COMMUNION: ENCOUNTERING THE OTHER THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY*
*reprinted with permission from журнале “POIESIS: A Journal of the Arts and Communication”, 2022, Vol. 19, P. 114-125
PHD, is an arts psychotherapist, supervisor, educator and celebrant with over 20 years experience working with people, organisations and communities in post-conflict and conflict environments. As a singer/songwriter and photographer, Carolina has a passion for how the expressive arts can support us to respond to the complex challenges we face in our world today.
This essay explores a deep encounter between a photographer and the natural world. Slowing down and focusing in on a landscape, a moment when light brushes the earth alight after a storm, or, to gaze into an animal's eyes in the wild is like an awakening of our relationship with our earth. In times when are increasingly disconnected or even separated from the wild, the therapeutic use of photography can draw us back into the intimacy that is at the essence of our own wild nature. It can restore hope and a relationship of compassion, care and appreciation of beauty and communion with our mother Earth.
Keywords: communion, nature, relationships, I-It, I-Thou, photography, healing
On being a photographer
Photography for me is like a meditation. It’s a tool that draws me into a deep communion with nature. Communion is derived from com, meaning “with or together” and unus, meaning “oneness or union,” its Latin root is communionem, meaning “fellowship, mutual participation, and a sharing.” (https://www.etymonline.com/word/communion. The mysterious sharing and participation with nature that we are all part of is the communion I experience as a photographer.
Photography helps me to look, notice, become curious and to deeply focus. In this way of seeing, the camera becomes almost invisible, I no longer experience it as an object or a technical barrier, instead it becomes a channel of communication and relational communion. The barriers of separation start to disappear and I feel a flow of energy between myself and the landscape, plant or animal I am focusing on
I feel fully present to this sacred relationship. There is no longer separation with nature, we are of one spirit, one breath—such is this mystical participation, this union, this communion.
Photo 1: Silk Cotton Tree, Ta Prohm Temple, Cambodia (photo Carolina Herbert)
Focusing on an image draws my inner eye into the landscape of the very being of beauty. There is a breath, a pulse, my heart beating with the rhythm of wonder. Beauty captivates me and fills me with awe as I capture each moment, I want to preserve and share her essence.
To show you the soft hues of dawn or a sunset’s final firefly blaze, the ocean alight with the sun’s flames, a wave that curls over the golden path as if drawing the thread of light into its inky indigo depths. To introduce you to the wild animal’s eyes so you can know the wild within you. To show you the tender luminous green iris shoots growing up through the icy cold winter ground beneath the magnificent bare beech tree. These lilac lights igniting the pathway to spring. To show you those magical moments of rainbow arch and northern lights, distant stars amidst the fullness of the moon as it rises over the tops of snow-capped mountains. To show you another perspective, to reset where and who you are in the universe of things. To remind you that all this lives in you too, this universe of beauty.
Photo 2: Iris at dawn (photo Carolina Herbert)
On being in nature
As a child I roamed free in the wilds of nature with my brothers. We were often out until sunset building dens in nearby fields or surfing in the wild sea. I had the joy of galloping on my horse across wide stretches of sandy beaches. The natural world and especially the ocean was my home, my play space and my constant encounter with beauty and the wild. I was always talking with these natural elements, they were my friends. These powerful ancient beings helped raise me and continue to inspire me to be well and to have hope.
Photo 3: Rhosilli Bay Sunset, Gower Peninsular, Wales (photo Carolina Herbert)
In his book Last Child in the Woods, the journalist Richard Louv  warned of the impact of children’s loss of freedom to roam in their neighbourhoods and discover nearby nature. This happened within little more than a generation as children’s lives became more confined indoors. “At the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world,” he observed, “a growing body of research links our mental, physical and spiritual health to our association with nature” (p. 3).
In considering how to move social and ecological systems toward sustainability, Ives et al.  propose that emotional connections with nature have the potential to leverage deep societal change toward respect and care for nature; and they recognise childhood as a time to begin building connection.
Chan et al.  make a similar argument that people often protect and restore the natural world for the sake of “relational values”: because feelings like connection with nature, attachment to a special place in nature or satisfaction found in caring for nature enhance the quality of people’s lives.
In their book “Nature-based expressive arts therapy”, Sally Atkins and Melia Snyder describe how we have lost what eco-philosopher Thomas Berry (1988) calls “the great conversation” with the moon, with trees, rivers, mountains and animals, with our more than human world [1, p. 87-88]. They propose we need to return to an epistemology of the sacred, of the senses and of intimacy with nature. An intimacy that can cultivate the deepest respect in relationship with nature.
As Thich Nhat Hanh so eloquently says: “When we walk like [we are rushing], we print anxiety and sorrow on the earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the earth... Be aware of the contact between your feet and the earth. Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/255935-when-we-walk-like-we-are-rushing-we-print-anxiety Such relationship and communion then has the potential to cultivate constructive hope and action. Li and Monroe  found that when young people feel concern about environmental problems and believe that they and others can address problems effectively, they are more likely to feel hope. Both hope and concern motivate action, whereas despair and feelings of helplessness are negatively related to action in the research [15,16,17,18].
On Being with the I-Thou
In his iconic book I and Thou, Martin Buber  explains that there are two modes of engaging with the world, which he describes through the use of two word pairs, I-It and I-Thou. Buber calls these primary words, which do not signify things but intimate relations. It is not possible to be an “I” outside of these relations. Buber calls the I-It mode of engaging with the world, the mode of “experience” (which covers both inner emotions and sensory experience), where the I is an objective observer, cataloguing, calculating, analyzing, and describing, rather than being in active relation. Buber tells us that I-It does not make for a “whole” human being. For this we also need I-Thou .
Photo 4: Great Heart – a copper beech tree in Autumn (photo Carolina Herbert)
For Martin Buber “…he who lives with It alone is not a man” [4, p.24]. Human beings need “I-Thou” relationships, where we communicate with our being rather than with words. I-Thou is about mutuality, seeing someone in his or her depth, speaking to the Other with your entire being, saying Thou with all that you are, standing in present relation, in the here and now– not completely separate, but not completely fused, maintaining just enough balance between close and distant to retain a sense of who you are.
Buber primarily talks about human relationships, however he also considers relationships with Nature. Buber sums up the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships by considering a tree:
“I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background. I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air–and the obscure growth itself. I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life. I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law…I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation. In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution. It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.” [4, p.6].
In taking this photograph of the copper beech tree, I entered into what felt like an I-Thou relationship. As I reflected on my experience it moved me to tears. Tears that fell to the ground with such a deep honor and respect for the presence of this tree that it became like a sacred teacher to me in a moment of communion.
Reaching up to the skies
Magnificent fire canopy
Caressed in sunset’s golden light
Effortless in your presence
You hold your still ground
You place no demands on me
As you release each leaf
I watch them fly away like dying flames on the cool breeze of autumn Falling
With grace to ground
We breathe together
Giving and receiving
Life and death
(Carrie Herbert November 2020)
I have learnt that I-Thou experiences cannot be willed. They are given to us by grace, but I have to be open to them, choose to enter these moments and learn to give and receive through this relationship. Buber talks about knowledge, art and teaching as all needing more I-Thou relationships. Is the I-Thou the central focus of all creativity, all spirituality and all human becoming? All I know is when I surrender into the creative process in relationship with the other, something new emerges. It is what Paolo Knill describes as the Third . This refers to the myriad of “aha” moments. The term “flash” was introduced by Balint  for all the surprising and non-reproducible healing effects of a relationship. Grob  talks about it as a “gift in the space of encounter.” Using photography as a therapeutic tool, I experience such moments and gifts in the encounter with nature every time.
Billy Childish states “my quest through my work is for God” [11, p.14]. It is perhaps a willingness of the artist to enter the “participation mystique” [10, p.105] that art impacts upon the life of the both the artist and the collective. The creative process has been perceived as meaning-making and as a mystical and mysterious process that cannot be fully fathomed or comprehensible by reason. The artist is a mediator who strives to bring together the temporal with the eternal, bringing two worlds together. Jung proposes “that the artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As an artist he is man in the higher sense–he is collective man, a vehicle and moulder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind” [10, p.101].
Photography enables the art of seeing and focusing on the now, on the present moment. Being fully present is a powerful state of being. As such, photography used in this way creates a shift in perspective, a literal shift in our wellbeing, boosts positive hormones, enhances our mood and draws us into connection with beauty. As a person with depression stated: “I was able to start seeing beauty all around me: in darkness and in light. The ordinary became fascinating and the mundane started to shine.” [19, p.21]. When you have a camera in your hand, you begin searching for beauty in the world even more. It’s not always in the obvious places. The mundane can start to take on new meaning and light for you as your eye becomes more trained to find the next photo. This is often connected to gratitude, which is another powerful tool for healing and shifting your thought patterns and way of being [19, p.22]. Photography can connect us with deep and rich experiences and life stories as we encounter the other, as I discovered on meeting Sambo, an incredible elephant in the wilds of Cambodia.
The Asian elephant—an encounter with resilience and freedom
Asian elephants have been integral to Khmer culture in Cambodia for millennia. Elephants feature prominently in the extraordinary temples of Angkor in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap. Historians estimate that over 6,000 elephants were used in the construction of the Angkor Wat complex. The 12th century Terrace of the Elephants depicts scores of nearly fullsize elephants at Angkor Thom (https://wildearthallies.org/cultural-significance-asian-elephants-cambodia/. The Asian elephant now is endangered with only 30-50,000 left and only around 400 remaining in Cambodia. Elephants have disappeared entirely from western Asia, Iran, and most of China (https://elephantconservation.org/elephants/asian-elephants/).
Photo 5: Sambo’s Eye (photo Carolina Herbert)
Sambo was one of 6 elephants taken during the Khmer Rouge from their owner. Only Sambo survived. After the war was over his owner found him chained and in a near-death starvation state and brought him back to Phnom Penh as its people too began to return. Over time Sambo, like the Khmer people became strong again. One day the school bus broke down and Sambo became the transport for the children. He became an iconic part of the landscape of Phnom Penh’s streets as they rode his back to school. However, a city is no place really for an elephant. An elephant sanctuary in the rolling hills of Mondulkiri opened in recent years and took him in for retirement.
I had often seen Sambo on the streets of the city and now I had gone to meet him back in the wilds of the jungle. I am not sure what happened between us as I gazed into his eye set deep into his golden-brown leather skin. I felt moved to tears to witness this resilient giant who had been through so much suffering finally returned to the freedom of the wild. Amidst my tears, I laughed out loud as the ranger told me Sambo keeps escaping the sanctuary boundaries with his new elephant friend Ruby. They are often found eating their way through a nearby banana plantation, or they have to go and get him from outside the local school where Sambo waits for the children to come outside at the end of the day. It made me wonder if he misses the familiar presence of those barefooted children bundled up on the arch of his back as he rocked them home through the streets of Phnom Penh.
Sambo, I see you at a distance,
your earthen form merged with the wild vibrant green jungle
as if you had always belonged here.
You let me come close.
It’s the closest I have ever been to an elephant.
I am in awe of your sentinel being.
My breathing slows as I feel your breath on my skin.
I gaze into your eye and wonder how you survived
watching your family die,
while you too were chained,
worked to the bone to your dying day.
Then you lived, lived in the big hard concrete city away from the green.
I wonder how it felt to let those barefooted children
clamber on your back to ride to school.
How you allow any human to come close
after being so injured by us.
There is a secret silent strength in you
and a fierce fight for freedom still,
as you escape the elephant sanctuary with reckless abandon
and rip those golden curved delights in the succulent banana plantain.
before going to stand still waiting by the gates of the village school
until the patter of children’s feet come running to your side.
Birds in the wild
The improvisational robin song stops me in my tracks, I pause and listen to your chit chit chatter music and you and I stay so close for a while. I and you, you and I, eye to eye as if time stands still. Your iconic red breast spills its song into my heart and ignites a fiery passion, a longing to protect you from moving to the red list of endangered birds in the UK. How many more species do we need to lose from our skies I wonder? It was heartening to visit the re-wilded white tailed sea eagles on the Isle of Skye on the West Coast of Scotland. They were nearly extinct in the area. Now there are over 150 pairs of eagles successfully reintroduced to the wild moving this magnificent bird of prey from the red to the amber list. It is possible, when we focus only on one species being endangered, to lose sight of the ripple effect of any species becoming rare or extinct in the delicate balance of our ecosystems.
Photo 6: The robin (photo Carolina Herbert)
Photo 7: The humming bird (photo Carolina Herbert)
Co-extinction happens because of co-existence. Spending time with these exquisite endangered hummingbirds is breathtaking. I learned that if hummingbirds went extinct, the mites could go extinct too because they would have no way of getting from flower to flower. Then the flowers, because they depend on the hummingbirds and mites to spread pollen, also go extinct (https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/coextinction.php
“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” (Martin Buber, https://www.beth-israel.org/rabbi-lyons-blog-07_20_2018/.
I encourage you to be with these images and words and notice what you see, feel and encounter through them. Take a moment to meditate on the meaning of your encounter with animals and nature. Your relationship with the I-Thou, the Other. What is there for you to receive, to learn to see, to imagine, to create?
Photo 8: The seal (photo Carolina Herbert)
Once you know I am safe
Your eyes soften and close into blissful rest.
There is no waiting.
There is no time
As the tide sweeps away
From your ochre sea rug.
(From an encounter with the seals when I was recently exploring my Scottish roots and spending time with wildlife that is protected and respected.)
Photo 9: The dolphin (photo Carolina Herbert)
It was my childhood dream to see you just once in the wild
And then you came back again and again and again
Playfully darting alongside the boat
Until our eyes met Joy welled up in my whole being
I was lost in an ocean of salt-water tears
Photo 10: The stag (photo Carolina Herbert)
Ah, that wild rugged Isle. We were headed back home after a wee dram as Nick shared his dream to see a stag deer.
“Why not ask the universe” I suggested, “for your wish.”
You appeared like a majestic guardian. Watching over us as we departed before turning into the setting sun.
The dignity of your presence lingered. For a moment I forgot to take a breath as I turned to see Nick’s burley frame sobbing with gratitude.
Photo 11: Icarus Sunset (photo Carolina Herbert)
As the sun leaves the day
You fly as if your wing brushes
The golden orb
Into its slumber
I am flooded with gratitude
My Icarus fears suspended with my breath
As you soar up and beyond
Into the darkening skies lit with traces of golden hope
What are you left feeling now, what poetic response might you write from these images, these words. Can you spend some time in nature encountering the other, the I-thou in the trees, the birds, the landscape around you. How will it affect you, move you, change you?
In religious communion there is a sacrament, in its original meaning a sacrament is a solemn oath. I make a commitment to honour the sacred, the mystery and the beauty of mother earth, nature in all living things, nature in you, nature in me.
Contact Carolina at: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.alkimiasoul.com
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Reference for citations
Herbert, C. A. (2022). Communion: Encountering the other through photography. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 3(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)