During 2012 Paul Gaffney walked over 3,500 kilometres with the aim of creating a body of work which would explore the idea of walking as a form of meditation and personal transformation.
His intention was to create a series of quiet, meditative images, which would evoke the experience of being immersed in nature and capture the essence of the journey. The images seek to engage the viewer in this walk and to communicate a sense of the subtle internal and psychological changes which one may undergo while negotiating the landscape.
Paul Gaffney interviewed by Nick Rochowski and Tim Bowditch
Nick Rochowski and Tim Bowditch: The idea of walking as a form of meditation is something that has been explored by traditions all over the world for thousands of years. It forms the basis of your project where you explore a varying typology of natural and human-affected landscapes. Can you tell us more about why you started walking in such landscapes and how documenting the walks has become part of this meditative process?
Paul Gaffney: Walking is by its nature both rhythmic and physical and it can slow down the mind and allow you to see, and connect with your surroundings in a different way. Most of us can say that we’ve had times where we’ve had a more heightened sense of awareness and attention to detail while we’ve been walking, or we’ve felt that it’s cleared our head or has allowed us to look at things differently. It’s quite possibly the most accessible, natural and widely used form of meditation, certainly here in the west even if we don’t always recognise it as such.
The inspiration behind the project began as far back as the summer of 2008, when I had the opportunity to spend five months travelling throughout South America. I’ve always been keen on hiking and I spent approximately one third of that trip in the mountains, and it felt that those were the times when I was most at ease. I traveled for a few of those weeks with a friend who had once taught meditation and I asked if she could teach me a basic meditation technique. She advised me that if I was in any way serious about learning that I should consider taking a course in Vipassana meditation.
The thought of spending 10 days meditating for up to 11 hours each day on a silent residential course seemed equally daunting and attractive, so I signed up for a course in Cuzco at the end of my trip and I was very much moved by the experience. The following year I decided to make a project about a Vipassana centre in Hereford in England. I spent about a month at the centre in total, volunteering, sitting another course, and taking photos in the down-time between courses. Having previously studied and written about John Gossage’s book The Pond, which uses a series of landscape images to take the viewer along a fictional path, I decided to try to use a combination of interior shots of the centre and exterior shots of the walking areas to try to evoke the idea of the internal journey that a meditator takes during one of these 10 day courses.
Later that Summer I made a last minute decision to walk 800km of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It was the first time I had undertaken a walk of anything close to such length and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The combination of the physical challenge, amazing landscapes, and time to reflect, along with the people I met along the way, made it one of the most intense learning experiences of my life. It was upon returning from that walk that ideas began to form around creating a photography project which, in a similar vein to my earlier Vipassana project, would reflect the idea of the internal meditative journey which can occur while walking long distances.
NR & TB: This 3500km journey is made up of a number of walks. What countries did you explore and what were the reasons for choosing these specific backdrops for exploration/escape? It appears as though the project is centred around the seasons of Autumn and Spring, is there a reason for this?
PG: The journey is made up of eight different walks, varying in distance from about 100km to 1000km in length, and my choice of route was generally made for practical purposes. I wanted to be able to walk over 30km per day for up to several weeks at a time without carrying too much equipment, so I decided on Spain, Portugal and the south of France as they have good networks of marked routes with basic accommodation at regular intervals. I did very little research into what type of landscape I might find along the way as I wanted to leave as much up to chance as I could, and I very soon reached a point where I stopped carrying maps and just made a few notes of the distances between stopping points. When you have to carry everything on your back you soon learn to ditch anything which is not totally necessary.
You’re right that the images in the book have been mostly made during Spring and Autumn, though this was not necessarily by design. Although I walked right through the year from January to December, I must have walked somewhere close to 2,000 kilometres between mid-June and mid-September, and when it came to editing the images it very soon became apparent that the images I had taken during this period were just not going to work with the others. The light and feeling were simply too different and I could not find a way of connecting them with the rest – they just didn’t fit the overall mood of the project. I found this quite frustrating at first, but it was actually an important stage of the process, as it allowed me to just walk for the love of it without thinking about photography and these trips really helped my ideas take shape.
NR & TB: As the title and indeed Antonio Machado’s 1912 poem Wanderer there is no path suggests, we create new directions through exploration. Once the area is chosen how do you determine a starting location, is the end known and is there a route you follow or does the image making process itself take over and dictate the journey?
PG: In many senses we’re all making paths all the time, and paths by their nature have been walked by many others before. A particular path may have been walked by millions of people, even that same day, or it may be overgrown, faint and disappearing, but it doesn’t necessarily make it more or less special. To me what’s much more important is the understanding that we’re all shaping our own path and that this process affects those around us. It is the appreciation of the path which is paramount, our awareness of it, and how we learn and grow from the experience, regardless of location or destination. I wanted to create the feeling that these landscapes could exist anywhere and this is why I decided not to specify where each image was taken, as I felt that it would ultimately be a distraction to the viewer, and I guess another upside of this is that it also lends the project a little more mystery.
I found that one of the main benefits of walking those marked paths was that I became less preoccupied about where I was going and how I was going to get there, and this made it a little easier to stay in the moment and appreciate my surroundings. Once I had picked a path I knew roughly how long it would take for me to walk it and more or less where I would end up, but I had no idea as to what I would see or who I might meet along the way. There was a certain amount of practical preparation, although I always left some space for chance and detours. Over the months it became apparent that whenever I tried to plan ahead too much things would inevitably backfire, whereas if I just got on with it and trusted in the flow of things, everything worked out just fine.
NR & TB: In your previous work you looked at the theme of modern industrial impacts on the landscape, particularly the M4. Looking at this project, a number of the locations you explored were led by your desire to document areas of human intervention, ranging from dirt tracks through tall grass to large gravel pits. Do you think that this impact on nature is something you are looking for when taking the pictures or editing the work?
PG: I am particularly interested in how industry and technology has affected how we interact and engage with the landscape. The project you have mentioned (Cuts Across the Land) had its roots in my bus journeys up and back the M4 from Cardiff to London, I became fascinated by the numerous footbridges which I saw dotted along the motorway which seemed to appear from, and disappear into, nowhere. They prompted me to reflect on the fact that you can’t stop along a motorway to enjoy the scenery, and instead you seem to just glide over the landscape without ever being a part of it. So I became intrigued by the idea of what I might see from the ends of those footbridges and half of the fun was finding them on the maps and actually getting there, tramping across mud fields with a friend in the rain and being excited about what I might find. So in essence, that work became more about drawing attention to the beauty of these particular places which we rarely visit.
In many ways a lot of the same fascinations are still there with We Make the Path by Walking and the goal is still to find ways to create an immersive experience for the viewer, and also to encourage them to think about the landscape in a different way, though this time around the process was less focused on documentation and planning. I knew very early on that I did not want to create some kind of personal diary, so rather than being driven to simply document my own experiences on the walks, I wanted to make images which could later be pieced together to somehow capture the essence of the journey, and to form a narrative landscape. I felt that it would be more powerful to leave things open to interpretation and let others bring their own experiences to the images.
I think it’s fair to say that pretty much all of the landscapes I passed through have been touched by man in some way, even by virtue of there being a path through them, and I think most of the photos show some sign of human intervention. When you look at the final series you see forty images which were whittled down from thousands and when I was editing the work I was primarily concerned with how the images might reflect a certain state of mind, and how to link them together to create a sense of flow and change. I wanted to create a sense of progression in the book, which starts with scenes which might feel heavier or overgrown and there are obstacles to overcome, and the path then begins to open out and become unearthed as you move through the series and you start to see more horizons. I hoped to hint at an internal progress, of things being dug up and dealt with, of moving on as well as moving through, and when I was editing I was certainly conscious of how a viewer might react differently to images which had different levels of human intervention.
NR & TB: You have chose to present We Make the Path by Walking as a book. Within the edit there are a number of literal depictions of a journey, route or specific direction, these are presented alongside perhaps more visceral visually alluring images which reveal more of your personal engagement with the landscape.
PG: Different sequencing, editing and design techniques were used to build a pace and rhythm in order to create a sense of movement and journey. There are some images, such as those of paths and tracks for example, which are used to lead both the eye and the mind through the images and invite the viewer to engage with the landscape, to participate in the experience and perhaps wonder where the path is leading, whereas other images are used to create a sense of pause and an increased awareness of the detail of the surroundings.
Some of the pairings and connections between images happened almost instantly and others needed quite a bit of work. I started editing fairly early on in the process and began making short sequences of maybe four or five images, and many of these held right until the end. There is no chronological order as such, but as it worked out, images from the same walk often worked well together. When I came back from each walk I would edit the new pictures, print off perhaps a hundred small work prints and look through these along with those which I had taken before. The challenge was then how to connect these sequences so that the transitions felt natural. As it turned out, the last photo to make it into the edit was one of the very first that I had taken. It had always been a favourite but I had never found a home for it, and it just happened to work as a perfect link between the last series of images I shot and the following section of the book.
The design of the book itself was also an important part of the overall concept. I chose to make quite a small journal-sized book as I felt that it would give a more intimate viewing experience, and I used a Swiss binding style which would allow the double page spreads to fold out flat (which allowed me to use larger images in the book without them being overly affected by the gutter). I also tried things like changing the positioning of the image on the page to suggest the movements of a walker’s roaming eye and chose an uncoated matte paper to give the book a more natural, tactile feel.
NR & TB: Are the walks focused on a mental escapism or primarily a visual discovery? How do these two fundamental elements interact and what are you hoping to realise on each journey? The project has taken you on a long journey, is this methodology something you will continue to use to produce work or are you looking at another approach moving forward?
PG: Making a photography project was perhaps the excuse I needed to give myself to spend all those months walking, and I suppose that’s a big part of what photography means to me. It’s the foil, the reason I give myself to do the things that I want to do, and to allow myself the time to explore and discover. So yes, the walks were definitely about discovery, and I’d like to think that it was not just about a visual discovery. One of the main goals of meditation is to quieten the mind enough that you can get a sense of what else is going on, first of all in your own body, and then around you. So rather than escaping it’s about being present, and that was as much a goal as making successful images.
This might sound straightforward but in practice it’s actually very difficult. Over the course of the year, I noticed that my mind was usually preoccupied while walking, and I often found it difficult to remain aware of the present moment for any decent length of time. I also found that the act of photography was often counter-productive to my goal of capturing the sense of experience of the landscape, which often led to a sense of frustration. For example, if you’re walking in quite a relaxed state and you feel drawn to stop to look at something, you can quickly snap out of that moment when the camera comes out and you begin to try to figure out how to compose and frame the picture. I actually found that one of the most challenging aspects of the project and it was something which I explored in my MFA dissertation.
I plan on continuing this practical and theoretical research as part of a practice-based PhD which I have just started at the University of Ulster. I’m working towards the development of a practical framework for a meditative approach to landscape photography, and I’m hoping that this research will eventually benefit other photographers by proposing a method which will help to heighten their perceptual sensibilities and bypass the analytical thought process in order to directly connect with their surroundings.
Portrait by Sean and Yvette
Paul Gaffney is a Dublin-based artist who is currently undertaking a practice based PHD at the University of Ulster in Belfast.
Gaffney was selected for the 2013 PhotoIreland Festival’s New Irish Works, a series of solo and group exhibitions which showcased twenty five contemporary Irish and Irish-based photographers, and was also chosen by Brian Griffin for an Artist of the Day solo show at Flowers Gallery in London. His work has been included in various group shows throughout Ireland, the UK, South Africa and Italy.
His self-published book, We Make the Path by Walking, has been nominated for the Photobook Award 2013 at the 6th International Photobook Festival in Kassel, Germany and was shortlisted for the European Publishers Award for Photography.