The Decisive Moment and Contemplative Photography

Henri Cartier-Bresson introduced the concept of the Decisive Moment (DM). It has served as a milestone in the history of photography and is the centerpiece of Contemplative Photography. Why? Because Cartier-Bresson was free to look through his own eyes, independent of conventional photographic practice.

His book, The Mind’s Eye ( resonates with anyone who practices Buddhist meditation because it hits on many keynotes that are essential for that approach to ‘seeing’. For this article I’ll use the above-mentioned book by Cartier-Bresson as a source of reference, revisit the DM and make some comments.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a master of expressing the DM photographically, starts his shoots with the predatory attitude of a hunter whose goal is to get his prey. He writes “…I prowled the streets all day, feeling strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life…”. However, in the process of this hunt, his attitude shifts dramatically. Seized by the DM, he forgets himself and his preconceived ideas – he is no longer the determined hunter. He responds with his whole being “…when all faculties converge…”, he comments. Composition, for example, is taken care of by itself – at the moment of shooting.

Let me elaborate on this dynamic process that starts with ‘what one wants to see’ and ends up with a much deeper seeing of ‘what is’. Both are equally acceptable but they are based on two ways of seeing.

The Decisive Moment or The Flash of Perception

Cartier-Bresson gives us hints of what had gone on during the process of tracking down the DM. For example, he emphasizes the importance of the “…ever attentive eye…” or “…to be attentive to life…”. On another occasion, he says he spent his whole life “…trying to be inconspicuous in order to observe better…”. In his writing he points to a selfless meditative, unobtrusive mind that takes over and allows him to catch that elusive, creative moment, which lasts a fraction of a second. It is a moment of no duality and no rules, he says. It is a moment of unity, when he forgets himself and the camera.

At that critical moment, one perceives directly. In Contemplative Photography, we call this ‘the flash of perception’.

How can we account for this shift in attitude?

A Moment of Truth

At some point, Cartier-Bresson must have paused in his mental effort to hunt for certain kinds of pictures. A ‘still mind’ took over. A mind free of expectations, allowed him to get intimately involved with what was in front of him. For a moment, he could forget about himself as a person. Having landed in the present moment, his awareness was no longer the awareness of a hunter which is focused and directed. J.Daido Loori (in The Zen of Creativity:…)uses the metaphor of the startled deer to illustrate this unrestricted, unfocused awareness. “A deer … when startled…”, he says “…will freeze in its tracks, filling his whole body with awareness…”. If you ever have observed a deer you know how fitting this comparison is.

To be present means looking through one’s very own eyes – uncluttered by expectations and ideas. With the sense of self out of the way, one is free and sees clearly. One is at the ‘still point’ (Ibid.), at the heart of creativity and sees with a compassionate eye.

What is expressed photographically during that moment is a creative and authentic response of the self that has come free. It is indeed a decisive and vivid moment of ‘what is’ and not of what we would like it to be.

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