The first time I discovered the beauty—yes the beauty, despite the doubt and ambiguity being part of the process—of surrendering to the unconscious mind in the creative moment, was 30 years ago. I was photographing a Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown, New York, during a time when I was struggling with my photographic vision.
Suddenly during the shooting process, I felt like I was swept away and lost completely to the intoxicating and exhilarating activities taking place all around me. The New Year celebration and I became one. I stopped thinking consciously and became absorbed with the energy and power of what was going on in front of my camera lens. It felt like being thrown into a deep tunnel with no exits or alternatives, but to move forward as part of the chaos and madness.
Three or four hours later I was spat out of this tunnel, completely wasted and exhausted. I couldn’t recall my doings or what kind of pictures I had captured through these hours. But I felt extremely good, content and animated. And I knew I had photographed something both strong and personal.
The creative process depends on surrender by the artist on many levels and in different ways throughout the whole process. First and foremost, the artist has to give up the idea that the art he or she is creating is actually his or hers and instead understand that it is simply being channelled through him or her. It’s like a baby; you give birth to it, help it mature and then let it loose on its own as a grownup human being. You don’t own your child.
For me, this concept of giving up ownership in the creative process is closely related to trusting the unconsciousness. As artists, whether we are photographers—like I am—or painters, musicians, performers, writers, filmmakers or express ourselves through any other art form; to be able to create something new, we need to surrender ourselves to our unconscious mind.
According to Rollo May—the American existential psychologist whose work includes “The Courage to Create”—creative courage involves the discovery of new forms, new symbols and new patterns.
Only by connecting to our unconscious mind are we able to bring something new into being. If merely the rational mind is involved in the creative process we will find nothing but what is already known, albeit at first sight it may look new. Two plus two is always four no matter how we turn it around with our rational mind. If we look at the equation without rationalizing though, we might find something completely different and beautiful even in such a simple calculation. The fact is that even math can turn into art—and does do so on a higher level.
Our creative expression is channelled through our unconsciousness. Some call it the work of God, some think it’s a spiritual connection, some see it as an encounter with an unlimited creative well, while others call it inspiration and yet others believe it to be something less tangible. No matter how we see the process, it’s all about bringing something new into being; something most of us don’t even understand exactly where it comes from, but certainly has to be outside of our rational thinking. That’s why I so strongly believe we need to engage our unconscious mind in the creative process.
How we engage is expressed in different ways, too. We talk about getting out of our comfort zone, taking chances with our art, letting go or trusting our intuition—all of these expressions indicates that we need to force the rational mind to step back. As the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said about the photographic process—which I believe to also be true for any art form: “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph.”
Trusting our unconscious mind isn’t always easy. On the contrary, engaging the unconscious mind in the creative process causes lots of doubt among those of us who think of ourselves as artists. I believe that any artist at some point will doubt his or her artwork. Again and again we see this. Paul Cézanne, for example, strongly believed that he was discovering and painting a new form of space which would radically influence the future of art, yet he was filled with painful and ever-present doubt. The reality is that creative commitment is healthiest not when it’s without doubt, but in spite of doubt. In other words, we need to accept our own doubts about what we are doing, and still keep doing it. It’s simply another layer of surrendering.
I always try to recall that special feeling from the Chinese New Year celebration in New York when I am shooting. I try to let myself become absorbed in whatever it is that I am photographing and try to throw myself back into that same tunnel of unconscious awareness.