Don’t Shy Away from Struggling

Morgenstemning langs elven Li

Struggling with the creative process is good for the process as well as for the end result. It may sound contradictory, but what it really means is that you are not running on auto-pilot. Instead you are forced to use your skills to the utmost to accomplish what you are trying to do. Struggling simply goes along with being creative – sometimes more, sometimes less, but often the more you initially struggle to get where you want to creatively speaking, the better the final result will end up being. I think there is no way around the struggle, and I don’t think we want to either, no matter how painful it feels in the moment. So instead of finding the easy way around the problem, go head and address it with determination as well as a willingness and openness for alternative solutions. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. And you may find that you are surprisingly – in one way or another – rewarded in the end.

For me it can be compared to getting up to photograph at dawn. I am not a natural early bird and I really have to struggle to get up to catch the sunrise. Every photographer loves that beautiful morning light. So I will go through the struggle to get up in time – once in a while at least. And after the initial struggle the reward is worth any hardships getting there. Not only for the beautiful light, but I also love that early transition-time between night and day, the quietness, the cool and often empty space that goes with daybreak, the muted sounds, all while experiencing the awaking of life.

Quite often when I have to shoot corporate portraits I really struggle to find a meaningful and interesting way to do it. It goes with the territory; often the shoot takes place in a boring office environment. After the initial struggle – and I know I am not getting any good pictures when I notice that I constantly seek various angles or try hard to search for alternative solutions, I step back, think a moment about what I want to say with the picture; what the story is; what the subject is, and then let go and start to flow with my unconscious mind. Momentum starts to build up, I enter a more dynamic shooting process and I might end up with something quite different, but way more interesting than what I started out from in the first place.

The same goes with street photography. I love being on the streets shooting daily life whenever I travel. And I think I get some good pictures once in a while. But it’s such a hard struggle, always has been and always will. It’s the whole process, encountering strange people, take something from them and trying to give some of myself back; it all wears me down. And I still love it. But some days I just can’t get myself out of the hotel – literally. I go hiding in the room and struggle with my depletion and self-esteem and my motivation. And then next day I am out again, doing better than before I went into hiding.

A few times I don’t manage to get out at all, though. I remember many years ago; I had been travelling in South-East Asia for about half a year. I was on my way back to Europe and had a 36 hours lay-over in Karachi, Pakistan. My initial plan had been to take advantage of the time there and go out and shoot, but I was completely done after six months of street photography. I spent those 36 hours in my hotel room with curtains closed, and I am still somewhat embarrassed when I think about it.

But when the struggle doesn’t wear you down, I think it’s only good for the creative process. It sharpens you and makes you get more out of the process. So struggle is good. Embrace it with pleasure!

69 thoughts on “Don’t Shy Away from Struggling

  1. How right you are (as usual), Otto.

    I’ve been really struggling with my new(ish) Sony a6000. It’s so completely different (to the DSLR) and I can’t shoot on Autopilot like I was doing with the Canon DSLR.

    Yesterday, I started my walk the same and then realised I wasn’t taking enough time and was trying to capture bird life in deep shade with the wrong camera settings. By the end of the walk, I did far better with a higher ISO and shutter speed. The ‘mirrorless’ Sony is a whole new learning curve for me. Doesn’t help that the menu is so UNuser-friendly. Eventually I suppose I’ll set up some short-cuts, but I don’t know enough to do this yet.

    But I do like the landscapes I’m making in my short walks around my new home location. The learning curve has been far greater there as I rarely did landscape photography before. Was really happy with the ones I shot yesterday.

    Don’t be embarrassed by the ’36hr with curtains drawn’. Pushing oneself beyond what is healthy (when your body desperately craves rest), is a short-cut to a breakdown (which I suffered at work in 1998).

    1. Thank you for the understanding, Vicki. As for shooting with a new camera; there is always a learning curve involved. And particular when you change from one camera system to another and to a different type of camera it can indeed be quite a steep learning curve. Just keep shooting. Eventually you will get it all under hood and manage the new camera without thinking. 🙂

  2. A lovely post Otto. When I see your lovely images, there is no indication of the struggle you sometimes encounter, but it makes me feel good that I am not alone in feeling that sometimes it is so difficult to reproduce the image I see in my head into a photo.

    1. I think you will always have to see the final result as a different thing as how one get there. What looks like simple or uncomplicated may have been very hard to get in the first place. Thank you for commenting, Mary.

  3. Years ago, I overcame my fear of failure by realizing that by replacing it with a greater fear of looking back and not being able to say that I tried.

    1. It’s a good trick – but also tricky. But yes, I agree, it’s always better to know that I have tried than knowing that I didn’t even make an attempt. Thanks for the comment, Allan.

  4. Great post, Otto! The struggle in anything is all part of the process of learning and growing. I agree, with themofman in that we don’t want to look back and see that we didn’t even try. Also, having your travels and exhausting work must have been telling you it was time to rest in your room and shut down to recuperate.

  5. I’m so glad to paint instead of photograph if taking photos means waking up early! This is a beautiful shot. When the results are great, the struggles are worth it!

  6. I had to smile at your image today, Otto. Despite your words about struggle, your photo is utterly and deeply peaceful. Paddling can only seem so effortless when the right rhythm has been established. Until that happens, there can be a great flailing of oars! Sometimes, the best thing to do is stop, let the waters calm, let the heart stop racing, and begin again.

    That’s what I imagine those hours in the hotel to have been. After periods of creative engagement, trying to push beyond limits can create a sense of struggle. Then, it’s time to stop, and let the waters calm before re-engaging. It’s good for us, and good for our art, don’t you think?

    1. Maybe this is a better way of putting it. Our bodies and minds are instruments of our art as much as our cameras and computers. When our bodies and minds begin to struggle, we need to tend to their needs first, so that we can free ourselves to re-engage in the artistic struggle.

    2. I think any time you struggle, you advice is a good way to overcome it; simply by stopping up and let the waters calm – literally or figuratively. In a way it’s the same as Julia Cameron writes in her book The Artist’s Way: To replenish the creative well. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Linda.

  7. An excellent post Otto. As a regular early morning photographer, I know all about that struggle, especially this time of year but as you say, that struggle is almost always worthwhile. I do think struggle is a big part of the creative process and if it all comes to easy, I think we’re probably missing something.. 🙂

    1. I do notice that you take a lot of morning pictures – and I envy your energy for getting up early what seems again and again. Thank your for sharing your experience, Adrian.

  8. Wise words today. I think every artist, in any medium struggles. If you could sit down and talk to some of the top artists in the world, I’m sure they would say they struggled early on. Why should everyone else be any different.

  9. Excellent post, Otto. I believe this is a good metaphor for all aspects of life as well as art.

  10. Otto, your image is an ode to meditation and tranquility. In the vernacular it is said that we must recharge our hearts and minds. That’s so true. You should not be embarrassed, because you gave yourself some r & r. In that repose you shored your spirit and soul.

  11. Your point is very well made Otto. I would only suggest that the struggle does not end with the taking of the shot. Ensuring that the final picture says what we want it to say can involve lengthy experimentation and decision making during processing.

  12. Beautiful picture and I can feel serenity.. Those are good points that you made. I also think one also needs energy, passion and patient with oneself to get through those struggling to achieve what you are after as well.

  13. Struggle…sometimes more, sometimes less. And that is the way life works most of the time; just like photography, or any creative process. Sometimes we have to push to get what we want. Your photo is beautiful, and proof that if you struggled to get out to get this photo, you won the prize for your effort.

  14. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who struggles 🙂
    If the one on top came after such a struggle, it was worth it.

  15. Otto, your beautiful photos (especially your street and portrait photography) and your always intelligent and well-written posts give no hint of any struggles. But isn’t that always the way? I remember being shut out of a women’s circle once because they were talking about their problems and they didn’t think I had any. (They had no idea!) Thank you for sharing this. It was inspirational and encouraging, as always.

  16. This beloved creative process is not easy! Struggling, energy, enthusiasm…no way without any of these if our goal is something special, at lest for us! I like and understand your early bird parallel , I’m a late bird…

  17. What a glorious image. So very, beautiful. Funny you should be posting about struggle. I’ve just taken a break from a painting I’m fighting with. Thanks, Otto. I’m now renewed and will reengage:)

  18. I really like your comparison to getting up to catch the sunrise and the beautiful morning light. Even though I love those early mornings, I struggle to get up and get out there, but it is almost always worth it. I am not sure it was intentional, but I also appreciate your reminder that sometimes we need to rest between those struggles we’re embracing.

    Beautiful image, Otto, and great advice. Thank you! 🙂

  19. Otto, I love your honesty and the analysis of your creative process. Struggle hopefully leads to growth and new directions. Wonderful image to accompany your thoughts.

  20. I think struggle is most often good for us in all aspects of life, but we don’t always think of that concept in relationship to creative process. I really appreciate that you share so personally, Otto. It is so helpful to know that even with your degree of talent you have times when you just need a break. I struggle with making the time to practice with different settings. Thank you for sharing your valuable perspective!

  21. I enjoy your writing so much Otto. You weave your knowledge and experience into encouraging advice, leaving the reader anxious to get to your next thought. I laughed at the thought of you crashed in your hotel room in Pakistan. I was a flight attendant years ago, and used to do the same thing sometimes. Pinning the curtains together despite the beautiful view and closing the door on any thought of adventure beyond. Sometimes the body simply says, “rest me.”

  22. Otto, a great post and a lovely photograph to accompany it. Struggle is indeed essential to the creative process. Like you said, the audience may not see it but it is this struggle that is so integral to the artist’s relationship with this work.

  23. Thank you for another good injection of vitamins! For me, the struggle is to get time in my life to photography. And when I finally shoot the struggle is to focus on what is important to me. In Jordan, I think I finally succeeded in making portraits. I think that one of my next focus topics must be getting up early on a summer morning 🙂

  24. Struggles truly are a part of photography – and funny I think most of us hate thinking about it as it can be a bit depressing. Dawn shooting is not a problem for me if I have a vision of what I want to shoot, but there comes a time when I do not have much of an idea what I want and then getting out to shoot is painful. Sometimes it is a physical exhaustion that prevents me from going out (and I celebrate such times and rest) but when it is the mental version it drives me crazy… but like you say, when one struggles it is a good & necessary process of creativity.

    1. We do tend to dislike the idea of struggle, don’t we – even when we know something good may come out of it. But as soon as we are absorbed by it, we forget about the pain and just get going.

      1. It is frustrating to me, that when I struggle and I really do not want to do what I should ~ it is the thought that my best work often comes from this same feeling that pushes me out the door 🙂

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