Tobi Wilkinson on Mindfulness and Photography

omkara Interviews

Your work is very diverse and beautiful, ranging from the relationships shown in your gallery ‘Lineage’ to scenes from Seans Panorama to ceremonies performed by the Gyuto Monks and moments captured in your gallery ‘India’ to name a few. My dad and sister were both photographers. I grew up with a dark room in the house and was surrounded by all sorts of wonderful photos. It used to (and still does) amaze me that you can take a photo, disappear into a dark room and somehow as if by magic the image appears on paper … I really do find it fascinating … and the same goes for vinyl records .. its alchemy, its magic, its art … so lets get started with your journey on creating such exquisite pieces….

Tobi’s latest exhibition “ Mindful Practice – Gyuto Monks Summer Retreat” will be at the Bondi Pavilion from 11th to the 24th of April 2016.

ITS RARE TO COME ACROSS PHOTOGRAPHERS THESE DAYS THAT WORK WITH FILM IN A TRADITIONAL WET DARKROOM … CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE FEELING YOU GET WHEN YOU’RE WAITING FOR THE PRINTS TO DEVELOP?

These days, ever since I had my sons, I have Chris at ‘Blanco Negro’ to actually develop all my film and then I either print the work myself in my darkroom or Chris helps print some of the work depending on the work load. There’s nothing like it, the excitement as its in the tray coming up …waiting … you know in that instant … you’ve either got it … its got potential or it hasn’t got potential. I am now shooting with digital as well and have been for a while, but I would never finish my relationship with film. I’ve just been shooting the Monks this morning digitally, but we’ve got all the lights set up testing film, we’ll start testing that next week. I guess that these days the other exciting thing, because of time and not being able to do a lot of film, is when I get my proof sheets back from Chris. You make a lot of judgements in that moment when you see your proof sheet and its still as exciting to get my proof sheets back today as it was when I first started ten or so years ago.

PLEASE SHARE SOME OF THE MOMENTS OF INSPIRATION THAT HAVE TRIGGERED A THEME/EXHIBITION AND GIVE US SOME EXAMPLES OF YOUR FAVOURITE PHOTOS FROM THAT TIME?

Whenever I read anyone else’s answer to that question, photographers have always dived into their current project and I get why they do that, because you’re so into what you are currently doing. But the series in 2014 with the Monks ‘Buddha’s Robes’ …. that’s got a bit of a soft spot in my heart. When we were doing the 2012 show and we were at the Bondi Pavilion, I was sitting in the gallery by myself and I could see it on the wall and, its not happened again since then and I don’t know how many times anyone creative gets that special moment. To just see the deep red, the movement and it was already on the wall and really that’s been one of the most focused bodies of work, because I could see it, I went for it. Of course it still changed a little on the way, for the better which surprised me, but yeah … I’ve got a real soft spot for those images .. and the Monks were so willing to participate.

I had to explain to them about focal plane, shutter speed and things like that, because when we shoot in the studio and I was just explaining this to a brand new group of Monks today, that sometimes we’ll be laughing and having a bit of fun and there are the outtakes, but basically most of the time when we’re shooting in the studio they have to be practicing. Now for a Monk, well there’s no minute where they’re not practicing and I emphasise the ‘just in case’ that we’re not just here just clicking, clicking, clicking, we’re actually trying to capture some essence of your practice onto film or digital depending (Buddhas Robes was digital) and that’s a really, really important thing.

With the Buddhas Robes that repetition of putting the Robes on, that they do every day, adjust them a million times a day, getting up, sitting down etc, so it wasn’t anything that they don’t normally do, but then every part of that robe has a significance, so when they’re doing it, they are reminded of all the reasons the robe is the way it is, so to speak. I try to make sure that that comes across in the work. They are my partners, I couldn’t do that without them. A series that we’re commencing in about a month, after the up and coming exhibition ‘Mindful Practice ~ The Gyuto Monks Summer Retreat’ is all on the deeper tantric meditations, so they go into their practice and I photograph them and I try to stay with them in the sense that I’m focused.


HOW DO YOU COPE WITH A LOW ENERGY DAY… DO YOU PUSH THROUGH OR DO YOU ALLOW YOURSELF TO SWITCH OFF AND TAKE A FRESH LOOK WITH A NEW DAY?

Ha, I tend to be a push through kind of girl, but as I age I’m learning not to do that, its bites you in the bum. I am actually learning more and more that if you’re having to push through then maybe it isn’t the right road, or avenue, path or moment, it’s something that I’m trying to do not just with my photography, but you know, trying to see if I can just slip into that flow. I read a great post the other day on Facebook that said ‘if the door doesn’t open its just not your door’. In my youth I was very much a go getter and a push, push, push and now days I think, Oh .. maybe that isn’t for me and maybe I am meant to do something else, once I think I know what it is, then I go for it.

YOU HAVE A KNACK FOR CAPTURING THE SPARKLE IN YOUR SUBJECTS EYES. I’VE LOOKED THROUGH ALL OF YOUR GALLERIES AND THERE ARE TOO MANY EXAMPLES TO SHOW, HOWEVER I LOVE THE FOLLOWING TWO PICS…WOULD I BE RIGHT IN ASSUMING THAT SEEING RESULTS LIKE THESE IS ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS WHEN THE FILM DEVELOPS AND YOU SEE THE MAGIC RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOU AND THINK ‘WOW, THIS IS WHY I PERSEVERE WITH MY WORK .. CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THESE MOMENTS ?

Mmm I like these pics and there’s a good story behind them and I have a soft spot for these. My husband I were traveling in India and I shot a whole body of work while we were traveling together and we bumped into some little kids….. they were very cheeky and then they said “why don’t you come to our school” … one thing led to another, we had the address, we got a rickshaw and we managed to get to the school. As its turned out, it was their long standing principals farewell, so we became the honoured guests. What happened was we got separated to each side of the room and all the kids were lined up, sitting and on that side were the girls and there’s a picture of a little boy and its not that he was flirting but we were totally engaged with each other at the same time while they put on this whole Indian performance. Can you imagine going to your western school performance for a farewell or something, well it was like that but Indian and we got to be the honoured guests. It was one of those in the flow moments.


BELOW IS A FANTASTIC PICTURE FROM YOUR INDIA GALLERY. THE USE OF LIGHT, DEPTH OF FIELD, THE BLACKS AND THE WHITES, CAN YOU CHAT A LITTLE ABOUT THE MOMENT YOU TOOK THIS PHOTO….

India Taj

I always drag my husband out at the ungodly hour of anywhere from 5 – 5:30am (its true love) and he’ll tell anyone that’s also married to a photographer that ‘the lights good’ .. ha and it is … So we went to see the Taj and it was fascinating because we both believe in reincarnation, we’d decided to come around the back because I’d already photographed the front ….. so we came around the back in a rickshaw and the Indian guy standing there (this was my husbands first time to the Taj ~ I had been before), turned around to him and said “you’ve been here before” … and he didn’t get it straight away …. “hunny, he doesn’t mean this lifetime” ha .. then Rob took the coloured version from the same position and I took black and white. I was trying to show him why I like certain pictures on this trip, and so there’s an Indian photographer Raghu Rai, who inspired me and I was explaining to Rob what was good about his pictures and what I was hoping to do and Rob got it, he understood and so he shot all of the coloured shots for the rest of our trip on film and I shot black and white. I could see how Rob could be really good actually, he really got it, he did these movement things and got everything I was trying to portray.

BELOW IS ANOTHER FINE EXAMPLE OF BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY FROM ‘SEANS KITCHEN GALLERY’ … I DON’T EVEN HAVE A QUESTION FOR THIS, BUT I’VE EATEN THERE A FEW TIMES AND I’M IMPRESSED THAT YOU COULD GET SUCH GREAT SHOTS IN THE MIDST OF A BUSY AND SMALL KITCHEN …

Seans Kitchen

So Seans…I learnt to cut my teeth in Seans…essentially I’ve got my Camera (Rob had given me for my 31st Birthday) and he said “you should go down and shoot at Seans” and I was too shy to ask…So Rob went and asked Sean because he knows him and I’d only just started to take photos.

The interesting thing that Seans taught me, and its helped with the Monk work, is that first of all you have to get steady at 1/15th of a second if you can. You can’t ask them to redo it .. the same with the Tibetan Ceremonies .. you can’t say “oh stop can you do that again” …. you must stay in the moment, you have to stay out of everybody’s way and his kitchen is quite small so you’re moving yourself into different spots and I shot A LOT of film in Seans.

I went down two or three times a week and I shot a lot of photos and basically I think that’s kind of how I did my apprenticeship really. I studied with Gorden Undy, he’s a sweetheart and has actually just been helping me with the recent show, we still have a tight relationship, and look, if he hadn’t started ‘Point Light’ there’s no way I would be a photographer. His energy and the style at Point Light was very unique and I really am more traditional than I am into creating modern art … although I buy modern art, I like it, but a lot of my work  comes from a very classical base and that was what he taught me. He taught me to print, how to photograph, how to develop, so it’s a good foundation …and it was hard … but once you learn, then you can break the rules … happily.

ITS CLEAR THAT YOU HAVE A DEEPLY SPIRITUAL LIFE PATH CONNECTED WITH YOUR ART. PLEASE SHARE HOW YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS NURTURES YOUR SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION?

It’s kind of really simple because to me everything is connected to being mindful. When you’re in the darkroom if you are scattered, it’s going to be a terrible printing day, you ask anyone. If you’re not focused and you’re not clear in your mind then you don’t get results. You are better off not printing that day, because its hard, so there’s that. I also believe, especially more now that I’ve been photographing the Monks, that if I’m doing my practices and I’m trying to the best of my ability to stay focused, to keep my thoughts positive and to get rid of negative thoughts … its not rocket science .. then my work with the Monks stays in the same place. Its like anyone, if you’re tired or you’ve let your anger get the better of you or something like that and then you go to work, whatever it is, you don’t usually produce your best work. It doesn’t matter if you’re a chef, an artist or if you’re a mum. If I’ve had a grumpy day and I’ve decided to buy into my negative emotions as opposed to my positive ones and then I go and pick my kids up from school, well they’re going to feel that, so I don’t see it any differently with a camera.

Again I saw a great post the other day that said something like (its a long quote) but the shortening of it is ‘there’s really only ever one thing to do at one time and that is what you are doing right now’ … now who can do it? Well the Monks do it, his Holiness The Dalai Lama does it…its mindfulness. I’m here with you having a conversation and trying to stay totally with this and then when I leave I can move onto driving my car, then what’s for dinner  etc, but most of us can’t do it or we at least have two or three things going on at one time.

I think that’s what I like about photography, I don’t want to think it through. That’s why I think Gordon might not have found me the easiest of students at times. Because he’s quite technical and you’ve got to learn a lot of these numbers and he knows that I’ve thrown them out the window. I just learnt them in a different way because I said to him “if I have to think numbers then I don’t want to photograph anymore”. I’m an over thinker at the best of times and so when I photograph I just want to stay photographing…in that moment.

HAS THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING WITH THE GYUTO MONKS ENABLED YOU TO ACCESS AN EVEN DEEPER LEVEL OF TIMELESSNESS, A MORE REFINED FOCUS WITH YOUR SPIRITUAL/CREATIVE CONNECTION TO YOUR ART?

It just makes me try to do it more. When doing the first shoot with any of the groups of Monks, I’m nervous and I think they might be too, it’s a new relationship, its everything. Most of these Monks I know from the Monastery and now they’re in Australia … so they are like a fish out of their own pond, so suddenly they’re here with someone going click, click, click .. and when I shoot, I shoot a lot ….. so yeah, it really comes down to the present moment and gratitude. We were sitting having lunch the other day and a lady came over and said “wow, aren’t you lucky having lunch with seven Monks’ … yeah I am lucky.. whatever way you look at it, Karma, good deeds, but I just don’t think it would continue unless I tried to stay practicing with that focus …. I don’t want to loose my way with that and I take it seriously working with them to help their monastery.

LASTLY, ARE THERE ANY PRACTICES THAT YOU ENGAGE IN TO BOOST YOUR CREATIVITY AND ENERGY FOR YOUR WORK ?

Not really, except like anyone who’s trying to produce something creative, if you’re over-thinking it, it just doesn’t happen. So you know, when I’m thinking about the next project … I know that one of the next Monastic projects is I’m actually working on the children. I’m going over in June solely to photograph the young Monks .. but I don’t know yet how the final shape of that is going to be. Every time I try to think it through it doesn’t happen, I don’t get any solutions. I’ve planted the seed, I know the topic and the focus of that work will be the young monks and their journey at the monastery and then I don’t know how the rest will be, so its mindfulness and sometimes a little prayer when you don’t think its coming soon enough. Getting back to your question about film, the thing about any of those things but especially I guess film is that something can go wrong, you can lose it all, you can tip in the wrong chemistry and you’re gone. So imagine you’ve flown, you’ve shot your work, you’ve come back and you’ve loaded your tanks and its happened to people I know, and instead of putting developer in, they’ve put fixer in or something and lost it all. When I’m at the monastery I shoot two or three cameras, film and digital. It can happen the other way, I’ve pictures lost with digital so you have to take a back up camera as glitches happen to every photographer.

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