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.