#833. Monday Post (18 Mar 2019) – March Challenge : Visual Haiku

By pascaljappy | Monday Post

Mar 18

For our third challenge this year, we’d like to continue with the Japanese philosophical trend and dig even deeper, with something difficult : visual haiku.

Morning frost, grazing sunlight, revealing shapes and colours.

Why difficult?


First because no easy definition of (poetry) haiku exists beyond the formal description. And that only works for the Japanese language and its fast syllables.


Secondly because turning written poetry concepts into visual art is perilous at best. The sheer amount of individually interesting, but completely mutually inconsistent, visual haiku posts/pages/groups you can find online harshly illustrates that point.


Thirdly because the very topic of traditional haiku (an observation of nature) is very hard, photographically, in itself.


So, this challenge can serve several purposes : I’m hoping it will force us (you and, very selfishly, me) to think harder about the concept and discover a whole new aspect of your (my) work. And it can serve as a collective effort to help better define what a photographic haiku is.


We’re not starting from scratch, however. In the remainder of this post, let me try and explain what a traditional haiku is and what a good base for photographic exploration could be. Most of what I have seen online has taken into account the formal aspects of haiku without really digging into the interesting deeper parts. This is what this challenge is about.


So, what’s a haiku?


Most definitions will point you to a short 3-line poem constructed in a 5 – 7 – 5 syllable pattern, without rhyme, most often describing an observation of nature. Unfortunately, you can ditch most of this, because:

  • Syllables in Japanes (called ‘on’, in haiku poetry) simply do not correspond to syllales in English. Some of ours would count as double in haiku counting, for instance. And, generally speaking, 5 – 7 – 5 on sound a lot shorter than 5 – 7 – 5 English syllables. Besides, modern Japanese poets have eschewed that traditional structure Anyway. Finally, who cares, in photography ? πŸ˜€ How ever, what I see in this that can be important for your submissions, is a sense of symmetry!
  • The same minimalist poetry approach can be taken for other subjects than nature. Senryu, for instance, deal with human nature using the exact same structure. So, let’s open up the challenge to other subjects.
  • Rhyming in photography … well …

Three aspects of the haiku approach that do matter to us are spontaneity, essence and juxtaposition.


Haiku are all about spontaneous observations (of nature). There is an evident ‘freshness’ and sense of discovery. Butterfly flies away, dewy petal falls. While this is not technically a haiku, it does carry some of the essentials : the sense of awe at observing something unexpected, and the reduction of the description to its most essential components. There’s nothing you can remove from this without losing some important element of the description and nothing you can add that creates more emotional (or informational) value.


That short sentence also highlights the final aspect we can focus on in photography: juxtaposition. Most haiku describe an event and a consequence, or some similar dichotomy. Wikipedia writes : “The fundamental aesthetic quality of both hokku and haiku is that it is internally sufficient, independent of context, and will bear consideration as a complete work. The kireji lends the verse structural support, allowing it to stand as an independent poem.” The kireji in question is a word that ends one of the sentences and brings the poem to a halt (temporary or final), most often to separate the two components of the haiku. 18 such words have typically been adopted in this style.


So what about photographic haiku? Challenge guidelines.

There’s so much depth in the idea and so little I understand about it that it would be silly for me to be very directive in these guidelines. What I would really like, is to see photographs that respect the spirit of all this, more than the formal definition. And note that not one of my photographs on this page really does this well. I will be embarking on this project from scratch with you.


To me, the three aspects mentioned above are important. Spontaneity is key. Think street photography rather than tripod at sunrise on a perfectly flat lake. Co-conspirator Philippe describes these discoveries as Wilsons. In other words, inner dialogues (Wilson being Tom Hanks’ imaginary friend in Cast Away). Any time you get that tiny “oh-wow” feeling that makes you click, that’s potential haiku material.


Then, there’s essence. Reducing something to its most essential elements and eliminating anything superfluous is key to good photography. Painters start from a blank canvas and add along the way. We compose from a busy scene, eliminating anything distracting and manipulating the relationship between remaing elements through lens focal length and placement. So many potentially interesting photographs are wasted because the author failed to remove a lot of gunge from them.


To me, the ability to react to an instinctive micro-oh-wow and to distill it down to essentials is the guarantee to become an excellent photographer. It is both difficult and supremely rewarding.


This, in its original 3×4 format, has too much sky for its own good. A lower square is much better. It is about winter on the French mediterranean sea. The dichotomy is between the sand being kept safe from storm erosion in fabric barriers, and the surfers making the most of the remnants of a storm. The sky plays no part in this. 80% of it, or all of it, must be removed.

This leaves juxtaposition. Possibly the hardest part, because it should be joining a cause and a consequence. Not easy in a photograph. I leave this entirely to your imagination. For example, you could evoke the consequence (the sound of a bell can easily be imagined, if we are given the proper visual incentives, for example). Or you can use composition (weight balancing between objects) to suggest a relationship. Frame format can be used, squarer for greater tranquility, more elongated for a sense of action. And what could a visual kireji be? All yours to explore πŸ˜‰


Post processing? No rules here. Whatever works and adds to the feeling. The photograph below is a quick’n’dirty exploration of background blurring to create a mood. No PP is just fine as well. Nowhere is calligraphy mentioned in the definition of haiku. Haiku is about meaning, not technique. It doesn’t matter whether your photograph is made with a lousy lens and littered with noise, if it conveys something deep. The opposite, much more frequent these days, and the absolute bane of good photography, is what we are trying to combat in this challenge πŸ˜‰


A final guideline concept, optional but important to come close to the original intention, is contemplation. Ideally, your visual haiku should convey serenity and invite contenplation. A simple photograph that invites deep thinking.


So, there you have it. This challenge is an opportunity to dig very deep in what makes photography meaningful to you. It could also help us collectively create a better definition of photographic haiku. The more entries, the better. Please share and encourage your friends. Tell them we are not monsters who devour others (my efforts so far wouldn’t rate very high, from a haiku perspective, they’re still nice to look at and a good starting point for me to build on …) but try to learn from them (and, hopefully, vice versa). Please send your photographs to pascal dot jappy at gmail dot com.

Here’s looking forward to many contributions. I’ll publish results towards the end of the month or early April.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I’ll be interested to see what this produces. I think I need a brain transplant. This one can’t keep up. I have read your description and I’m none the wiser – I haven’t the faintest idea what it is all about – I think I just failed IQ101, like Dumbo Tramp. No that’s not right either – I’m much brighter than he is – I know perfectly well that his silly wall would be useless, even if it is built, and a complete waste of everyone’s time. Whereas poor old Dumbo doesn’t know s**t.

  • Werner MΓ€der says:

    Thanks for this really great idea. I would like to submit some pictures that might fall into that category for feedback from the community – but unfortunately I did not find a link on how to do this. Please give me a hint!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Werner, thank you for your interest. And my sincere apologies for forgetting to include that vital information !!! I will now correct the post. You can send your images to me at pascal dot jappy at gmail dot com. Kind regards, Pascal

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Great idea, Pascal!

    Let’s all dig into out archives, or even better, take our cams for a spring walk – or autumn walk for some of us.

    Light air sifting through the trees,
    still grey.
    Spring clouds swirl above.

    Or, substitute still >already and Spring >Autumn.
    Also in photography a similar mood can be found in even opposite motifs!

  • Sounds great minimalist is something I’m keen to do more of great idea Pascal.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Another luminous idea, Pascal!!
    For those of us passioned about Japan, Haiku is a natural fascination.
    Before I became “past date” :D… I loved writing some.
    Inspiration dried up, so I turned to photography… another marvelous challenge, then!
    Thanks… DearSusan is So different…

    Parfum dans la pièce
    Mais le silence
    Elle est partie

  • Brian Nicol says:

    A very interesting thought provoking assignment to reexplore past images as well as to look for new images to capture.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Funny you say “Turner”… it’s the name of one of my “haiku” pics πŸ˜€
    Community of spirits… congrats for pulling us to such beautiful heights πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Pascal. Turner sure knew a think or two about the essence of storytelling. His use of atmospheric phenomena to limit the story to its most essential protagonists is incredible. Can’t wait to see your interpretation of this πŸ™‚

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