The Curse of Perfectionism

Seinen er en levende vannåre gjennom Paris

I used to believe in perfectionism. Nothing could ever be good enough. And, yes, whatever I did was pretty good. But what I didn’t realize back then is how limiting the need for everything to be perfect was for my creativity. I started to push the threshold so sky high that it was impossible to reach it. So instead of reaching for the sky, I inhibited myself and didn’t even get up above the ground. My creativity stagnated. I didn’t create because I felt it wouldn’t be good enough anyway.

Perfectionism can be a curse. It can immobilize yourself and it can make what should be fun and exciting to do – like creative endeavours – into a stressful chore. The result may be that you are sabotaging yourself by raising the standards unrealistically high. You may make yourself captive to judgments of others or, even more likely, to your own relentless self-evaluation. In the end there is no joy left in the process because there is so much pressure, comparison, judgment, and unrealistic thinking involved. Even when something is well received by others, you still feel that’s not good enough. You focus almost exclusively on what is wrong, ignoring what is going right. What more is you inhibit yourself from playing and experimenting – and thus from developing yourself. Instead of become better at what you do, you become worse, – quite the opposite of your intentions.

I used to think that I’d rather do three things only – and do them perfect, than do one hundred things with only ten of them being right. Today I see that ten is more than three, even when I by then have produced ninety «failures» to get to those ten. What more is – which I didn’t realize back then – is that «failures» are only failures if I let them be so. In fact they are a springboard to success. Everything that doesn’t work out the way you have wanted it, is nothing but part of the learning process. If you can leave your pride behind, every «failure» is actually a step in the right direction – one that makes you better and more resilient. In addition, mistakes can even become a new way of seeing your work, an inspiration to do things in a different way. Then suddenly, «failures» aren’t mistakes any more, but actually accomplishments of their own right.

In her book The Muse Is In, Jill Badonsky writes: «Get real. Being perfect just isn’t possible within the realm of being human and those who strive to be perfect often sacrifice joy in the process. If you strive for “amazing” but let go of expectations and are happy with whatever results you reap, then you’re on a healthier and more realistic path.»

So relax your expectations, in fact, purposely lower them so low that you can feel excitedly naughty about showing up to perform you work with reckless abandon. Let the creative process – wherever it brings you – be the reason and motivation in itself. And why not consciously try to produce «bad» work? You will be surprised how genuine and good the result will be, when you let go of the curse of perfectionism. In many ways it’s just like any relationship; if you expect it to be perfect, if you expect your love one to be perfect, you are on a path to disappointment. Take it as it come, be open-minded, let go of expectations, be yourself, and love – and creativity – will flourish.

Posted in Creativity, Photojournalism | Tagged , , , | 85 Comments

The Colours of Spring

Blåregn i Pats hage

Tulipaner i Pats hage

Tulipaner i Pats hage

En tulip i Pats hage

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Tulipaner i Pats hage

Blåklokker i Pats hage

This next week is going to be quite crazy for me. I don’t think I will be able to stay much on the blog sphere and keep the contact. But I promise I will soon be back. On Tuesday I will fly out from Seattle to go to Oslo to teach a seminar for the NGO Norwegian Refugee Council. The organization has invited press and information officers from their offices all over the world. My good colleague and friend Øystein Mikalsen (with whom I often work together with – and do the blog Untold Stories together with) and I will be teaching the art of storytelling with words, still photos and video. Then on Saturday I will head back to Seattle – only to fly back to Bergen, Norway the week after that again. I said crazy, didn’t I?! Anyway I want to leave you with a handful of more spring pictures taken in the same spirit as the post I wrote last week. I have just continued being playful and having fun.

Posted in Creativity, Photography | Tagged | 94 Comments

Stillness

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

© Kristina Eriksson

Last week I finished another round of the eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» and once again I was very impressed by the level of commitment and not the least the final result. For the last four weeks the participants were working on a personal photo project, and they were all able to show some incredible images captured during those weeks. In the next couple of weeks I will present a small edit of each of these personal photo projects, and first out is Kristina Eriksson.

For her personal project she chose to work on the theme she called «Come to Stillness». This is going to be part of a larger body of work that Kristina is compiling to a book she is planning to publish not too long in the future. Her idea is to combine her photographs each with a haiku poem. The images she captured show a broad range of subjects, from people to landscape to details. It was particularly the latter that caught my attention. Kristina has a special ability to capture those small details and moments in nature that holds stillness and contemplation in their simplicity. Just looking at them makes your mind come to stillness. There is a transcending tranquillity radiating from those images, as if nothing but peace and stillness and serenity ever exist. It’s possible to spend time with each of her photographs and just sink in and become part of that peacefulness. For more of Kristina’s work, please look up her blog Kristinas bilder.

Posted in Photo Workshop, Photography | Tagged , , , | 83 Comments

Trust Your Instinct

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To be creative implies – to some extent at least – to discover new solutions or new ways of expressing one self or finding new territory for the mind to explore. Creativity implies expansion, openness and mentally a willingness to go beyond the beating tracks. We often talk about thinking outside of the box – which means exactly that.

I believe true creativity can only be accomplished by letting go. Lose control. Set aside the established rules. Go where you are not supposed to go. Be curious. How do we discover new ways of expressing ourselves? As far as I see it the solutions lies in the unconscious mind. I think the creative person needs to be able to connect with his or her unconscious mind. We – at least traditionally in my Western part of the world – have come to almost exclusively trust our rational thinking. In most situations it comes in handy, but not when trying to expand our creativity. We cannot find new ways by rationalisation. Using the same rules or established believe systems – which is what rational thinking in reality is all about – will not make you go beyond the framework of the rules. Two plus two will always be four no matter how creative you try to be – as long as you stick with the established mathematical thinking.

Particularly for us photographers our rational mind has a tendency to get in the way. There is just so much rationality around the process of photography that we get caught up in f-stops or shutter speed, camera technique, classical compositional rules, the Golden triangle, S-curves – you name it. But sometimes we just have to let go of it all, take a chance, and just be more impulsive and trust our instincts and unconscious capacity. Like when we react to something worth photographing and we try to impose some compositional rule to make it look good, we actually make it look like something we have already seen before, something we already like. It’s not breaking through into a new dimension so to speak. I am not saying that technique and composition is to be avoided, by far, but it should work as means for our creativity – not as obstacles by taking control of our way of photographing.

Tap into you unconscious mind when you photograph, is what I try to say. And by you, I more than anything mean myself. I am certainly too caught up with technical perfection and the «right» composition. All too often. But it’s hard to let go, it takes some guts. And even then it’s hard. That’s why I have been working to find ways to force myself to let go, to let my unconscious mind take over. And I have found a few tricks that work. Not because they produce anything spectacular, but because they give me new ideas and new tools to play with that I would not have seen otherwise. One way is simply to go out breaking the rules. Like centre the composition instead of making use of the all too perfect Golden rule. Or using a long shutter speed and move the camera around – like I did in the images accompanying this post.

Trusting the unconscious mind also means trusting your intuition or your gut feeling. I see it so often, particularly in street photography. I go around and shoot something and suddenly I have a feeling something is going on right behind me or next to me. I raise the camera, turn around and shoot without really seeing – and I often get something I would never have thought of capturing otherwise. I saw the same when I worked in the studio for the renowned documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark many years ago. When looking through her contact sheets after she had returned from an assignment, I often noticed that one frame that came out of nowhere, I believe because Mary Ellen Mark had sensed something around her and just captured it on the fly.

How do you break out of your customary way of expressing yourself? How do you expand your creativity?

Posted in Challenging Yourself, Creativity, Photography | Tagged , | 78 Comments

The Workshop Experience

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Attending a workshop is something that will boost your photographic confidence and joy. It’s an intense experience where your get to focus completely on your photography, immerse yourself into the photographic process, develop your photographic voice and learn more than books or internet ever will be able to do. In addition you become part of a supportive community that back you up and give of themselves during the workshop. It’s just such a difference experience.

I have attended many photo workshops myself with leading photographers who not only are very skilled and renowned in the photo community but also excellent teachers. I have as well attended workshops with lesser know photographers who often give that little extra that the big canons don’t possess. No matter who and what, any of the workshops I have attended have always given me another stepping stone in becoming more skilled or more developed in my photographic approach.

Of course as one who teaches workshops myself, I also try to take out the best from each workshop I attend to deploy in my own teaching. Not that I copy other photographers, but I notice what works and what makes student more susceptible to learning. Good ideas of teaching are always possible to improve upon.

The workshop experience is by far one of the best ways to boost your photography. First of all because you assign yourself and your time completely to the photographic process for a period of time, something you don’t usually will be able to do. In addition it’s the whole workshop setting that caters to learning and to deeper your understanding. It’s such a concentrated and energetic event.

I truly recommend attending workshops – whether it’s one of mine or somebody else’s. It’s worth the money and it’s worth the time – if you can allocate both.

The autumn coming up I am teaching two workshops, one in Cuba and one in Spain. With the opening diplomatic contacts between USA and Cuba, I hope it will even be possible for US citizen to attend the Cuba workshop if they so wish. My two workshops are:

• «Cuba in Essence», September 5th to 12th 2015, is a workshop that takes you to the bustling capital Havana as well as to the lovely, colonial town of Trinidad. For more info.

• «Street Photography in Villajoyosa, Spain», November 8th to 14th 2015, is a workshop that takes place in a pleasant, old town where houses perch side by side, painted in all the most saturated colours you can imagine in the colour wheel. For more info.

Posted in Photo Workshop, Photography, Travel Photography | Tagged , , , , | 36 Comments

Why Play with Fire?

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Have you backed up your photos lately? I am asking because I have just seen the grief of a good friend of mine who lost all his photos because he hadn’t. He had done what everybody knows one shouldn’t do, but everybody does. He had kept all his photos taken over the last three or four years on an SD-card in the camera – and had not backed them up on any other device. These were photos of family and friends, from holiday and travels, of precious moments and of big sentimental value. The SD-card malfunctioned. All photos gone.

Are you putting yourself in a similar position? Please, don’t. Go right back home and back-up your photos. Now.

Don’t expect it won’t happen to you. It’s only a matter of time before it will. Before your precious photos of which you only have one copy of will be destroyed because the storage device – whatever kind it is – breaks, because you accidentally delete the photos or because you lose the SD-card somewhere you can’t get it back from. Too many people take risks, even professional photographers. I have too often surprisingly seen professionals that play with the fire – and I know one day will regret it. I know, backup is boring, but I assure you will regret, too, not paying attention to this trivial task the day all your photos are gone – even if you are only an occasional photographer, yes, don’t even see yourself as a photographer.

I learned my lesson early on (and don’t we all have to learn the hard way). It was back in the days when my computer had a stunning 20 megabyte hard-disk, a computer that was more expensive that my quite more advanced computer of today and couldn’t even hold one of my regular TIFF-files of today, and back in the days when the computer was run on a disk-operating system call MS-DOS, the precursor of the later Windows, by, yes, Microsoft. Anyway I had been writing the majority of articles for a magazine I was editing back then, when the hard-disk crashed. I lost one month worth of work. And there was only one solution to the problem: To write all articles once again.

I learned my lesson. After that I backed up everything I wrote or created on the computer. Later on when I started photographing digitally, my photos were backed up the same way. All my originals would exist in at least three different storage devices. Back in the beginning I thought I was safe if I backed up only the original photo files. If I lost processed photos – I could always process the originals again. But then my archive of processed photos quickly grew, and I realized that I should not only backup the original information, but also all the work I had put in. If I lost ten years of processed photos, it would take me another ten years to process them again from the originals.

I had to learn one more lesson. Not long ago I was on an assignment. Every night after a day’s work my photos were transferred to my portable laptop, and the CF-cards formatted to be ready for the next day’s photographing. That had been my workflow for many years while on the road. Of course you have already seen what was wrong with this picture. Yes, I backed up all my pictures in the various ways when I got back from the trip – but I didn’t backup while travelling. One of the last days of this trip the hard-disk of the laptop crashed. Disaster! So yes, now I always backup right away every evening to an external harddrive when I am travelling. By the way, the pictures from the trip weren’t lost, but it was an expensive operation to get them extracted from the crashed laptop. Not recommended!

Today, all my photos are stored and backed up in hard-disks on different servers – and even backed up on DVD’s (there is no way you can delete a file from a DVD – and extra precaution). In addition I have them backed up on an external hard disk that is stored off site. If my house burn down, I still have my archive intact.

For any data that is important to you – photographs or anything else – there should never, ever, be only one copy of it in existence, no matter how safe you believe it to be. Catastrophes do happen, houses burn down, banks get robbed, data centres have power failures and cloud companies go out of business.

Have you backed up your photos lately – or at all?

Posted in Photo Techniques, Photographic Reflections, Photography | Tagged | 103 Comments

Pure Playfulness

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

© Nicolaas Kuipers

Nicolaas Kuipers has a distinct, photographic voice. As a viewer we can see it in his playful approach to whatever he chooses as a subject as well as to the whole photographic process. For Nicolaas no angle is impossible, no rule is to be obeyed, no story is too small or too big to be photographed, no challenge undoable. Nicolaas attended two of my workshops last year, and already during the first one in Villajoyosa, I noticed his playfulness and the positivity he permeated into his photography. Already then it was possible to see the development of a distinct, photographic voice (his images from this workshop has been showcased in the post Stories behind Stories). Half a year later when he attended the Cuba workshop, this voice was even more developed. By then his visual sense and understanding had grown and every day he returned with amazing pictures. Part of this is he outgoing persona, his willingness to engage with anyone and give of himself in any situation, part of this is the pure joy he infuses everything around him with, and part of it is his photographic understanding. The outstanding photos following this post here, are all from the Cuba workshop. As I wrote in my last post, we as photographer, should not chase any style, but let it come to the surface by itself, through time and experience. For me Nicolaas Kuipers is the true embodiment of this understanding.

Posted in Photo Workshop, Photography, Travel Photography | Tagged , , , , | 67 Comments