? The madness that was taking place in the Middle East. The photographers that, my understanding is, nobody could cross either side. And it was, I think, really important, and I’m very thankful that Palestinian photographers were able to have their incredibly meaningful work, you know, shared to the world of what was going on in their backyards, and also on the Israeli side. And those are moments that are moving so quickly, that I’ve found only can I sometimes give more to them, is, again, in these respites, these quieter times of saying, Alright, I’m here on this thing that I’m photographing or this story, and I’m not feeling it. And I’m going to go over there. And I’m just going to sit, or I’m going to look at ants. If you want to look at the most, you know, unbelievably fascinating universe, take a moment, just watch some ants. And, and I’m using this really seriously. Ants, I look at ants and photograph ants quite a bit. I even can show you a little video and photos from Armenia, where I was photographing annts. That had nothing to do with the story. And it’s those moments that when you then— I shared a post the other day about war, using memory and the conflict that was taking place. We carry with us memory of everything that we experience, we carry the memory of every one of our answers, you carry the memory of me and I carry the memory of you. Because we are sisters and brothers. It’s in our DNA, that’s memory. But the moment, you arrive from the beauty of your mother into this dimensional form, you already had the memory of inside of your mother and the memory of that moment until this very moment that you and I are talking here. And and so everything you take to feel,whether it’s ants moving around on the ground or a swirly thing in the air that just you know, has nothing to do with anything, but it’s almost your you know, hallucinating on you know, on hallucinogens, and yet you don’t need drugs because because everything is so incredibly stoningly amazing all the time. And those things, when you enter into the theater of madness, will expand you to see beyond so that we can be taken beyond. There’s a photographer— I can’t remember his name. An Indonesian photographer, a brilliant photographer, Justin something or another. Oh, I hope I’m giving him justice. He photographed this this body of a COVID patient, wrapped like in packaging in a room and I should try to find it. But try to find it or maybe Giana, I don’t know if you can find it. Indonesia, Jakarta COVID. I think it actually, anyways, it’s a very well known image. It ran in National Geographic. He was— I don’t know him. I’ve met him once before. A very kind fellow.


And obviously, he was in this moment of awareness. How he found it or how he came to it, only he can answer. But so how do we present it differently? There’s no answer unless I’m in that theater. And you and I can be next to each other. And the beauty of it is you will see totally different than I do, and I will see totally different than you do. But everything of that moment that we are there to, to embrace and to present, the enormity that’s playing out before us, will be a part of your memory and my memory that we carry to that space at that time. And when I find that I’m looking through the camera, which I’m sure you’ve— I don’t want to pick on other or mentioned other photographs, other people’s photographs. When I’m looking through the camera and I’ve seen it before, I put the camera down. I stop. If I miss the moment, right, but you don’t miss a moment. You miss a moment by internalizing it too much. You can miss everything by not going into this vastness that’s within us at all moments. I’m painting a bathroom upstairs, I get paint all over me. I like, and you you do it too, we all do it if we stop the internal dialogue. And everything around us, even in this tiny bathroom in a very old abused home becomes this magical space of awareness. Because I’m— all of that memory will be in me. And so I can’t give an answer to your question. Because as I think I’ve mentioned in the beginning, there will be 7.7 billion answers, possibly, to it. But I when I say that I’m bored, it has to do more with going beyond just seeing with your eyes.


Anne Grasso: That’s great advice.


John Stanmeyer: We all see with our eyes. Imagine, you know that there’s some incredible visual poets, artists, photographers, who are partially blind or completely blind. They’re working in another space and dimension. We all have those, if you’re gifted and fortunate enough to have a vision. And not everybody does. So you wake up every day. And when you can open your eyes and put your feet on the side of the bed. You should be like, Oh my gosh, what am I going to do today? And And imagine if you, if we go in and enter that, that that dimensional space, lack of a better way of putting it, a an awareness that is beyond seeing.


Anne Grasso: Thank you so much.


John Stanmeyer: So I can’t give you an answer because there are none.


Anne Grasso: The photograph you were talking about is by Joshua Irwandi.


John Stanmeyer: Joshua. Yes, yes, yes.


Anne Grasso: And it’s a spectacular photograph. You’re right.


John Stanmeyer: He caught a tremendous amount, you know— Somebody else, I think it was, Anne, mentioned about you know, people’s feeling when they see a photograph. I can’t remember. Sorry, Anne, if I’m not giving justice to your question. But Joshua caught a tremendous amount of pressure, because there were a whole bunch of COVID deniers. I used to live in Indonesia. It’s really my second home. Andhe was getting, you know, threats and what have you, that he set it up and, you know, how do you know the person had COVID, you know. And the reason why that most likely manifests is because Joshua made people think. And that’s our job, or our purpose or our existence, because, Anne, you are going to die and I am going to die. What are we here to do in these breaths that we have. And it could be anything, it could be running a shop, it could be being an astronaut, it can be a laborer, it can be anything. There’s magic and incredibleness in everything. If we can turn off the internal dialogue, and give these moments, so that we can maybe be fascinated in ants, or the swirly thing blowing in the wind, so that when we enter the theater of having to lift heavy things, or cook for, you know, 200 people at a banquet or being in a war zone, we are expanded by all that we have previously experienced, because it’s an art memory.


Anne Grasso: Thank you so much. That’s fantastic.


Paul Lowe: Thanks, John. Thanks for your question. You must have answered half a dozen other questions that people have asked in that one as well, John, which was great.


John Stanmeyer: We’re going longer…


Paul Lowe: I know. We can keep it going. We can keep it going for another 15 minutes or so. I think it’s really beautiful listening to you, John, as always. So Scott, you had an interesting question about how to refill your energies when you’re working. Do you want to try and speak to us, Scott?


Scott: Sure. I hope you guys can hear me coming through.


Paul Lowe: Yeah, we hear you fine. Yeah, great.


Scott: Yeah, just like, I’ve been deep diving into a lot of sort of Japanese philosophy and art. And I got this idea of like having like a mental or spiritual cup. Like if you’re trying to go out and see what the world has to offer you. Like a lot of mental energy is sort of spent on being open to what you see and feel. And, you know, sometimes you’re fortunate enough to fall into a zone and everything sort of comes in that queue, you feel like you’re, you’re you’re getting more than you’re giving. But the corollary to that is, sometimes you’re spending a lot of time and effort, trying to be aware. And then it can be very draining. Questions of like, what you do, or strategies or things that you do to sort of like, as I’d say, refill your cup, so to speak, to keep your your, your your mind and your perceptions keen.


John Stanmeyer: You said something, Scott, and thank you for being here. And for your question. It’s a true one.


Trying to remember now what you said about 28 seconds ago. You were kind of overthinking this thought of how do I fill my cup when you’re in that space of trying to fill your cup. And you’re overthinking. It’s about letting go. It’s about thinking about absolutely nothing. Imagine the wealth of information you’ll receive, when you think about nothing, because you’re not receiving anything. If you’re talking about awareness, you’re not receiving anything if all you’re doing is having a conversation with yourself. And the metaphoric cup is always wanting to be filled. And it’s in every philosophy, it’s in every culture, it’s in every way of life, it’s just we oftentimes put a, you know, have a lid over it, or we we muddle with what’s already in our cup, and not allow ourselves to be filled with what everything is already there. You know, connecting to a bit of your question, but also, maybe others, it’s being also alone within yourself. And then in the presence of others, that lift you, we are a product of again, everything we experience every every event that occurs to us, the smallest to the greatest. And we are a product of everyone around us. We want to be in— it doesn’t mean that you don’t want to be around people, or that anybody’s bad or anything like that. No, but you want to try to be around others that not only just lift you, that’s almost too simple, but that are guiding you almost subconsciously so that you’re not inside of this space of distraction. Oftentimes our greatest element that holds us back are ourselves and then also those around us. So if you really want to have this cup filled, I don’t think it’ll ever be because it will over, you want it to overflow. And then the overflowing, you’ll give to others. And that’s where you, and you’re in a space of others that are like minded. You are then giving to the other, whether it’s a partner, whether it’s a friend, whether it’s a community. VII started as a community of people who were, you know, very independent in their core being, but poured and gave to each other. And so be around others that pour to you, like water, like a flow. And this, you know, fits into every philosophy and every culture on our planet. It’s the culture and philosophy of being human. In every dimension and space, that culture has come up with their own way of interpreting this. No one place has it right or wrong. Everything… That’s why I want to have, you know, 7.7 billion of us all believing in 7.7 billion things. Because we hold fast onto something and can’t let go. And we do that in ourselves. We hold fast on an idea, and we overchew it. And we sometimes, if you want to fill your cup, and maybe be really direct to your answer, you know, okay, fill it with tea or coffee. But fill it by looking at those ants. And walking down by the river as I did yesterday morning. It can be on a road, it could be a tennis court, it can be wherever and see. Because it will be given to you. It’s there. It’s just we’re not giving to it, because we can’t give to us and when it gives to us— by turning off the internal dialogue—your cup will be overflowing.


Scott: I appreciate that.


Paul Lowe: Thanks, John. So Libero Antonio Di Zinno had interesting question about books with quite a few questions about writers and about the relationship of writing and language and text to your work. So Libero, would you ask your question and maybe John, just talk a little bit about how words fit into your your World Vision. Libero.


Libero Antonio Di Zinno: Yes, greetings compadre. Grateful. Yes, I’m alive and kicking. Thank you, kind sir.


John Stanmeyer: One day you won’t be and that’s okay too.


Libero Antonio Di Zinno: Yeah, my question is about, you know, our visual food for thoughts in terms of our diet and our consumption and certainly our appetite. I was curious about the photo books that you have, in terms of great influence on you. From early on, or, or even today? Do you have one or more favorites that continue to inform your work.


John Stanmeyer: I can’t move this monitor here with the cameras, but there’s photo books all over there and over there. Well, this may surprise you, none of them. And all of them. And I’m, I mean, the ants inspire me just as much as a brilliant photo book. If you had a book and or anyone here, and even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. Just talking to you is like, you know, I’m learning and feeling from from this interaction. I’m not trying to diminish photo books. I do books, I have books. It’s really, photography books. They’re all brilliant to me. And they all give me something and I’m thankful for that. But I like to disconnect everything. I have more meaning to understanding when I disconnect from things or not only hold on to everything that’s about photography. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, I want to hold on to a pole. Otherwise, you know, but I also want to be a bit lucid as well. So yeah.


Libero Antonio DiZinno: Could I have a followup?


John Stanmeyer: Absolutely, please, but to be honest with you, none of them and all of them.


Libero Antonio DiZinno: Well, that’s brilliant in itself. But I’m so fascinated with the notion of connecting your spirituality to photography, in terms of spiritual practice. Would you consider photography your meditation?


John Stanmeyer: One of many. But I, when I speak about spirituality and photography, which I guess is what this is called, and it’s not in a direct connection to what we know, at least in English, but in every language that has its own way of saying the word spirituality. It’s this other sense of awareness. And this sharing that I wanted to offer, is how then can we see further? How can we give ourselves to this vastness that’s around us and within us? The lack of any other word I can think of right now. And I’m sure there are — maybe get the thesaurus out, I guess. But is this, the sort of, the thing you cannot see, but is there. And so call it spiritual, but on a spiritual basis, but that’s too structured again. It is. I need I am not giving to myself enough if I only paint—you can’t see it, but my toilet seat lid is out in the garden right now. And I can’t give to painting the toilet seat this sort of bright red, unless I’m in tune with a toilet seat.


Libero Antonio DiZinno: Right. It’s, it sounds very much like Zen, you know, that’s impenetrable to because the first rules, then you can’t speak about Zen. You know, whatever description.


John Stanmeyer: Try to disconnect words. Right? Again, Zen, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, please, I’m sorry, I mean it in a positive way. Because if I say it’s this, therefore, that’s all it is. It’s liquid. It’s like when water rolls over a rock, it’s encasing, it isn’t even encasing it, and it’s moving over every crack and crevasse that’s there. Even the rock that’s laying even the rock on top that’s laying on top of sand or another rock, it is still coating it under that rock, maybe not as much as over the top sides and left and right or whatever the dimensional space of the rock is, but you want to be you know—I want all of us to be able to be that rock in a river of limitless possibilities that are before us. And in this giving—otherwise, we’re going to see and create the same thing over and over and over. Nothing wrong in that in the big sort of dimensional universe of things. We need information. Okay, well, and we need to learn, okay, and we tap consciousness of others who hadn’t seen it yet or paid attention to it yet. But imagine if we can go beyond. And whatever the beyond is, I don’t really know. Because it’s so different and multifaceted. And that’s the beauty too, because just like all the pieces of the bathroom that are on a table out here, they all have a different dimensional space to them. How do we give to them? In this act of interacting with them, so that we, in photography, we can tell a narrative that takes us beyond the obvious into the unknown that we never had imagined. And that’s not Zen. That’s not anything. It’s everything. And it’s beautiful.


Libero Antonio DiZinno: Yes, thank you. Thank you for that.


John Stanmeyer: Let’s take maybe one more question.


Paul Lowe: Yeah. Good. So Santiago, I think you had an interesting question about objectivity, subjectivity and magic realism. Do you want to try asking that?


John Stanmeyer: Wow, I love this one Santiago. Pray tell.


Paul Lowe: You there, Santiago? Okay, yes. Yes. The way you go, thank you.


Santiago: Okay, you hear me?


John Stanmeyer: I’m here.  I hear you, Santiago.


Santiago: Oh sorry. I need to read my own question because, you know, I’m not a native speaker of English.


John Stanmeyer: Happy to do it in Spanish for you, but…


Santiago: No, no worries. Okay. Listening to to you, we understand that you always thought from a very personal, subjective and introspective space when documenting your stories. How do you stand with respect to the demand of documentary journalists to maintain objectivity? Is documentary expanding towards a more subjective interpretation? Towards a kind of a magical realism that is intersected by the experience of the one who’s telling the story?


John Stanmeyer: Wow, okay.


Santiago: That’s a difficult one. Sorry.


John Stanmeyer: Oh, no, no, it’s not not difficult. It’s a lot of pieces to put together. Well, I, everything is subjective, from the individual creating it, whether again, it’s a chef, or mechanic, or hairstylist, their interpretation of something. When you’re cooking a meal, that woman or man cooking, doesn’t have the same palette that you or I have, we all have a different palette. And that person will, she will give, or he will give to that meal, based upon their palette. They’ll be tasting— hmmm, no, more here, more here—all subjective. When we’re looking through this thing called the camera, we’re being completely subjective. Because outside of the frame, right, we’re not just horses with blinders on. We’re horses, we’re almost like with binoculars on, right?  A horse can see kind of up and down, but they can’t see left and right. When we lift our cameras, we’re blinded, left and right and blind at top and bottom. It’s only what we are seeing in this very limited frame. There’s things happening everywhere behind you, above you, below you to the left to the right, slightly different degree, whatever. So we are subjectively choosing what we are seeing.


If you remove yourself from the narrative, from that place…humans are a planetary species. And we divide ourselves with lines and these invisible horrible lines. What’s mine is mine and what is yours is yours and try to take it from each other all the time. We don’t find our commonality for the betterment of all. And we will always go in, unfortunately, at times, with a perspective of something.


But our greater awareness is not about us. But all of that that has transcended before us. So do people come— and your question, I think, is a very good one. Are people coming in with a subjective idea that they want to present? Always have. I’m already being subjective, just by the position that I’m composing the frame in, because again, I’m blinded by all these other pieces that are around me. I’m feeling only like a chef cooking a meal—the flavors that I am feeling and tasting. And I can only just be a conduit. But it’s not about me, it’s not about manipulating it. Those are whole, you know, it’s all a bunch of ethical importance. But beyond that, that we know that, you know, you know, get, you know, fiddling with that. Because the enormity is already there. Why do you need to fiddle with it. That’s where you’re not looking at the ants or looking at the twirly thing, or looking at all of these things that are around you to already find that. Even this stick outside the window for me here is interesting. Maybe have to wait for the light to get a little less less harsh, but maybe there’s still a way to do it through the old windows here with that leaded glass. It’s always, I don’t know, it’s irrelevant, but in the relevancy of how do we see it. For the possibilities of how do we see it? I’m still being subjective on how I compose it. So you can never remove that just like a chef cannot remove the flavor that she or he is tasting, of which will be tasted in 20 people in a room, 20 different ways. But are people walking in with a set agenda? Always have. Does that mean that if everybody is, you know, doing something that isn’t beneficial for the whole, that you want to do that too? You’ll have to go into your own, you know, inner being of that. Do I have an empathy for the marginalized and the disenfranchised? Because I’m privileged? Yes. Am I going to lie about a situation? No, I’m going to open myself up and put myself beside myself. And if I have the ability to put myself behind myself, which is not easy at all, it becomes their story. My role is only in this dance of composition in the blinders that I’m in. So the truth to your, answer to your question is that there is no one truth. The truth has to be answered with inside your core being. And I think we’re in this sort of, you know, and maybe it happens all the time. But we’re in the sort of, you know, consciousness awareness across our planet. I think the internet is as much as it can be viewed detrimentally. There’s always, you know, strangeness going on. But even in darkness, there’s always a lot of light. We’re questioning things more around our planet, because we have so much access to information. And if we walk, you know, in a sense of fascination, in compendium with others that want to go and make us rethink everything that we’ve ever done, and where we’re going on this only place we can live, this place called Earth. It’s a really incredible, limitless, unbelievable period of time, and always has been, but I think it’s actually even more incredible now, that we can use truth, ethics, honesty, humility, a lot of kindness, a lot of giving to fundamentally change humanity.


Paul Lowe: Thanks, John. I think that’s a wonderful, wonderful moment and note to leave this amazing conversation with, John. Thank you so much for opening up. And being so beautiful and honest, and poetic with us today really enjoyed that. Very interesting. And I think it’s— while you did show a couple of photographs— in a way I think it was really great that we didn’t have photographs to look at. I think it was much more interesting in some ways to explore some of these ideas in a more contemplative, almost philosophical sense. So thank you very, very much, John. Thank you so much for all the attendees. Sorry, we didn’t get to everyone’s questions, but we had so many. Over 170 people at one point, and 140 others still here now.


John Stanmeyer: You’re too beautiful. Thank you for everyone who gave up your time. I was hoping that Frida would make an appearance, but she’s over sleeping on the chair over there. And, but she’s a big loving goofball. But thank you, Paul, for for being here, through this, and for doing all of this.


Paul Lowe: My pleasure, John. It was fascinating. So thank you very much, John. Thank you, John. And thank you to all of you for coming today. Some fantastic comments, some great people obviously really find a lot of depth and value in this discussion today, John, so thank you very much for opening up to us opening your soul and your heart to us. And we’ll keep in touch and see you soon. I do please keep an eye on what we’ve got some great events coming up, as always with VII interactive and wonderful to see such a consistent audience coming to our events. Really, obviously, it’s what we do it for. So it’s fantastic to have all this support. Thank you all very much and goodbye for this week.

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