Our Own Way

How do we, who pursue a creative path, find this path, our own path or our own way through the jungle of possible expressions and possibilities? How do we navigate our way through this maze towards something that feels genuinely and authentically ours?

The question came up during a workshop I just taught. One of the younger participants expressed frustration about this struggle to figure out who she is artistically and what her path would be. As such, it’s struggle most artists and creatives grapple with or has grappled with. In fact, we all do, at some point, if not all the time. What we are try to figure out gives cause for much frustration, because the path is not visible from the onset, only when looking back after having walked it.

A week has passed since I got back from my latest photo tour. It took place in the lush and beautiful Nicaragua with participants from both Europe and USA. Always, after an intense week of organizing and teaching a photo tour or workshop, I need time to process the impressions and thoughts from the trip. Among others, has been this question about navigating our path.

My immediate response to the participant was to just walk on. Try different directions; try different approaches, even if you start out feeling blindfolded. If you come across some work from other artists that resonate with you, copy it, try it out yourself. Be open-minded for what may come into your exploration. Be curious, and don’t try to define yourself, who you are and in what direction you need to move artistically, particularly not when you are in the beginning of your creative pursuit. You won’t find your way, it will find you—if you let it.

Imagine a world of only two possible paths to travel. One is the path of reason and certainty. Well trodden, well mapped, it is a path of averages: average pleasures, average pain, average joy, average sorrow. Above all, average results. Along this road, you are certain to experience an aggregate blend, a mean, the middle of what’s possible.

The scond path is your path. Springing from within and obeying your heart’s compass, it is unique to you. Your path isn’t devoid of reason or certainty, but it’s not trapped by them, either. It’s not average because there is no data set to establish an average. Just you. At every intersection, you choose the direction using all your faculties, not just reason: intuition, instinct, heart. This might seem like the risky choice, but it’s far riskier to play it safe. On your path, nothing you do is perfect, but all of it is right. You are doing the best you can with everything you have, in tune with your authentic self. Because of this, nothing you do is ever wasted. Every experience contributes to this journey.

Life is about choices. And so is the creative pursuit. Even when we have no clue about where to go. We just have to start walking in one direction, whichever feels right or just happens to be showing up. Of course and since you don’t know what you are doing, the choice may not be the one for you. That’s OK. If you really aren’t suited to it, you are free to go back to the drawing board. But commit to finishing a few pieces of work before moving on. You will learn something about yourself in the process. Each and every step along the creative path is a step forward; there is no wrong turns for an artist, only branches in a continuing evolution as you learn to express yourself.

What matter is that you start. Start before you are ready. Start with fear. Start with uncertainty. Just start. That’s the only way to go about finding your own path.

Photos are taken during the photo tour in Nicaragua.


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The Creative Habit

Creative blocks are something all creative persons experience, no matter in what field. I wrote about it in my last blog post. One of the best ways to counteract these blocks is by establishing regular routines or habits. That’s a way to get into flow, daily, without having to even think about it.

You may have heard about Ernest Hemingway. He made it a habit to write every morning. He liked to start early, around six o’clock, sometimes not even bothering to dress. He once said, “By writing in the mornings, you make sure that writing does get done.” Hemingway would write until noon and then he could often take the rest of the day off. He wrote standing up, facing a chest-high bookshelf with a typewriter on the top, and on top of that a wooden reading board.

Also Twyla Tharp, the renowned American dancer, choreographer, and author, starts her morning with a regular routine. She wakes up every morning at five-thirty and takes a cab to the gym. And then practice her dancing routine for a couple of hours. In her book The Creative Habit she writes: “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive pattern of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, and going the wrong way.” And continues: “A lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they begin their creative day.”

I think both establishing habits to get started with whatever creative work one does and do so in the morning, preferable as the first think one do, will work wonders for the creative process. In fact, I have spent the last month finding a workable morning routine and making it into a habit that really gets my day started creatively.

I have always had to fight procrastination. I would often not start to do whatever work I had to do before I really needed to, maybe because of an imminent deadline. There is always so much fun or interesting things, I could rather do. Funny enough, though, when I get started with photographing, editing or writing, I always enjoy it. Still, I often have had to push myself initially. People with more psychological insight than me point to the fact that creating in and of itself means to explore the unknown and new. And we human beings don’t feel comfortable with the unknown. We are safe when we can be in a known environment. Being creative pushes us out of that safe zone.

By building a good habit for the start of the day, we are able to circumvent that uncomfortable feeling of the unknown we encounter when we want to be creative. I have noticed it myself. My new morning routine has changed it all for me. Now I am ahead of the game, tasks are done before they need to and I feel I have energy and look forward to doing more creative work, whatever it may be.

In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes about how to build good habits as well as how to break bad habits. He gives a handful of great and concrete tips. For instance when you want to build a new habit, try to make it attractive. You can do so by pairing something you want to do with something you need to do. You should also make it easy, for instance by make small steps in the beginning. Instead of writing two pages on your novel, allow yourself to just get started and be happy with that. After a while when the habit has come under the skin, you can increase the amount of work or steps. Clear also suggest to make habits satisfying. That could be giving yourself an immediate reward when you complete the habit.

It’s said that it takes around a month for a new habit to establish itself as something you do automatically. That’s about the time I have practice my new morning routine. I still don’t feel it kicks in without my conscious initiative. Nevertheless, I have already seen the result and the positive changes my morning routines has resulted in, so I don’t think there is a way back any more.

My morning habit has worked wonders. If you don’t have any routine, maybe it’s time to build your morning habit? Or at least give it a try?

When you read this, I will be in Brazzaville, Congo, to do a story about a woman scientist who has gained international recognition for her research in viruses, included Covid, Ebola and HIV. What she does is also very creative.


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Get Over It!

As I wrote in my last blog post, my blogging over the last year or so has been running on empty. It’s never a good feeling, feeling empty. However, all creatives will one day or another experience the well running dry. For writers it’s call writers block, but it’s no different for photographers, painters, musicians—or bloggers.

Julia Cameron, who has written the inspirational book, The Artist’s Way, calls the place from which we draw all our creative inspirations and ideas, the creative well. I like the expression and the analogue it plays with. Like a real well, sometimes it’s plenty full and we can scoop of an abundance of inspiration. At other times, it’s drained and needs to be replenished. Camero suggests treating oneself with something good and kind; if it’s just taking time to sit down in the neighbourhood café and enjoying a latte or treating oneself with a visit to an exhibition or attending a concert.

The thing is, a creative block is not a problem when you see what it actually is. It’s just you running on empty. It’s not about yourself, in the sense that you are a failure or aren’t creative enough. Creative blocks happen to us all—and there is nothing we can do to avoid them. It will happen to you.

The word block suggest that you are constipated or stuck when the truth is you are empty. I so well know from own experiences that the emptiness can destroy the creative soul, as do the shame and frustration that go with it. It can be a very depressing experience. You feel like the muses have abandoned you, or maybe just like they have given you a limited amount of creativity, maybe to do one book, or to photograph on good project, or put together a couple of handfuls of blog posts.

Just remember, they won’t last forever. Sometimes, yes, it will take time to replenish the well, but when you realize that eventually it will refill, it’s much easier not to fall head on into the empty well yourself. Accept the block and fill up the creative well again.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes: “We have all been there, and it feels like the end of the world. It’s like a little chickadee being hit by an H-bomb. Here’s the thing, though, I no longer think of it as block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.”

Her solution is acceptance—which is something we’re taught not to do. We are taught to improve on uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.

As Lamott points out: “I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written [Lamott is a writer and have taught writing], three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how they hate writing—just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day. Then, on bad days and weeks, let things go at that.”

Her advice is applicable for all creative activities and all kinds of blocks.

In the beginning, when you are first starting out with some creative endeavour, there are a million reasons not to create, to give up. That is why it’s of extreme importance to make a commitment to finish sections or parts of whatever you are doing, to driving through to the finish. The discourage voice hound you—“this is nothing but a pile of shit”. What you are doing may just be practice. But this is how you are going to get better, and there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.


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My Community

About a year ago, I decided to downsize my social engagement, included—among other platforms—my blog writing. This blog. Back then, I was running a bit on empty, and needed a break from what more and more had become an obligation—instead of the joy it once was when I started out with my blog for more than ten years ago.

The intention was not to withdraw completely, but rather to step down and just spend less time on social media, included this blog. However, I quickly lapse to just barely being able to keep my blog alive. Those of you who have followed my blog—and still have the patience to do so—will undoubtedly have notice the cut back.

I needed the break, and it’s been good for my mental health to lay low for a while. Nevertheless, I’d have to admit I have missed the regular contact with many of you in the blog sphere.

What I am saying, is that I am ready for a “come back”. It will be a slow comeback, and I don’t know what form it will take. It might not necessarily result in more posts, but I certainly will be more engaged again and go into the blog writing with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

Part of the reason I wanted to downsize my blogging commitment last summer, was the need to focus more on my professional activity as a photographer and creative artist. I felt my work had gotten stuck in an eddy, not progressing any more. I was not doing what I was passionate about any longer and I needed to infuse my professional life with exactly that again. Passion. That which I am passionate about.

That has always been my cue for any direction I have chosen, professionally or otherwise. Particularly the former (whatever I do for pleasure, is, of course, mostly pleasurable anyway). I believe in finding a way to enjoy and thrive with the work you do. Not only for money, but also for fulfilment of one’s life goals or desires. This last year, in fact longer than that, I have pushed myself out of the eddy I felt I had succumbed to. Now, I feel more inspire than in a long time, and I do more inspiring work again.

As part of my “recovery” or push forward, I have read a lot about creativity, psychology, self-efficacy, and other relevant literature. I always read a lot, but this time my reading has been more focus on these themes. One of the books I found particularly inspirational was Creative Calling by the renowned photographer and entrepreneur Chase Jarvis. He writes about his four steps—IDEA—to create a fulfilling, creative life. It starts with Imagine your big dream, what you want to become in life. Then you Design a practice that supports that dream. The third step is to Execute on your ambitions plan and make you vision real. Finally, you Amplify your impact through a supportive community.

This may sound a little too vague or generic, but Jarvis does a good job in making his thoughts concrete and executable. In fact when reading the book, I realized that for most of my life, his four steps are pretty much describing my own path. Nevertheless, I still learned a lot and was inspired to push myself even further.

What more is, I particularly found that I have not been good enough at practising the fourth step. In my whole life, I have pretty much believe in my own doing. I push myself, I mostly create by myself, and I have mostly developed my business by myself. However, reading Creative Calling, I realized I could have gained a lot by being more open for collaborative interaction.

As Charvis writes: “We’re are all social animals. We thrive on human connections. Creators aren’t exempt from this need. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you get through the tough spots with the support and inspiration of people who ‘get you’. Your community.”

His point is if you are walking the path towards your dreams, but getting nowhere, go find communities of other human beings who are passionate about the same things you are and get involved. Roll up your sleeves. Participate. Collaborate. And don’t hold back.

This leads me back to my blog. I need to get back to my community. You. Among others, of course. When I look back at my blogging, it has precisely been a place I could discuss and exchange ideas with people of my kind, creative human beings. So, it’s about time to reconnect and enjoy the human connection again.

Be a Channel

In photography, as in any creative endeavour, the best we can do to ourselves is not forcing the creative process in order to become better, pushing our creative voice into an artificial direction or somehow become original. None of this will do us any good.

I believe we all, as artists, strive to become recognized or hope our work will be inspirational for others or that we one day will acquire some kind of mastery that translates into a personal expression. I see nothing wrong with such aspirations. That can be a good drive for expansion and growth. When such aspirations take a wrong turn, is when they become the goals in and of themselves, when we try to force ourselves into something that isn’t coming naturally to us. That is when we turn ourselves away from life in the hope of making our creation into a brilliant star. All, but futile.

If instead of seeing creativity as something we need to squeeze out of ourselves, something we have to invent or something we are responsible for, if rather we see ourselves as channels for the muses or inspiration outside of ourselves or whatever you like to call it, the act of creating becomes a more fluid process. It becomes a process that we no longer charge with self-consciously guarding.

I often find my ego gets in the way. I want to take my photographs. As if that is the most important part of my immersion into photography. I the creator. Often, though, instead of going out to photograph, I start to doubt myself. The ego wants to stay put where it has always been. New adventures, new ideas, new anything, is challenging for the ego. But that’s exactly what creating means. So, often when I am about to go out and photograph I hear this internal voice “it’s no point”, “you won’t find anything”, “I don’t have time”, “I don’t have a unique voice”, “I am no good”, and so on and so forth. Writers call it writer’s block.

If we rather see our creating as channelling, we become charged with being available to whatever is channelling through us. To the degree that we can set the ego aside, we can then create freely. We turn into a stream of inspiration. We allow it to flow through us. We become an “open channel”.

“The music of this opera (Madame Butterfly) was dictated to me by God. I was merely instrumental in getting it on paper and communicating it to the public”.

Those are the words of the composer Giacomo Puccini. Many an artist back in those days attributed their creations to God. I am not a believer of any godly realm myself, but I see all this as acknowledgement of channelling. Channelling gives us a gate or conduit to something outside of our conscious self, and to let this, whatever we call it—the unconscious, the superconscious, the imagination or the muse—to talk to us. Thus, being creative gives us a place to welcome more than the rational. It opens the door to inspiration.

Viewed this way—as a form of contact with something larger than ourselves—creating does not remain an ego-centred activity we are doing by our brilliantly selves. It does not remain something that must be protected from life. It becomes, instead, a part of life, a cooperative pas de deux rather than a star turn.

It is possible to create out of the ego. It is possible, but it is also painful and exhausting. Ego wants to take credit. “This is my creation”. But then it starts to flood the consciousness with all the flaws and lack of originality in whatever you create and raises fear in you, that whatever you are doing isn’t good enough. Perfect is the only standard for the ego.

If we see creativity as channelling, creativity is no longer our business. It is given, not something to be aspired to. It is, instead, a natural function of our soul. When we open ourselves to something greater than ourselves working through us, we paradoxically open ourselves to our own greatest selves.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

When Stealing Is OK

Pat O'Rourke og Otto von Münchow på tur i Olympia

In a couple of post last year, I have brought up some thoughts about what it takes to develop as a photographer. In Starting with the Box I made a point of needing both creative thinking and learning the craft. And in the post Become a Better Photographer, one of the advices I suggested was looking to other photographers.

Let me take this a step further. Because what better way to develop your photography, both inspirationally and technically, than to learn from other photographers? To push it even further: Steal from any photographer whose work you like. Yes, steal (and this goes not only to photographers but to all creatives). I know, you have been told that steeling is bad and dishonest. But stay with me a little longer.

My point is that we all learn from each other. And how do we learn? By stealing. All artists steal from each other. As the singer and songwriter David Bowie put it: “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” Anyone working creatively—any artist—asks; where do you get your ideas? The honest answer is; I steal it. In the delightful and very inspiring book Steal Like an Artist, the artist and writer Austin Kleon puts it bluntly: “When you look at the world this way [that all ideas comes from stealing], you stop worrying about what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’—there’s only stuff worth stealing, and stuff that’s not worth stealing. Anything is up for grabs.”

The thing is; nothing is really original. Everything has already been done—as I wrote in my post Originality long time ago. The point is: what makes something different and yours, is your take on it. Yes, steal, but add yourself in the process. Or steal to learn before you are able to impose your own vision on it, and then start make you own expression of an old idea.

The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something “original”, nine out of ten times they just don’t know the reference or the original sources involved. What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before.

The filmmaker Jim Jarmusch puts it this way: “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that, which speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”

Austin Kleon suggests that you collect all, which inspires you in a scrapbook. Thoughts, phone calls, favourite passages out of books, and cut and past things you see around you that speak to your soul. See something worth stealing? Put in the scrapbook. Then use this book when you need inspiration.

At the end of the day, what this leads up to is getting around the simple fact that nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying—by stealing. I am talking about practice here, not plagiarism—plagiarism is trying to pas someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

At some point, you’ll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them. Imitation is about copying. Emulating is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing. Then you start to ask the question, what can you add—that only you can add—that makes it different?

All artists think and has worked like this. “We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.” That’s the words of the great filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.

So: Steal. But add yourself into the process! Eventually.

By the way, if you feel like you are running out of ideas and are in a creative rut, I strongly recommend the before mentioned book Steal Like an Artist. It’s a quick read and full of positive energy.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Three Photographers. One Week. One City

The passed week I spent in Naples, Italy. The purpose: nothing but photograph people of the city. Once before, I have been in Naples. It’s a hectic and chaotic city, with proud inhabitants. Although such a description fits many, if not all cities, in Italy, Naples is more so than any other I have visited up through the years.

I didn’t travel alone this week. We were three photographers who had decided to make Naples into a common photo project. We arrived respectively from Sweden, Germany and Norway (me that is). At times, we photographed side by side, all three of us, or only two. At other times we photographed on our own.

Being three on such a photo project is both inspiring and pushes each of us to do more than we maybe would have done single-handedly. It’s something about the energy in a group, the group dynamics and maybe also a little competition between the three of us. The latter however, wasn’t more than we respected each other when shooting together, and helped each other whenever that was needed.

I have noticed with amazement before, when photographers photograph next to each other, how different they (or we in this case) see the world and capture it in the images. Even when standing side by side, the photos come out quite differently. And often I saw one of my colleagues and friends photograph something I thought would be rather boring or uninteresting, only later to see an astonishing result. We all have our independent, well developed vision and voice. Experiencing this is maybe the most inspiring part of photographing together during a week such as this.

Apart from the photographic experience, it was not the least good to be able to be on the road again. For two years travelling has been quite limited, if not nonexistent. Being able to travel again feels like being liberated.

Here I have posted some of the images I captured during the week in Naples.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/