Seeing with Our Soul: Maurizio Bavutti & His Photographic Mindfulness
I have chosen to leave the highway, I was so confused while I was running too fast, I needed to start walking slowly and learn how to enjoy every single moment along the way. Now that I have found my soul, I am gonna hold it tight in each single shot.”
That was a statement from artist Maurizio Bavutti who after 20 years of a cross-continent photography career between Italy, Spain, UK, and the USA, has decided to focus on researching the human soul through photography.
In order to do this, Maurizio has built a practice centered around what psychology professor and art theorist, John Suler, calls Mindful Photography. To put it simply, mindful photography is the act of cultivating a state of mindfulness through photography when most people would do so through meditation.
Oxford Learner’s Dictionary describes mindfulness as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment as a therapeutic technique, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. And for those who are spiritual like Maurizio, guided meditation platform—Insight Timer—acknowledges how it is actually a process to understand your soul’s perception on worldly affairs, help you see things from your soul’s perspective and extract the life lessons your soul is intended to learn, which will ultimately connect your everyday life to your soul and to the soul of another.
In Maurizio’s photographs, mindfulness is inserted in both their creation process and in the perception of the final results. For his process, he has developed his own practice over periodic long walks with his dog —starting by noticing how his companion is only ever concerned with being in the moment.
Like when walking through grassy fields, his dog only sees grass to roll around in, while we humans are constantly tortured with the need to attach meaning to our experiences and see instead on the field that one time we fell face-first from a grassy knoll or had a good picnic day out. This is a reflection on the revered zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki’s statement of how the expert’s mind actually fails to recognize anything beyond learned theories—something Maurizio would agree with, considering his background as an expert in the field of photography.
To dive deeper, Maurizio would frequently revisit the subject—be it a landscape or a sitter— he would like to capture and wait until he is able to let go of treating them as merely a visual fodder for his photographic trophies.
He does not attempt to bend nature to his liking, but he opens himself up to its possibilities without the weight of specific technical details that most photographers seek. For him, there is no such thing as “bad” light, subjects, weather, or techniques for shooting. He investigates, explores, and experiments with what he sees around him, almost as an affirmation to German contemporary photographer Andreas Gursky’s statement, that he “isn’t interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the River Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it” relaying how he wants to really be there in the moment and capture his subjects in its temporal reality, instead of focusing on an aesthetically beautiful experience or idealized landscape.
He has also limited his practice to analog photography —trimming down to using just one camera and one lens that allows him to be even more immersed in the scene without being bothered with technical clutter that comes from digital photography. With this heightened awareness of his surroundings, seemingly boring, mundane things open themselves up to him and appear new and fascinating as he notices its light, shadows, colours, textures, and patterns.
His full reliance on his eyes pushes him to only think of the camera as a tool of control, purpose, and accomplishment in order to notice and appreciate how light works, without any other thought or expectation that might get in the way of clear perception. And finally, after taking the shot, he lingers on the moment to appreciate it fully for what it is. For Maurizio, the goal goes beyond creating captivating—masterfully crafted pictorial photographs—but to also achieve his very own state of mindfulness and connect himself with his subjects and the world around him.
Take for example his 2019 landscape piece, Suzzara, from his series of natural landscapes titled Terra (Earth). It is a black and white photograph of a winter landscape where orderly planted trees stand imposingly stark against the harsh grey background. The play of colour values possess a pictorial (painting-like) quality akin to that of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s the Hunters in the Snow, where the image is harmonically composed and is whole by itself so that you don’t desire to know what lies beyond the frame and perceive it instead as a lone-standing reality which draws you in to focus on the photograph and just the photograph itself.
Printed at a large 1 x 1,5-meter size, every inch of the image is portrayed with clarity at an advanced level of technical mastery. Every branch, every slit of the bark, and every pebble on the ground possesses a sense of tactility that is elevated by the composition. The trees seemingly pull you in to walk on the path among them and slip into their dense unknown foliage.
Although Maurizio himself has stated that when he looks at these trees he sees himself and the people around him, Suzzara (2019) feels lonely. The trees are planted in their own isolated little plots of land with paths between them, some appearing more distinct and alluring than others. Perhaps a metaphor for a human being’s social yet self-contained experience of reality. A nod towards how we are inevitably bound by our physical bodies—unable to truly connect with people around us even though we share many elements of our lives with them, such as: the land we came from, and the sky of dreams we strive to grow towards.
And just like that, the visual cues from his photograph have sent us down an overwhelming spiral of truths in art—this is an all too familiar feeling we get these days from just about any other visual material such as our morning scroll through Instagram or our morning newspaper browse. Therefore his photographs encourage us to avoid this by training our mind and perception—to experience them with the same mindfulness they were born out of and perceive our souls’ truths instead.
After all, according to scholar Lawrence Beyer, the whole purpose of art is to uncover hidden truths. And French semiotician, Roland Barthes adds onto this by noting how the pursuit of truth in art is heavily reliant on visual cues present in the work. “I know that I am in a North African country, because I see on the left a road sign in Arabic script, in the center a man in a gandurah, etc.; here the reading closely depends on my culture, on my knowledge of the world;…. for the connotation resulting from knowledge is always a reassuring power: man loves signs, and he loves them to be clear.”
As such, the very concept of truth in art varies from person to person, supporting Plato’s thesis that the truth is an ideal form that could only exist in the mind— depending on our perception—and that one “truthful” interpretation of a work of art will never suffice.
As stated by Barthes, our differing perceptions occur due to our sensory organs that build up our knowledge of the world in individually unique forms of memories, cues, and prompts. A simple way to categorize them might come from examining differing schools of thought—starting with modernism in the late 19th century whose truth is a partnership between scientific rationalism (the truth can be uncovered through methodical, disciplined inquiry) with social traditionalism (the truth can be found in the history and heritage of Western Civilization) that was overruled in the mid-20th century by postmodernism.
Postmodernism views that there is no such thing as individualism as we are all products of our culture. Since its birth, postmodernism has prevailed among post-avant-garde artists and contemporary artists, especially between photographers and their critics who believe that photography— an original and seemingly purely mechanical-objective means of communication— would solve the dilemma of human perceptual interference to extract a purified truth in art.
However, Maurizio’s photographs are not satisfied by only identifying themselves with postmodernism, instead, they would closely affiliate themselves with Neo-romanticism which emerged quietly in late 19th century Britain from a need to look back from postmodernism and extract an alternate truth. Neo-romantics believe that insisting on a universal truth is to deny the differing experiences of different individuals and social groups. In order to truly acknowledge the differences, the truth is found by attaining harmony with nature through a spiritual exploration of the inner self, which is exactly what Maurizio falls back on.
To read his photographs as he intends them to means to let go of our previous direct sign-to-meaning reading of an image’s truth and go down towards a path of mindfulness that will allow us to leave behind our need to be an objective observer—a process Western psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion describes as the need to see “without memory or desire”.
For example, let’s attempt to observe an urban landscape piece Maurizio did in 2006, London Bridge. Captured on it is a street corner view of London, during what appears to be the lonely hours past midnight. Unlike Suzzara, the image is coloured and shows that time of the day when only dark windows with occasional glows from the street lights will decorate the paved street.
Now before you get into thinking about what the paved road or the lamp posts might signify, make a leap of trust into your soul through mindfulness as a deeper type of knowing. Be brave and try instead to not look for anything in particular, guide your eyes slowly to notice the photograph inch-by-inch. The different things it presents to you, its play of colours, its textures, and its individual objects, and remind yourself that by viewing this image you are not expecting or trying to control anything in particular and is instead wandering, perhaps rather aimlessly, without a goal or purpose. Remind yourself that there’s really no right or wrong way in this mindful way of seeing and that it is simply about feeling, sensing, noticing, and being present in the moment. The result will be that same state of mind you achieve when you’ve reached a mountain’s summit and you gaze down at the altitudes of sceneries below you.
Wellness coach, Amy Leigh Mercree, stated how this mindful way of seeing is a great alternative for those who struggle with meditation. “Meditation is a broad and diverse body of many types of exercises and ways to train the mind, heart, consciousness, and spirit. Mindful seeing is simply choosing to focus your awareness as much as possible on the information coming in through your sense of sight.”
That means mindful seeing will allow you to direct your mind to something other than your own endless internal monologue by taking the emphasis away from the thoughts rattling around in your head and consciously shifting your perspective outward.
Another way Maurizio has cultivated this is through his series of portraiture. Done with the same process of mindfulness, portraits present yet another layer of challenge, when before he was only dealing with his own state of mindfulness, he now has to deal with that of his sitters.
He modifies his process a little by working only with people he’s already had some time to personally know, as a way to be able to connect deeper with them and ensure that they are not so used to performing in front of cameras as public figures would be before inviting them to his studio space. There he would try his best to ensure that his sitters are comfortable enough to enter a meditative state. His shooting space is almost always comfortably dark, and he himself tries to hide behind the camera, giving the sitters the freedom to be themselves in their alone time.
Maurizio’s portraits, like Luciano (2019), capture a side of the sitters previously unknown to even themselves. Like pioneer photographer Felix Nadar, his backgrounds are neutral to direct focus to his sitters—their facial expressions, the way they are dressed, the way they do their hair, and how their gestures are set. His unique skill in the use of light helps to further bring his subjects out from their backgrounds and give their faces a luminous quality. What is captured is a moment between expressions when the sitters are finally themselves in a temporal and yet timelessly frozen moment.
And when you view them, the result is what photography curator, Gerry Badger, describes to be “A portrait which immediately grabs the viewer’s attention and triggers profoundly personal responses—emotional, paradoxical and not always rational. The issues raised are complex, challenging, even treacherous, revolving around the self and its representation, identity and immortality.” The end result is a mirror for people who now feel an emotional connection between themselves and the sitters although they have never met. Sure, each viewer will have their own interpretation and a different guess of what type of lives the sitters live but those guesses will still be more of a mirror of who the viewers are than that of the sitters or the author, and that’s barely the surface of the photograph’s meaning, without taking into account mindful seeing.
One of the most striking things Maurizio has said is that the photographs he has taken are his soul. This echoes great painter Cezanne’s way of practice, where he declared that he really only has painted one picture in his lifetime over and over again—the picture of his soul. His process of mindful photography is laborious and during it he has found himself thinking “Oh, I feel like I’ve lost my mind”, however he has now found that by losing his mind, he has instead found his soul. Allowing him to agree with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti who stressed the need for a revolution in the psyche of every human being that could only be achieved by looking inward and noticing how life is actually much simpler than we think of it to be.
Embodying a romantic ode to mankind’s search for a magnum opus, Maurizio’s photographs are a manifesto to the insurgence of a deviation from art as a set of embodied meanings communicated by artists and instead as fragments of our souls.
Anderson, Walter Truett, ed. The Truth About Truth: De-Confusing and Re- constructing the Postmodern World. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons,1995.