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Inspiration for the Project

Most spiritual literature is filled with the words “see” or “vision” to describe the transcendent experience. After spending nearly three decades as a photojournalist I became intrigued by parallels of my work with those seeking spiritual awareness in practice and visual design.

Although I had been intellectually curious about Buddhism for over a decade, I never made the connection with photography until a few years ago while reading a biography of Henri Cartier-Bresson which described how he’d been influenced by the book “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel.

Buddhism in particular emphasizes the connectedness of human beings with each other and acknowledges the concept of life’s transience, and therefore the significance of a single moment. The photograph is that only medium that captures this fleeting moment and the best ones attach meaning to it. The subject, the photographer and the viewers of the image all contribute to the process.

The project began in 2011 when I went to Miyagi Prefecture in Japan to do magazine photo coverage of the aftermath of the terrible tsunami. I remember sitting on the floor of a middle school-turned-refugee center taking pictures of an elderly woman, a survivor who was now homeless. We sat silently – just a few feet away from each other – as she looked into my lens and I photographed her. I had no idea what she saw in her mind, but I wanted to project and communicate empathy and compassion on the most basic level, and let her be a reflection of the broad human experience of this disaster.

After that work was finished I visited the Buddhist temple gardens of Kyoto. In Zen design, I saw many of the same qualities-restraint, serenity and minimalism-that I’d seen in the woman’s face and also in the response of the Japanese as they dealt with the tragedy. This intersection of design, emotion, sensibility and sensitivity was apparent in the Zen gardens of Kyoto, and I was curious how it might be reflected in the aesthetics and practices of other cultures. By making spiritual transcendence the very subject of a project, could the photographs “see” beyond the superficial?

A product of that curiosity, Seeing Buddha is a journey to many key locations in the history of Buddhism and where it is still widely practiced. These photographs are a reflection of those places, and of my own visual, emotional and intellectual experience of being there.

-David Butow


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