From the Heart

One factor that more than anything transpires to imagery that will capture an audience is photographing (or making any art for that matter) out of passion. If you photograph what you love, what you hate, what you enjoy, what you believe in, you will inevitably create images that others will be able to connect to, too.

You may be a technical wizard. You may be an expert of composition and light. You may master your craft. But if you photograph from, let me call it, an intellectual or rational stance and nothing else—looking for lines, modulating light and impeccable timing—your photos will never be able to move an audience. No matter how good you are. The reverse is true, though.

“If you do the work you do from a loving heart, then you will always be able to make something beautiful.” – Zen proverb.

When I started photographing decades ago, what I did was bring a camera along with me into what I loved the most: Being out in Mother Nature; backpacking, skiing, glacier climbing, paddling, hiking. Later on as my passion for photography of and for itself developed, my eye turned to other subjects. In the end, that’s where my photographic pursuit evolved around. For me human connections and relationships generate the most fascinating photographs.

I still love being out in Mother Nature—and do it plenty enough—and I still bring my camera along. However, the photographs I take don’t trigger me the way my humanitarian work does. It’s not because the photos are bad, but my soul is not in those photos. I have often pondered about why. In the end, I think it’s the pure and exalted experience being out in nature, that I don’t find in my photos of nature. It’s almost as if it’s impossible to capture that experience within a frame. The photos I take in nature are more for my memory than for creating photos of their own raison d’être.

Thus, I have come to the conclusion that I need to work on this. I need to find a way to transpire what I feel when I am out in Mother Nature into strong and expressive work. I need to find a personal photographic approach to my love to nature. And not just excuse myself for being another kind of photographer. What I need to do, is bring my heart into the photographing of my encounter with nature.

“’And now here is my secret,’ says The Little Prince, ‘it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

Last weekend I spent four days out on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, USA. We had a fantastic time—and of course, I took photos, plenty of photos. These are but a few from the trip.

The Contradiction of Creating


Some days I can’t get going. I know I have a deadline tomorrow, but I still can’t push myself to start editing the pictures. Or, in another setting, I am travelling in a new country, and I just can’t get myself out on the streets to photograph. Or I need to write an article – or a new post for this blog – but I can’t get myself to do it.

Some days I just can’t get going.

It all comes down to fears, insecurities or doubts. It’s the big contradiction of the creating process. On the one hand it’s the joy I feel when I am creating, on the other hand it’s this big obstacle inside of me which sometimes makes it impossible to get there. This resistance is something all creatives have to fight. It’s part of the creative process, the dark side one may say. But as strange as it might sound, it’s also a necessary part of being creative. Only by overcoming the fears, insecurities or doubts inside of us, are we able to reach our full creative potentials. It’s like entering a cold stream after a long hike. It doesn’t make you feel good until you have submerged your body into the water. But then it’s like rejuvenation.

Adventures don’t begin until you get into the forest. That first step in an act of faith.
Mickey Heart, drummer in Greateful Dead.

The fact is, creativity requires faith. We are heading down a road we don’t know where it will take us. Thus this faith we need to have requires us to relinquish control. That is frightening, and we resist it. We throw up roadblocks on our path in order to maintain an illusion of control. This resistance to our creativity is a form of self-destruction. To overcome it, having a regular practice is a must, whether it’s journal writing, sketching freely, taking photographs casually and spontaneously, or tilling our garden without an eye to the result. The energy is in the effort.

Don’t fear mistakes – there are none.
Miles Davis.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
Albert Einstein.

What we fear the most is the very thing that we are called to confront and work with. Where we find fear, where we feel the most inadequate, is where the energy resides, where great potential hides, waiting to emerge into the full light of day. Once we begin, and move vigorously in the direction of our aim, a joyful moment comes when fear and resistance move into the background and become part of our experience, but not the dominating feature. Our bliss then often emerges from behind this dark, smoky wall of fear.

It is one of the paradoxes of the creative process that it is both immensely challenging and demanding and, at the same time, the source of real joy and true satisfaction.
David Ulrich in The Widening Stream.

Don’t Ever Give Up

It takes grit to pursue creativity. Being creative means fighting against all odds—most of all ourselves. However, the creative fight is less a battle for glory than a pursuit of personal spirit and finding a way to express it without fear. It’s not a gladiator’s brawl, but rather a solitary struggle with ourselves.

In previous post over the years I have used our playful relationship with water (at least before we grow too old) as a metaphor for creativity. Extending this metaphor, the creative fight is not Michael Phelps competing for Olympic gold but more like swimming to an inviting island off the coast somewhere. The Olympic Games are hyped up, and they are loud. When we swim to go somewhere, it’s discreet. We use ingenuity, agility and guts to accomplish our goal. Phelps swim against others, but swimming to reach that island is a fight within.

I think that we create with such a drive in mind. At least for me, I create for the sheer joy of making something for myself. Yes, I would like to get recognition, but that is not what is driving me. As when I have swum out to that island, there is great gratification to be had when I can enjoy the view from the island that I have earned.

The creative fight doesn’t gloat and it doesn’t crush. Yet the creative person isn’t some pushover that’s afraid of a difficult task.

One characteristic that makes someone a good swimmer is grit. Grit can be defined different ways. It can be thought of as tiny particles of crushed rock. Taking this perspective a bit further, the oyster reminds us that without grit, there is no pearl. Grit is a character that is a mixture of courage, resolve and strength. Like small granite rocks, grit is strength that won’t give up. Those who are gritty have a passion to pursue a goal over an extended amount of time. No one is born with grit. It’s grown into us through difficulties of life.

Earlier this year, I ran my head into a wall. Not literally, but in pursuit of a creative job. I was shooting an assignment for a magazine here in Norway. It was about a couple who had moved to an island to live off the grid, to support themselves as sheep farmers and of fisheries. They had been looking for a harmony missing in contemporary life—and had found their private Eden on the island. It was a fun assignment, offering plenty of creative possibilities. I didn’t have to swim to their island, but it still took some organizing to get there since there was only one regular boat transport a week. The shooting was really fun and I felt it went very well. However, when I got back and prepared to upload the photos, I discovered that the memory card was corrupted. It was a first for me, but nevertheless devastating.

I could have given up. Called the magazine and explained that I wasn’t able to deliver on time, knowing I would have to wait a week for the next regular boat to take me back to the island. Instead, I refused to give up. That evening I called all friends I knew had boats nearby the island and asked if anyone would be willing to take me back. One of the last on my list, agreed to do it. Early next morning I was back with the couple.

I don’t know if you have had to do a reshoot of something you thought went pretty good the first time. Mentally, it feels like having to clean up your own mess. Not fun and definitely not the best starting point for a creative quest. I pushed my worries and frustrations away, forcing myself to be present in the moment and not thinking at all about what I did the first time I visited the couple. It worked. In the end I think I returned with even better photos than the first time. The editor surely was pleased.

Grit isn’t easy to learn—there aren’t any classes offered in schools. Long time ago I asked a friend of mine who is a triathlon athlete if grit can be taught. He said: “The only way to learn grit is to get out there and get your ass kicked. You have to suffer and you have to fail.” My friend does Ironman triathlons. That is biking 181 km, running a full marathon of 42.2 km on top on swimming 3.9 km. He knows what he is talking about.

Grit isn’t something that you will find on an online course. It’s gained while in pursuit of something big. Grit requires belief that it can be done. It means don’t give up when the going gets tough.

Creating more Creativity


Trying to be creative is sometimes very frustrating. Sometimes it is as if the muses have died out completely, while we sit there waiting for some inspiration. In articular, it can be hard to get in touch with our creative self if we have been neglecting it for some time. It goes into hiding if you don’t massage it on a regular basis and keep it awake. If we leave the creative self hanging out to dry for even shorter periods—even if we have years of experience in the creative field behind us—it gets back on us but short circuiting the creative connection. The muses die out on us.

The reality is that nothing encourages and develops creativity more than creating—being creative. It doesn’t matter what field you are exploring creatively, be it photography, writing, painting, design, performances, music or any other creative activity. Whatever we do, we need to keep doing it on a regular basis. If we want to develop our creative skills, become better and more profound in what we do, we need to keep creating—all the time. And we need to work creatively even when the result is mediocre and not what we want it to be. If we stop and just wait for inspiration to come, we only stagnate even more. Even more so, when we feel we have lost the inspiration—that’s when you have to push yourself through the wall of self-doubt and discouragement. Make mediocre art if that’s what comes out of your creative self. And don’t worry about it—and certainly don’t whip yourself for it. It’s only a temporary state, anyway. At some point the muses kick in again, and you become inspired and your creative skills start developing again. It’s like playing on the beach. As soon as you start, it’s hard to stop.

Being creative encourages creativity. That’s why I have made it a rule for myself to do at least one personal photo shoot or project each week (I am a photographer after all!). I usually shoot much more, being assigned to do so. And that’s adding to the creative equation, too. But I want to make sure I develop my personal photography as well, and once a week is what I can spare of my time during busy weeks, and when it’s less busy, it still forces me to go out and be creative. It’s been a good way to keep my creative spirit going—and developing.

How do you keep developing your creative skills and staying inspired?

Don’t Give a Damn!

A week ago, I photographed and did an interesting and inspiring interview with an artist, actor and acrobat. She said something that made me think. In many ways, simple and yet so relevant for anyone engaged in creative work.

Some years ago while she was rehearsing for a movie shooting, the director of the movie told her: “You are too much of a good girl, doing what you are told. Loosen up and don’t give a damn!” She followed his advice and suddenly her creative career took a giant boost.

I think in my younger days I was too much of a good boy, too. I did what I was told. Creatively I certainly didn’t draw outside the lines. I follow the “rules” and did what I was supposed to do. Although nobody gave me the same advice as this artist I interviewed got, slowly by slowly as my creative self matured, I started to care less and less about doing the “right” thing. Instead, I have become more like a rooky, creatively speaking (not necessarily in my interaction with other people).

I think we all need to be less nice or good and rather let loose and don’t think so much about what is the right thing to do. When we start to don’t give a damn, we enter into a different mindset, our creative thinking changes, we see differently and begin to discover new ways of expressing ourselves. Our creative voice will take a boost when we loosen up, if nothing else, because we start to create and do things differently from everybody else. Giving ourselves permission to don’t give a damn will be the first step towards a distinctive way of seeing and expressing ourselves.

Thus being bad isn’t always bad. On the contrary, we need to be a little more bad—and please understand me right when I say so. There is a Swedish saying that goes like this: “Nice girls come to heaven, bad girls can come as far as they like”. Unnecessary to say, it goes for both girls and boys.

On a different note, some of you may have noticed I have been absent from the blog sphere the last week or so. It’s just been extremely busy times and I haven’t had a chance to engage in social medias. However, I hope to be back now that summer on this part of the hemisphere is approaching and life may start to become a little less busy.

Being Challenged

At its best a photo workshop both challenges each participant as well as give him or her a sense of achievement. Both are important. If you are challenged and don’t feel you can handle the challenge, you will soon lose your self-esteem. On the other hand, if you are not really tested beyond your comfort zone, you will hardly develop or improve your photography.

This idea has always been the basis for any of the workshops I teach, as it is for Sven Creutzmann, my friend and colleague with whom I teach the photo workshops in Cuba. For us it’s equally important that we challenge each participant at the right level. Good photographers need to be put to a harder test, whereas with beginners or less confident participants we cannot push as hard.

When we start a new workshop, we always commence with a desire to boost both ourselves and the participants as hard as possible. It’s a matte of motivation. It’s fair to say that we are very ambitious, both with respect to ourselves as well as on the behalf of the participants. For some participants this may come as a surprise. They might have attended other workshops without having the workshop teachers pushing them much at all. In the beginning when they are met with our determination to challenge, they may actually feel a little uncomfortable, but it doesn’t take long before they start to thrive, particularly when they see some dazzling development in their approach to photography.

I think it’s reasonable to say that over the years we have become good at finding the right balance between pressing each participants beyond their comfort zones and making sure they keep a sense of achievement. I also think our feedback during daily picture critiques have become precise and immensely valuable for the participants. After all, we have taught workshops for quite some years by now.

Although I have organized workshops longer, Sven’s and my first Cuba workshop took place in 2006. Quite a few changes have seen daylight since then. This year’s workshop in May took us to a different location, for instance. In addition to Havana, we went to the beautiful, colonial town of Trinidad. We, as workshop teacher, are also more out on the street shooting along with the participants, whereas during the first workshop we went to the rural Viñales. Particularly photography one-to-one with us has become something our participants value. It gives them a change to see how we work as professional photographers as well as letting us guide them better in their own shooting.

Most notably for this year’s workshop, was a new meeting point for lectures and picture critique the days we were in Havana. At the end of last year, Sven open his own art cafe in the district of Vedado. It’s probably one of the coolest cafes in Havana, displaying a lot of Sven’s photography as well as colleagues’ and friends’. ArtCafe Belview has already been picked up by many travel guides as well as gotten ravish reviews, and is a perfect place for teaching a photo workshop.

Do you want to come to Cuba for a photo workshop? Our next one, In the Footsteps of a Revolution, will take place from Nov 24th to December 7th later this year. Or maybe you’d rather go for an extended weekend. From September 21st to 24th I teach the photo workshop Street Photography in Bath, in England.

The group with participants and teachers during the Cuba workshop this May.

Learning for Life

The creative process goes hand in hand with a willingness to learn. The day we decide we have learned enough, we stop developing our creativity. Vincent van Gogh began painting when he was twenty-nine years old. He did not have an abundance of natural ability at the start. Hand-eye coordination did not come easily for him. But he knew how to learn.

Those who accept that learning is a never-ending process develop an ability to grow beyond whatever talents they may have. Winston Churchill, considered to be one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, was not born with a silver tongue. He began his career with pronounced speech impediments, and he could not speak extemporaneously. In order to compensate for these difficulties, he wrote all of his speeches and practiced delivering them before a mirror. Over years of practise and work, he continually learned.

As a photograph I naturally read as many photo books as I can get my hands on. It may be about Photoshop, it may be about other technical issues or—and that is more often the case—it may be photo books by other photographers, because nothing teaches me as much as looking at other photographer’s work. But my learning process doesn’t stop with pure photography related issues, even reading a novel may teach me something I can use in my creative process. I look at all kinds of artistic work, I listen to music, I search the web, and, not the least; I read a lot of books about creativity in itself. I also attend workshops and I teach workshops – which is just as much a learning process for me as for the students. I keep my eye open for any possibility to learn. Sometimes I get nothing out of whatever it is that I immerse myself into and sometimes I find a treasure of knowledge I can make use of.

The learning process may be filled with moments of failure, disappointments, and perhaps even embarrassment. Yet each failure can lead to greater competence when it becomes a basis for learning. It is only those who don’t believe in learning who assumes that failure is not a legitimate stage of development. They do not recognize that learning often means they may be «bad» before they get «good». To those willing to learn, perfect performance is not an issue; it’s all about the final results. Furthermore, this ability to create results is closely tied to learning and be willing to learn. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, the saying goes. One may add that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly until you can do it well.

We may all have various natural talents, but we can all learn and we can all grow. That’s why I think creativity is not connected to talent, but the willingness to learn. We all have creativity in us, as long as we are willing to look for it and learn so that we can express it.

Free Shooting

There is not one way to approach photography. Most of us find a way that fits our temperament as well as our photographic vision. Some photographers spend a lot of time reflecting over each photo they capture. This is particularly evident with a so-called contemplative approach, which is very much a Zen-like way of thinking and, I would add, a slow style. (I wrote about the contemplative approach in my post Different Perspective) .

I, on the other hand, mostly find myself at the other end of the scale, applying a more intuitive and faster approach. It goes along with my restless nature and need for speed. However, from time to time I do try to slow down and become more thoughtful in the process of capturing photos. As I wrote in the post called exactly Slow Down some weeks ago (written as a reminder to self), it’s often too easy to “spray and pray” when rapid-firing the shutter without too much reflections. Slowing down, then, is about being mindful and staying with the subject and findings its inherent quality rather than forcing yourself and your vision upon it.

One approach isn’t better than the other—or any other way of shooting, necessarily. We each need to find the way that works for us. However, I do think it’s always valuable not to become too rigid in one kind of expression or approach. By changing approach, trying out new ways, we keep developing our photography. Yes, the quick and intuitive way of shooting is “my” way when I don’t have time to experiment and play. Nevertheless, I should by no means become confined to it.

This much said, though, I believe we often tend to overdo the thinking, maybe as a result of an uncertainty in how to approach a certain subject. As much as I a couple of weeks recommend to slow down and approach the capturing with mindfulness, I think it’s equally valuable to, at least from time to time, let go of all inhibitions, preconceived ideas and over-thinking.

I am a strong believe in what the renowned photographer Henri Cartier Bresson once stated: “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph”.

One way of letting go, is through something one could call free shooting. You have probably heard about free writing. This is the idea of letting your ideas flow to paper. No concern is given to grammar, completeness, or final usage—just opening the door and let it flow. No idea or statement is too crazy. The same approach can be applied to photography. Thus the term free shooting.

With free shooting you let your imagination go wild. Try any idea that comes to mind. No concern should be given to limiting your composition, exposure, or any other technical or artistic considerations. Don’t hold back. This approach often works when trying to capture a fleeting moment, taken many shots in a row, hoping one may deliver the perfect image. Just letting go. What happens happens.

Free shooting is a way of getting you juices flowing.

Some time ago I photographed a roller derby tournament. It was a perfect event for using free shooting. There was so much energy and speed with the teams flying around the track, ever faster and more competitive as the competition evolved. There was certainly no time for a contemplative approach or slowing down for a more mindful approach. I just raised the camera and kept shooting without knowing what I got.

Have you ever tried free shooting? Besides, what is your favourite approach to your photography?

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Canon Eos 1D with a 16-35 mm lens set at 35 mm. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

If Only

Sometimes when I am down and feeling miserable, I wish that my life would be different. We all do, don’t we? How often have I not thought; imagine if only I had been one of the big stars in the photography world. How would my life not have been then?! If only…

Some time ago, I proposed a photo story for a weekend edition of a major newspaper. It was a story about the drug scene in my hometown, which had changed after a park where drug addicts and dealers had been gathering, was closed down. To my dismay, the proposal was turned down. I had been sure I would get the assignment.

When the idea was rejected, I felt as if my creativity had been belittled and discredited. I started to think what if the former editor who knew me had not just been replaced with a younger yuppie? If only I was a renowned photograph, surely he wouldn’t have turned me down, replaced or not?

Craving for success and acceptance for our creativity is a very human reaction. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. However, the trap is falling in under us when we don’t see the difference between our creative abilities and the world’s reaction to it. When we don’t get the acceptance we crave, that is when we start to think if only… True creative people, though, don’t use “if only” as an excuse.

Creativity has always been about making the most of what you have. Sometimes creativity thrives when you are having fun, and other times it flourishes when you have your back against the wall. The latter was the case with a young man named Johannes who lived in medieval times.

Johannes was ambitious but short of funding. He got help to make what he called “holy mirrors” for religious pilgrims to buy. When the mirror was held up to a relic, it supposedly captured and reflected the glory of God. However, Johannes business idea flawed, among other factors because a severe flood delayed the pilgrimage until the following year. Johannes didn’t give up after this failure. Living in a wine producing region he was acquainted with the process. Suddenly he saw a different use for the traditional wine press. With a few modifications, he transformed the press from making juice to printing words. In so doing, Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press that changed the course of the word. The press was first used to print the bible and thus Gutenberg was able to provide people with a way to experience the glory of God, even if his “holy mirrors” had failed miserably at first.

Creativity is never about wishing things would be better or different or disasters wouldn’t happen to you. Creatives don’t use “if only” as an excuse. “If only” focuses on what might have been. Creatives focus on making the most of the raw materials that they have and under the circumstances that surrounds them. Taking these materials and combining them into something new is where creativity becomes art.

We should never forget that the creative path itself—creating—is what makes photography, or any creative endeavour you may embark on, such a fulfilling undertaking. Too often, we forget this simple truth as our desires for mastery, for recognition or even monetary gain possesses us.

Yes, we all dream of getting worldwide recognition, to become the next Richard Avedon, W. Eugene Smith or Ansel Adams. However, do not let this desire get in the way of your photography. Enjoy the process, move down the creative path with open senses and an open mind, breath, live, be one with your art, and do not get caught up with desires that may well turn you away from the path. And don’t use “if only” as an excuse.

I reworked my story proposal of the drug scene, sent it to a different magazine where it finally got accepted. These days a new issue of the magazine is out, with my story spread over 14 pages.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Panasonic Lumix LX-100 with the lens set at 10.9 mm (the equivalent of a 24 mm for a full format canera). Shutter speed: 1/60 s. Aperture: f/1.7. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Do you need some ideas to improve your photography and not having to spend a lot of money on new equipment? My eBook 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera might be what you are looking for. It’s an inexpensive eBook full of inspiration, and it’s available on my website http://www.munchow.no.

A Camera Will Open the World


Summer is a time for taking time off, for breaking up from usual routines, for travel, for relaxation, for exploring waters or mountains, for good food, for spending time with friends and families. The last two weeks I have enjoyed all this. And off course photographed all while enjoying my summer holidays. The camera is always with me, even when I take time off from working as a photographer.

Summer is high season for photography for most people. It’s also a time when we photograph more freely and use the camera not only to record our dear ones but the world around us as we go travelling to new places. The camera becomes a tool to connect to the world. And it becomes a tool to connect with people. If we only dare.

Photographing people we meet on the street takes courage, persistence and not the least being willing to face a no when people don’t want to be photographed by strangers. However, the reward when we dare take that step will make it all worthwhile. We learn about the life of others, we learn about their culture, we learn about their country in a different way than just reading about it in a travel guide and not the least, we make new friends.

If we only dare.

When my interest for photography aroused many years ago, it was mainly routed in nature and landscape photography, mostly because I have always been an outdoor junkie, but maybe also because it was the easier way around when it comes to subject matter. I simple did not have to relate with or take into consideration anybody else. After some time I started to develop an interest in street photography, though, probably as a natural extension of my passion for travelling. But back then I was pretty shy, and I approached street photography with a 200 millimetre lens – from far away. The result was equally remote and uninteresting.

I remember I read articles and interviews with famous photographers stating that photographing had enhanced their own experiences on many levels not the least in getting in touch with people from all corners of the world and of any and every kind. They talked about how the camera was a way to get into people’s lives. Back then I had a hard time grasping this, not the least seeing myself approaching people on the street. Why would anyone let a complete stranger take a photograph of them? I simply didn’t have the courage to get into their faces. But slowly and over time, my lenses became shorter and my courage increased in reverse proportion. I started to interact with people around me wherever I went and I started to photograph them. In the beginning only a single snap or two and then back up and out again, but eventually I started to relate with people I wanted to photograph on a more profound level. Suddenly I found myself in the same place as those famous photographs I had read about. And at some point my 200 mm was replace by a 17 mm (which I later on mostly have abandoned again because it tends to distort people too much when you shoot a meter or yard away from their faces).

For a long time it still drained me to shoot on the street, and after a day of shooting I could be completely exhausted. I remember quite some time ago; I had been travelling in South East Asia for half a year, and on my way back I had a stop-over in Karachi in Pakistan for 36 hours or something like that. On any given day I would use such an opportunity to go out and shoot for most of the time available. But after having pushed myself onto the street for the most part of half a year, I couldn’t face it one more time. I was too exhausted and I stayed in my hotel all those hours without venturing out even once.

Today I mostly don’t feel uncomfortable approaching strangest on the street or in ghettoes or in camps or wherever my photography or travels take me. Mostly, because some days are still set to be my introvert days, but I find that quite OK. Nevertheless by using the camera and being willing to go out of my comfort zone, I have been able extend my photographic experience and open up myself to the world. The camera has brought the world to me.

(Part of this post is an excerpt from a post I published in May 2012).