Confined to Freedom

Et gateband spiller tradisjonelle sanger midt på natten på torget

As strange as it may sound, if you really want to free your creative mind, you better set limitations for it. It’s like musicians in a band; the rhythm and the beat is limiting each member of the band, but it also creates space for each of them to improvise. By stating this, I want to continue where I left in my post Improvising in a Spontaneous Flow. In the end of the post I quoted LensWork editor Brooks Jensen saying: «It seems framework is a necessary prerequisite to improvisation and improvisation is only possible within such a framework.» As for myself I have certainly more and more come to the conclusion that restrains are good for the creative process. Instead of limiting our creativity as one would think in the first place, it actually forces our imagination to become even more playful, to be more inventive, and in a way burst through those constraints we set for ourselves.

That is why for instance working on a personal photo project is so fulfilling. By the pure act of defining your project, you set limits for yourself and your creativity. By that you are able to focus on a theme and then work the theme from all directions and angels of approach. It will set your creativity free in a way that is almost astonishing. The secret is to set a structure or framework for the project you are working on, and then let go.

Last year I went to Lisbon to cover a conference for a magazine. The conference itself was pretty boring, but still why I went to this beautiful capital of Portugal. But in addition to the days I had to spend doing my assignment, I took an additional two days off on my own, just to shoot and capture some impressions of this hilly and very picturesque city. But instead of chasing around randomly or even planning in details what I wanted to see and shoot, I decide to use the old tramlines of Lisbon as my vehicle – literally and figuratively – for the photographic process. I followed them around not always knowing where they would take me or what kind of pictures I would get. I walk along the tracks, I rode the trams and I spend time in the various neighbourhoods I ended up in, trying to capture a photo essay about those old wooden trams. In the end it didn’t only become about the trams, though, it turned into a lovely essay about Lisbon, from a very specific angle. You will find some Instagrams from this project in my post Railing through the Streets of Lisbon

By setting the framework of this street project beforehand, I had unconsciously set in motion a sequence of events that contained its own sense of momentum. My photography in the field was loose and reactive, but purposeful within the framework. Back at home, because the framework defined a specific product and deadline, it helped motivate me to do the creative work quickly and to finish it without delay. The structure didn’t squelch my creativity anymore than the beat or melody does in jazz. Just as the beat and melody provide a framework for the musician to explore, so the framework of my little project encouraged creative exploration. The two go hand in hand. The confines of the structure encourage and enhance the freedom of the creative process within it.

For that same reason, I want participants in my photographic workshops to work on a personal project during a workshop. Instead of chasing aimlessly around, they are able to focus their vision – and eventually sharpening their observation skills. They see more and better pictures so to speak. The framework of a project sets them free to work within the confinement of their own limitations. Structure really sets the creative mind free.

68 thoughts on “Confined to Freedom

  1. Oh Otto. A very good mindset advice on photo trips. Punctuated by beautiful photos in Lisbon. Now u got me craving for a holiday.

  2. I agree, I feel that if I don’t focus on one theme or element, my mind get deterred by other things surrounding me, and I can get quite unfocused easily, personality wise, I try to do too many things at once, where I need to organise those tasks, and projects one by one, or I get overwhelmed.

  3. Of everything in your workshop, this lesson is astronomical! I don’t know that I ever would have thought that setting boundaries around any creative process would have such an impact. Besides the current project, I’m especially excited about future travel to places I’ve already been, and showing a new perspective to these places.

  4. A most interesting post…..first let me say I agree Lisboa is a great place to engage your creativity with….its been more than ten years since I spent time there and this post instantly conjured up images of tiles and cobblestones and architecture to rhapsodise over, in between gasping for breath in the smog…. mmmmm! And I think I agree it is important to have a structure or a framework for projects w/out getting tooo hung up on it ……good to think about : )) thanks Trees

  5. Dear Otto your words are inspiring and wise. I learnt from personal experience about the necessity of restrains in order to focus and have a more productive creative output, but nothing gives me more pleasure than being able to capture the unexpected, the unplanned. Maybe unconsciously I already have built my own framework, it feels to me that the more images I capture the more similarities I can find between them. Regardless, having a plan always helps.

  6. We spoke about this very issue last week I think it was Otto when it came up in a slightly different context. I mentioned a project I’d been working on. My particular project, although it felt at first like my hands were being tied, did to force my creativity but in a good way and I enjoyed working within the framework. I’m pleased with the photographs that came out of it and I’m looking forward to setting myself similar constraints in the future. I’d recommend this process to anyone.

  7. Wonderful photo. I like the way you used the distance and lighting. Makes me want to be there too 🙂 Couldn’t agree more about limitations for creativity to bloom.

  8. True. I’m not sure the exact quote but a famous Renaissance artist basically said, art dies without restrictions.

  9. I remember those images well. They stayed with me for quite some time afterward. Structure is important particularly when dealing with a new subject/place. Sensory overload could have you randomly snapping away at everything and in the end not really capturing what you are experiencing. Sometimes a new place can be overwhelming and you have to reign yourself in a bit.

  10. Yes, it makes sense. Must have discipline and perseverance. My mind goes all over the place so easily, one of the reasons I am grateful for the teachings of asking myself what is the reason for taking the photo, then focus the camera and my mind.

  11. You got me thinking about branching out of my usual comfort zone and possibly trying a photo project that goes beyond my typical wildlife action. I have some thinkin’ to do.

    1. It’s always good to diversify and get out of that comfort zone. Well, it doesn’t necessarily feel good in the first place, but the process will push you into new ways of exploring your photographic vision. I’d say go for a new project! Thanks for the comment, Phil.

  12. It seems contradicting at first that you set up a limitation for the propose of unlocking creativity. It became clear when you pointed to the ” Railing through the Streets of Lisbon”. Excellent!

  13. Very helpful post Otto, the idea of having structure with flexibility to spur creativity is so accurate. Something to really consider when arriving at a new place, and there are a thousand ideas and options of what to shoot…easy to forget the structure part of the process, which means a less efficient day, and I’ve had a few of those 🙂

  14. At first, this sounds a little counter-intuitive, as if one is applying the handbrake to creativity, but then thinking again I understand completely what you mean. I am aware sometimes that shooting can become a scatter-gun approach. it’s a type of sensory overload, and the consequence of that can be that nothing is done well. Applying a framework can focus that creativity which actually concentrates it – rather like focussing a beam of light. Well written, Otto

  15. You are so right. If I don’t have any constraints on what I am trying to create I never get anything done. My blog is a challenge be cause I “drift” to many different subjects. IE dogs, puppies, donkey, goats horses, the ranch. If I chose one subject (one dog for instance) to blog about it would be a piece of cake. I guess I like challenges!

  16. I can understand where this is true, whether in photography or writing or any kind of art. There has to be some kind of structure or some guidelines, or it becomes a huge mess!

  17. Again, I totally agree with you. In launching the Hammer Home Street Photography Project, I worked out a project outline that curtailed some of my expressive freedoms in order to ensure that each image would be fairly uniform and, as a collection, would be representative of this specific project and no others.

    Doing this alone was quite a challenge as street photography typically has no limitations and rules, only flexible guidelines. Yet this approach certainly has directed me in shooting the project with increasing creativity. I’m more focused in that regard.

  18. There is a passage in Michael Freeman’s ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ that I think complements the theme of your post. Freeman writes: ‘There are different kinds of looking, depending on what the viewer expects to get from the experience. There’s spontaneous looking, in which the viewer is ‘just looking’ without any particular thing in mind …… A second type of looking is task-relevant looking, in which the viewer sets out to look for something or gain specific information from an image or scene.’
    The real focus for a good picture is not in the lens alone it is in the mind of the photographer Constraints and boundaries help to sharpen that focus.

    1. Thanks for the quote by Freeman which is indeed very relevant for the theme here. And, yes, you are so right the focus is really more in the mind of the photographer. Great comment, Louis.

  19. >>By the pure act of defining your project, you set limits for yourself and your creativity. By that you are able to focus on a theme and then work the theme from all directions and angels of approach. It will set your creativity free in a way that is almost astonishing. The secret is to set a structure or framework for the project you are working on, and then let go.<<

    I have missed your wise words, Otto! This is a perfect time for me to visit your blog. I'm traveling today and will think about a personal project on the plane. thanks!

  20. Ja du Otto, dina tankar och reflektioner är som vanligt upplyftande och tankeväckande. Jag förstår att du uppskattas som lärare och workshopsarrangör, det kan inte bli bättre.
    Och så var det Lissabon…en fantastisk stad, en stad som får själen och hjärtat i gungning…Fadon, maten, de fantastiska husen gjorda av porslin, kakel…ja, den staden har allt som man någonsin kan önska.
    Jag håller som bäst på med operation övertalning gentemot min man…jo, även han har varit i Portugal, men inte i Lissabon och det är faktiskt det viktigaste, det sanna Portugal, där själen finns.
    Jaha, så intressant att du har haft Hornborga som en dröm!?!…visst, det kan vara en dröm och så kan det vara ett rent inferno, som det jag såg när jag passerade…
    Att jag har varit där så många gånger beror helt och hållet på att mina svärföräldrar bor “grannar” med Hornborga och Trandansen…ja, man har tur ibland…eller kanske är det en av livets realiteter…tur, hängivenhet eller tillfälligheter…det är bara att välja.
    Dina inlägg, dina tankar som du ger ord till är alltid se och läsvärda…har gått några inlägg tillbaka och även de ger mig styrka…du är en själsfrände, tack för det!

    1. Jeg føler det på samme måte, at du er en sjelefrend. Og takk for de hyggelige ordene, de varmer så godt. Ja, Horborga var virkelig en drøm tidlig i min fotografiske løpebane – den gangen var det i hovedsak naturfotografering jeg drev med – noe det er blitt vesentlig mindre av de siste tiårene. Jeg håper virkelig at du får din husbond med til Lisboa – det er som du sier en fantastisk by med så mye å tilby. God reise, Gertie!

  21. You always have such great advice, Otto. And not just for photography, but for all creative endeavors. I wasn’t sure where you were going with this first line, “if you really want to free your creative mind, you better set limitations for it,” but then when I read about your tramlines project, it made perfect sense. How right you are! When I try to do too many things at once the same thing happens to me — all creativity is lost, under a swirl of ideas none of which can find mooring. But to focus, set limits as you said, leads to the true path of freedom. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. It’s always tempting to do too many things at once, but as you say ideas have a hard time finding mooring. A great expression. Thank you for your comment, Melissa.

  22. Structure really sets the creative mind free. I learned something new, something meaningful and priceless today. There are so many distractions around us. Too much stimulus. Creating a framework does make a huge impact and difference. Thank you for sharing this. Always an inspiration to read your post. All the best to you and your family.

  23. Personally, I completely agree with you, Otto, but I also know some really wonderful photographers who would cringe at this thought. I think it very much depends on the person/personality.

    This was a wonderful post, and I thank you.

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Yes, different photographers will indeed have a different approach to their photography. It’s too easy to think in absolute terms, isn’t it. Thank you for pointing that out, Lisa. And have a great weekend yourself.

  24. Wise approach. As I teach a foreign language I will tell my students to write compositions or give oral presentations that focus on the vocabulary, structures and idioms under study. If they “chase around” as you say writing what their native language wants to express not what they “know” in the second language, they will not focus, see, understand or appreciate what their capabilities are. Their native language and the second language they are studying simply are not equal, equivalent or similarly accessible.

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