When I started out photographing more seriously (many, many years ago…) I used my camera quite methodical, even orderly, making sure the composition was «right», the exposure was equally so and that everything was in order and «perfect». It was a very rational process. Today I would say that I was thinking too much. I wasn’t able – or letting myself be able – to be loose and reactive to an environment. «Going with the flow» was not my photographic style.
Back then it was all landscape and nature photography – and I could take my time to make everything «right». It all rapidly changed, though, when I started to work more in a documentary kind of style. Suddenly the subject became unpredictable, moving fast one way or another, not giving me time to approach it the previous rational way. Instead I had to adapt to a more spontaneous work flow, reacting to whatever happened in front of me quickly, without thinking. At first it was quite frustrating, but as I got into this for me new approach, pictures started to become different than before, become more interesting, become less predictable and I started to capturing pictures that not everybody else was taking.
I was slowly finding my own way, my own photographic voice. Whereas pictures before had been beautiful lit and with well balanced compositions – albeit being quite boring when I look back on them today, suddenly everything was much messier. But a messy result that was intriguing and over time I was able to handle better and better. The pictures started to be not only beautiful graphical images, but had emotional content and showed moments that could engage the viewers.
Today I solely trust my intuition during the actual shooting situation. Because I know if I let go of my rational self, something impulsive and intriguing may happen, I may be able to capturing something my rational mind would never have been able to. In my workshops I try to emphasize this approach, and make the students let go of their rational mind. For many it’s hard, even difficult to grasp the concept of not thinking during the shooting. Because of course you don’t stop thinking completely. You still need to be aware of exposure time and depth of field, but all this is pushed to into the back of the head, becoming more of an instinctive act. Usually there is also a fair amount of thinking and planning before a shooting session, not to say afterwards in the editing process. But at the moment the shutter is pushed I try to let go of myself self and let the flow take me wherever it does.
True enough it’s a complicated matter to explain, I’ve never really been able to find a good way to fully clarify and resolve the apparent conflict between goals, plans and rational thinking, on one hand, and «going with the flow» on the other. For many these seem like structural opposites. But they are not really. Remember what the great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: «Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph.»
Photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, Wright Morris, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Strand have all demonstrated that work done quickly does not necessarily mean done with inferiority.
Now during a shooting I abandon myself to the project, photographing quickly, loosely, intuitively – photographing every composition my eye can see. I try as best I can to avoid analyzing or judging the images – I just photograph. I set aside my years of training in pre-visualization and control and instead photograph by going with the flow, trying to be responsive to what was in front of me instead of manipulating what was in front of me.
In his book The Creative Life in Photography, LensWork editor Brooks Jensen says: «[…] I learned […] that spontaneity and improvisation are not what I originally thought. They are not mere willy-nilly freewheeling, despite the fact that it might sound like that in the hands of a great improviser like Miles Davis. Improvisation is more like a tension between structure and total abandon. Spontaneity is not structurelessness; indeed it is best comprehended when seen in contrast to regularity – beat and measure against riff and phrase. In music, it is choosing a song, a beat, and then letting go within that framework. In photography – or at least in the photographing process – it is allowing yourself to play while holding to the definitions and limits of the project. It seems framework is a necessary prerequisite to improvisation and improvisation is only possible within such a framework. It seems obvious to me now, but when I think of all those years wandering around the countryside looking for photographs, I realize my lack of framework worked against my creativity. Who’d have thought?»