At 5am the air was warm and heavy; along the banks of the river a few dots of light pierced the darkness, the only sign of habitation; the karst mountains, for which the region is famous, could barely be seen looming in that half-light that is not yet dawn but no longer night; the only sounds were the lap of the river and the whine of our small outboard engine. During that journey along the Li River in China, I remember pausing consciously and telling myself to take it all in – to commit the experience to my memory bank.
I didn’t know it at the time, but creating that moment of awareness and quiet consciousness was an expression of ma (間).
Ma. It’s a small word for a big concept that lies at the heart of almost every aspect of Japanese life. Like so many Japanese words, there’s no direct translation that captures its subtleties and layers of meaning. The literal translation is ‘space between’, usually rendered in the English language as ‘negative space’. But the Japanese concept of ma is far richer, signifying an interval or pause in time, as well as a physical void.
Ma is the fundamental time and space that life needs to grow. It is ma that creates a space full of possibilities, a silence and a pause in which our thoughts can flourish, allowing us to truly feel the quality of an experience.
Ma can be found in everything from Japanese poetry, art, architecture, interiors and music to flower arranging, garden design and mannerisms. So while ma is the minimalism of an uncluttered home and the single artwork given space to shine, it is also the space between the notes in a piece of music, the meaningful pause in a conversation, and the pause at the end of a bow to convey appropriate respect.
Discovering the concept of ma was a revelation. It sums up so much of what my photography is about: the quiet contemplation I feel when I’m behind my camera, the pace of my photography including my preference for using a tripod, and the atmosphere I convey in my images, creating a space full of possibilities that the viewer can fill with their own thoughts and voice.
“This is ma – the space between the edges, between the beginning and the end, the space and time in which we experience life.” (1)