Killing by Comparison

Et ungt par med en klassisk amerikaner

I remember as kids, me and my friends, were always comparing each others’ birthday—or Christmas—presents. Who had gotten the coolest, the best, the most expensive, the latest, the hippest present of all? It was of course a childish competition of sorts, but just that; childish or naïve. I believe all kids have probably done the same. However, many of us still do it in various ways as grown-ups, don’t we, even if we don’t spell it out as blatantly as we did as kids. But we still compare in our minds, and we envy the neighbour when he has bought a bigger and better whatever it is than we have or when she got promoted and we didn’t. The comparison is similar compared to when we were kids, only the objects have changed (and become more expensive): Who has gotten the coolest looking car? Or who has the most beautiful looking home amongst our friends? Now, though, as grown-ups, it seems silly or spiteful. Moreover, as grown-ups we have learned to feel inferior when we fall short on such comparisons.

From a rationally point of view such comparison does derive as silly, but it does—or did—serve an understandable purpose. It’s instinctively something we human beings do, and it’s a way of securing our existence—from the times when we were hunters and gatherers. However, in a modern society, it may not serve much of a purpose any longer. I am not trying to make judgements in any ways, just observing the behaviour of my peers and myself. What I do know, tough, is when we pass on this need to compare into our creative lives, it becomes very destructive. Creativity is killed when we start to compare ourselves with others.

As kids when we compared presents, it wasn’t something serious, we didn’t hold it within us for longer than it took to spell it out. Then we moved on. As grown-ups, life becomes serious, and I believe that is what makes the difference. Everything means so much more when we leave childhood behind. As we get older, we learn the importance of the outcome of comparing one thing with another—or we put more significance to it. We learn to interpret the result of comparing with others and make it become something we adjust to. And that’s why comparing creative work is so destructive for us.

If you go into a classroom of kids and ask them who can draw or who can sing, you will get every single kid to raise their hands. Do the same with the same persons twenty years later and probably none of the class will raise their hands—or only a very few. The older versions of the persons hear the question with a string attached to it, making it into a comparison: «How many of you can draw or sing… well? When we age, we start to compare everything. We compare ourselves with everyone and dwell on where we fall short. The older version of the kids that could draw or sing, think to themselves, «I can’t draw that well so I shouldn’t raise my hand». This comparative logic is extra baggage that devalues and decreases any creativity we once had.

The first step to become more creative (regardless of age) is to stop blaming ourselves, stop believing we can’t do, and take action. Even if you think you aren’t very creative, it doesn’t mean you can’t change. You might just need some practice, or you need to let go of the mean teacher who criticized your lack of skill. Like Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and countless other great books, whose teacher once wrote on his report card when he was 15: «A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel.» Roald Dahl wasn’t the sharpest kid, but he channelled all of that into plot lines, characters and words. That is what makes his writing so fun.

The moral is that we should not compare our creativity with others. Keep it flowing by itself, there is no need to hold it up against the rest of the world. That only creates—pun intended—fear in ourselves. And if anything, fear kills creativity. So—as hard as it sometimes feels—believe in yourself, believe the creative magic that is within you and don’t look to your next door neighbour. As before mentioned Roald Dahl was wrote: «Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.»

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Canon EOS 5D and a 24-105 mm zoom lens set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/11. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

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Last Week’s Instagram

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Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. Except for the technical details beneath 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.

Facts about the photo: Taken with my cell phone and processed with the app Pixlr-o-matic with the filter Aladin.

Posted in Personal Work, Photography | Tagged | 23 Comments

My Backyard Project

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As I wrote in my post Finding Bearing some weeks ago, I have been in a bit of creative standstill lately. As I wrote a few posts later, I was slowly finding my way back again and bit by bit replenishing my creative well. So far, though, I haven’t really done much work photographically speaking. I have been working on other projects—among other things I have been writing quite extensively.

But I wanted to get started with my photography again, and I decided to return to my old project; photographing my backyard. A photographic project doesn’t have to take place in a far away location, in strange environments or in exotic cultures. It can be right outside your doorstep—as my backyard project literally is. I don’t even regard myself as a nature photographer, but this project is more for me an opening to experiment without restrictions, pushing myself further, testing out approached that are new to me. As such my backyard project is perfect, as it’s always there, I have no expectations or clients demanding anything in particular, and it’s also very limiting, physically and mentally, which is always spurring the creative force.

As such, these are some of my first photos trying to get out of my creative rut. I am not completely satisfied, but I am opening myself up to the flow of energy again, and finding my way back into the groove. Spring—as is the season where I am right now—is of course an explosion of colours from flowers and foliage coming into life. However, I decided to not go for the obvious, but rather work around and experimenting with more subtle aspects of the backyard. These are a few of the photos I made, they are not in any way extraordinary, but they add some variation to the project as such as well as function to bring back my creative streak. If you are interested, you may find more about my backyard project in these posts: My Personal Challenge, The World from the Backyard, Instagram my Backyard, Out of Comfort Zone and Challenge and Expand.

Facts about the photo: It’s hard to give a general description of the photos, but they were all taken with a Canon EOS-5D and various lenses such as 16-35 mm and 24-105 mm. I processed first in Lightroom and then started to work with many layers in Photoshop, combining them in various ways.

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Posted in Creativity, Personal Work, Photography | Tagged , | 74 Comments

Last Week’s Instagram

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Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. Except for the technical details beneath 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.

Facts about the photo: Once again this was taken with my Lumix LX-100 at 34 mm (the equivalent of a 75 mm full frame lens). Shutter speed was 1/1600 of a second and the aperture set at f/7.1. The photo was transferred to my cell phone and developed in the app Camera ZOOM FX with the ready made filter Holga 35 mm.

Posted in Personal Work, Photography | Tagged | 40 Comments

Climbing Mountains

Little Bandera Mountain

The driving force behind most creative activity is the creative process in and of itself. The road is the end itself not a means to reach some higher goal. I have said this before. At the same time I recognize that most creative people—whether professionals or amateurs—all the same seek acknowledgement and some kind of success to gauge their creative endeavour. Nothing wrong with receiving some measurement of encouragement for work done, as I wrote in the post Finding Bearing, some weeks ago. Indeed, being recognized in some shape or form certainly may spur the creative growth further.

However, if success becomes the main objective for our creativity we stand to lose exactly that creative self that makes our art or our expression unique. I believe climbing—or hiking— mountains is a good analogue for the creative process. If all that matters is reaching the top, everything else becomes a hassle and pure arduous. We struggle and fight for only moments of triumph at the top—if we are able to reach it at all. Haven’t we all at some point in life, climbed that mountain only to find that the sun disappeared and all view got concealed by foggy clouds that came in just before we reached the summit? Had we instead enjoyed the hike or the climb on the way up, we would have been able to take pleasure in the sun, the lovely flowers, the animals, the slowly opening of the view as we got higher, the rests in between the work, feeling the body doing some good workout.

Pursuing creativity ought to be the latter. Instead, we too often seek out the highest mountain (in a manner of speaking), thinking the view will be better there. But what is a better view? It’s not the highest top that makes the journey better. It’s not how much effort it takes but the work itself that makes the journey worthwhile. As the American president Theodore Roosevelt said: «Far and away the best prize life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.»

Or to quote Yvon Chouinard, the famous mountaineer: «How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top.» Success isn’t planting the flag at the top of a peak. It’s embracing the challenge and enjoying the view at any point. As such, success isn’t only external results, but even more so an internal reward. For Chouinard climbing is not about getting to the top, but about changing yourself as a person and a climber (or an artist).

We can’t all climb Mount Everest or K2 (which is suppose to be one of the most challenging peaks in the world). Instead, we need to find tops and peaks that fit our skill level and our interests. If it’s the hill next to your house, then that is just as good an endeavour as seeking out the highest peak in your area. Again, it’s not the height of a mountain that makes climbing it worthwhile, but being able to enjoy the accent no matter how.

The way the world most often define success doesn’t fit for creative work. Success is more than a list of accomplishments. Success is leading a fulfilling life as a creative person and as a whole, with family, friends or whatever else matters to you. To be successful in this sense, we still have to fight, but we have to fight in the right way. We have to pick the right mountain to climb. And maybe even more important; the biggest success isn’t even just about you, but about accomplishing dreams and inspiring others to do the same.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and the lens set at 74 mm. Exposure time was 1/500 of a second and the aperture f/8.0. It was processed in Lightroom and then the app Instagram with the Lo-Fi-filtet.

Posted in Creativity, Photography | Tagged , , , | 76 Comments

Grow as a Photographer

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Do you want to become a better photographer? Feel you are better able to translate what you see into an expressive photo? Wish to be good at capturing photos that convey your artistic vision?

Maybe taking an online workshop will really kick-start your photographic development.

As already mentioned some posts ago, I will commence with another round of my online photo workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice». This is a chance for anybody passionate about photography to grow their visual understanding and become a better photographer. Maybe it’s something for you, as one of my readers of this blog?

It will be a workshop over eight weeks full of inspiration, new ideas, my guiding to find and refine you own visual voice as well as my invaluable feedback. I will not talk much about technique, but rather focus on the creative process and how to express, as captivating as possible, your intent with you photography. I will give you lessons and feedback on the assignments you do each week.

The next round of the online workshop will commence on May 9th and continue for the next eight weeks. Why don’t you give it a try? I will send you the first lesson for free so that you can check out how it feels for you. Just click on the button, sign up and I will send the first booklet free of charge and no attachments whatsoever.

Get first lesson for free

Of course, you won’t get any picture critique for the free first lesson, which is really where the big value of the workshop lies. I give personal, direct and very constructive feedback on each assignment throughout the workshop. Nevertheless, the free first lesson will give you a good idea about the format of the workshop, as well as good tips and valuable inspiration in and of itself.

If you just want more information about the workshop you can look up «Finding Your Photographic Voice».

Posted in Creativity, Photo Workshop, Photography | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Embrace Critique—Critically

Why do we not take more changes in our creative endeavours? Why do we stay on the safe and narrow instead of straying off and explore the territory along its sides? The number one reason why we don’t take creative risks is because we are afraid. We are afraid the critical voices that will always be encouraged by any straying off the straight and narrow. And we are afraid that these voices might be right, afraid that we aren’t good enough. Not the least, we are afraid we will look like fools.

The result is that we stop taking risks instead of pursuing them, as we always should—as being creative is nothing but exploring new territories. In addition, we get conditioned to think that critique is bad, that it will only hurt us. But think about it for a second. If we get no feedback on the things we create, we never get a perspective on what can help our creative development. Critique is not bad, not when it comes from someone who has our best interest in mind, and at the same time is honest and constructive in his or her feedback.

Thus, even though it can stifle us, critique isn’t inherently bad. It can be corrosive, but it can also sharpen the edge. Critique is indispensible to our creative growth. Without critique, the quality of one’s creative output can collapse. For everyone, whether you are an artist or an accountant, critical feedback can help. Too much critique and it will crush, but just enough and the pressure can refine, strengthen, and be a catalyst for growth.

So embrace critique when you can—and when it’s appropriate, when the critique can be helpful for you creative growth. Just make sure you choose the right critical voices. And that it happens in a safe environment. Let someone you trust play the devil’s advocate, when he or she does it out of respect for you and your work, certainly not because they want to take you down. Choosing critical voices to trust is a double-edged sword, on one hand you don’t want those who go after your gut; on the other hand you don’t want those who care too much for you to be able to be critical at all. Blind appraisal is just as bad as slander and mocking.

In Seattle I have a group of colleagues and friends—all professional photographers. Every so often, we gather to discuss each other’s work. We each bring our latest project, which we then show to the others. The feedback and critique we receive is indispensible for all of us and often bring the projects into new and more convoluted directions. We trust each other, we are honest and we encourage each other all the same.

Most of the critique we encounter we don’t really ask for. It comes from right and left when we stick the head out—and even if not, it comes anyway. The best way to deal with this kind of critique is simply being critical ourselves—of the critique. See the feedback in perspective; if it’s helpful take those parts to us that we feel is relevant, and if the feedback is all but malicious, just ignore it. I know; simple right?!

I remember when I was in fifth grade. I had just moved from Denmark (where I had been raised and lived until then) to Norway and was starting in a new school. We had drawing lessons each week, and after each class, we pupils voted on each other’s drawings, paintings or whatever we had done, to be exhibit as the week’s best work. In my first class, the first week after having moved, we got the task to draw a troll. Coming from Denmark I had no idea how Norwegian trolls or ogres were perceived or supposed to be, so I draw a green devil-like figure. Used my imagination. My classmates voted it to be the week’s best work. I was proud and happy. That was until the teacher demoted my drawing, saying it’s not what a troll should look like. Some other pupil’s work was exhibited instead. Some weeks later the same thing happened, when I once again didn’t comply with her preconceived rules for artistic expressions. Was these incidents maybe the reason I became a photographer?

The Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has sold millions of copies of his books, but still there are critics who tear his work to shred. When asked, do the critics hurt him, he said: «No. Writers are lampposts and critics are dogs.» Coelho had adopted a view that safeguards his creative role. Every creative act begets criticism. If you want to become more creative, you have to adapt a view that accepts, but doesn’t overinflate, this truth. You have to be selective in what critique to listen to.

Not long ago I wrote a personal and, I have to admit, critical piece about postmodern photography, my point being that too often it’s very much like the emperor’s new clothes—if you know the tale by H.C. Andersen. I posted a link to the piece on a Facebook photography group. I was taken aback by the response, and I won’t even repeat the harsh words and scornfulness that the article gave rise to. It was quite ugly. Of course I knew this would somewhat be the result, but was really surprised by how many people attacked me personally. I was still OK with that, as it was easy to distinguish between repulsive and sincere critique. More so, when I looked up the fiercest critics and saw what kind of photos they were taken themselves, there was no reason to take their critique serious any longer. It’s all a matter of perspective and being critical—to the critique. In this case, it was very easy to shrug off the critique as oppose to what happened back in fifth grade when I had no methods or means to fend off the response by the teacher.

The fact is that too often, we let those critical voices get to us. As valuable as constructive critique can be, we have a tendency to let the wrong critics hurt us. We do so, because they touch a chord in our unconscious mind. They resonate with own our critical voices that we carry around in our heads—being the harshest critics ourselves. So, when others’ unfair and unwanted critique gets to us it’s because we let them. These voices distract, scratch, bite, and nag—whether it’s your mom’s disappointment, a teacher’s demotion of your work, or the judgement of a colleague or a friend. We give these voices more credit than they deserver.

It is important to find those people or those circles of people that have our best interest in mind, but still don’t hold back on necessary and valuable critique, even if it ends up no being an appraisal as such. Good colleagues can be such a resource, or good friends, as long as they are able to give you an honest feedback. Workshops are another excellent resource that offers a safe and sensible environment for feedback on your work. Like I do in my workshops, whether in situ somewhere or through my eWorkshops. In fact, a new round of my eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» is coming up in mid May if you are interested. You can find more information on the website of Blue Hour Photo Workshops—and even an offer for receiving the first lesson for free.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-7 and the lens set at 4,7 mm (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Exposure time was 1/1600 of a second and the aperture f/2.8. It was processed in Lightroom and the app Snapseed with the Drama-filtet.

Posted in Creativity, Photographic Reflections, Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 71 Comments