Good Habits

Sometimes being creative is extremely demanding. Sometimes I have to push myself to get going, whether I am writing a text, photographing, doing post-production, making a blog post like this or something quite different. Sometimes it’s hurting almost physically to try to be creative.

There is no easy way around the fact. However, good habits can help. As Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, concludes in her book The Creative Habit: “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive pattern of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, and going the wrong way.”

These last couple of weeks, I have been making good habits for myself. I don’t say so to brag, but maybe it can be an inspiration for others who might feel overwhelmed by the demands of being creative—or trying to be.

I usually work a lot, but can also be good at procrastinating, particularly chores I would rather not do. As strange as it may sound, creative tasks might sometimes belong to that category, at least until I get started. The point is simply to get started, at least for me. For instance, I find writing more demanding than anything else I do. I love to write, but I hate to write, too. Or; I love to photograph on the streets, but it scares the shit out me, too. It’s all a big contradiction, but isn’t that what creativity often feels like?

Good habits have saved me from complete disaster this last month. I have been buried in plenty of work, which generally is good for a freelancer if you want to survive. But can also cut you short of drowning. My weeks have been juggling between making interviews, photographing for the same articles or some other assignments, writing the texts and editing the photos. It’s been hard not falling behind with the work.

My way to dealing with the load of work, has been to organize good habits for myself. When I have gotten up in the mornings, I start the day with reading the day’s newspapers. As a journalist, I need to know what is going on, so it’s part of the job. When done with the papers, I went to my desk and started to write whatever article I had in the working. There was no way around it. Every day, writing would be the first thing I did. Part of it this, is the fact I pointed to already; that writing is such a demanding process for me. By getting going with writing as the first thing each day—and not allowing myself any excuses doing anything else—I would be working much more efficiently than otherwise. My habitual schedule would be to write up until lunch. From there on, I would organize interviews or photo shoots if needed and/or processing images. Finally, at the end of the workday I would do the odd jobs, like sales taxes, answering emails or other office work.

The key for me has been getting started with the writing and forcing myself to write no matter what. And, yes, some days I felt empty and not able to write anything inspiring. I would still write however boring it would come out, accepting that it would have to be edited at a later stage. As I noticed I was able to keep up with the work, it inspired me to keep going on like this. I think I have been more efficient than I often am. I usually work long hours, starting the day at 7.80 am and not ending work before 7 pm. (It must be noted that included in this time frame, is reading the papers as well as physical training, as I see the latter as equally important as my work and thus need to make sure I create room for it).

Nevertheless, there it’s still plenty of time for work. That has sometimes been part of the problem. In the morning, I might think there is no hurry since the day is still long in coming, so I find ways to postpone what I don’t want to do and end up wasting time. And suddenly the day is gone.

With good habits, I keep pushing and don’t allow myself much breaks before the work is done. Instead, I might end the day earlier and have a longer evening off for pleasures or doings not related to work. It’s really been exciting when I notice I have been able to keep up with all the work needed to be done. Before this last weekend, I was completely adjourned with all work up until then, and for the first time in very long, I could take the weekend off with a clean conscious—despite the workload hanging over me three weeks earlier. Usually, there is always something I could do or ought to do in the weekends, but this time there was nothing to do at all. This weekend I felt light and keyed up realizing I could do nothing if I so wanted. Even if I didn’t, just knowing made me thrilled.

Good habits create space for creativity. It frees up your mind and inspiration, when you otherwise might get bugged down by the mere thought of what could end up becoming insurmountable chores. Again, to quote Twyla Tharp: “Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing.”

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The Long-term Project








For any serious photographer nothing is like working on a personal long-term project. If you want to develop your photography, make your creativity bloom, increase your energy and boost your self-esteem and confidence as a photographer, a long-term photo project will do all that for you. Such a project doesn’t have to be exotic at all or take place in a far-away-country. In fact the closer to your home-base the easier it is to follow through and use spare time whenever there is a chance. A personal long-term project can be grand and it can be small. It can be limited to your own backyard, like the project I have described before in the post Backyard Abstraction, or it can be a project about the world’s manual labourers as the famous photographer Sebastião Salgado has devoted a life time to.

The important thing is to devote yourself to a project you feel is important or speaks to you in some way or form and then stay devoted over a longer period of time. I mean keep going back, keep shooting, keep finding new ways to express the theme you have chosen, keep adding new images to the story. And keep doing it consistently even when at times it feels exhausting and nothing comes out of your attempt of shooting. Gradually you will merge into the project, it becomes you, and that’s when things start to take on a development of its own. By devoting yourself to a project over time you start to feel real ownership for the project, you will gradually relax with the subject—and the subject will relax with you, you lose all pretensions and any performance anxiety you may have. It all becomes about you and the subject and expressing that relationship.

“Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or hate.” This is according to another famous photographer, Dorothea Lange.

For a professional photographer as myself, long-term personal photography projects are the spice of life between the humdrum of every day life and shooting. It brings meaning and joy into my work. I can only recommend any photographer to devote time to a long-term project that feels important or inspiring to you—and it probably works the same way in any of the other art forms, too. The important thing is to start—now. Not keep planning it in your head and saying I’ll do it when I have time, or I just need to plan the project a little more. No, just start.

How long is a long-term project, then? There is no telling what is right when it comes to the time devoted to a long-term project. It can be months or it can be a life time. Only you know how long your project takes, and you probably don’t even know before it’s all done. One of my long term projects have been going on for more than 20 years—and still going on. Cuba has been my longest personal photo project to date. Not many posts ago I mentioned the farm I keep visiting in Cuba, where the members have become My Cuban Family. The farm is but a part of my project. Over the 25 years I have been returning to Cuba, I have tried to portrait and captured the changes is this contradictory country.

Play is Not Only for Kids

You may never have heard about the Brownie, the first easy to use camera introduced by Kodak. It was a huge success—it was the GoPro of 1901. Despite the fact that the latter is infinitely more advanced than the Brownie, both have one thing in common. Their introductions encouraged a more playful photographic approach. Without all the serious features that photographers have come to expect today, the Brownie seemed less like tools and more like toys. Even back then, the elitists scoffed, but amateurs picked up these magic boxes and started to have fun. The secret to the wild success of both the Brownies and GoPros was and are the features they don’t have.

Fun and simple cameras have a broad appeal. Consider the iPhone or any other smart phone, the most popular cameras in the world. Even kids know how to take photographs and scroll through the frames. And without the worry of making costly mistakes, the camera becomes an extension of who we are. Without the burden and expectation that comes with heavy and expensive gear, the photographer stops being concerned. And without the pressure of performing, we become more relaxed. When we let go of our self-critical bent, we take more risks.

Picasso famously said, “the chief enemy of creativity is common sense.” Common sense is a con artist that steals growth and joy. With age we become more and more conform, more practical, yes even cynical. We stop playing as we used to when we were kids.

If we want to grow as photographers, we need to let go, not think too much in terms of final result. Play more. Artists of all kinds know this. They allow themselves to doodle, sketch, play, iterate and test out new ideas. The musician practices a riff. The writer goes through rough drafts. The painter sketches her ideas. The poet jots down a few lines. The most productive practice happens when we can block the critical voices in our heads, when we can let our guard.

When we play more, we worry less and the creative juices flow without any effort at all. Play diminishes stress and helps us relax. Play and work is similar; it’s just that play is more fun. But don’t make the mistake that play isn’t profound. The neuroscientist Dr. Stuart Brown says, “Nothing lights up the brain like play. Play isn’t just for kids. It necessitates a mental shift that changes how we approach our work. In fact, we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. According to Dr. Brown, “When we stop playing, we start dying”. Which means, play isn’t just a game; it keeps us creative, flexible, and young.

Kids are creative without knowing what they have done. They make up games with toy cars and without self-awareness or a self-critical voice in their head; they let their creativity freely go where it may.

So why not try something you have never done? Why not take the risk to iterate and test out new ideas? Look deep within and you will see a creative force bubbling up inside. The force wants to be free. It wants to roam wild. Let it off leash and give it some space. Maybe it could even involve playing with a “simple” camera, such as a GroPro or just your cell phone.

Backyard Abstraction

I have been back in my backyard. You know shooting for my backyard project. If you have followed my blog for a while, you don’t need any introduction to this project. But for new readers, here is a short and quick outline: Every so often—since 2011 in fact—I have used my backyard experimenting with my photography, shooting in ways I would normally not.

Now that autumn is about to fade out into the next season, the colours are maybe less intense than a month ago, but still plentiful. However, instead of focusing on the autumn colours in a traditional way, this time I went for a more abstract approach.

Moving the camera while using a longer shutter speed is nothing new. But playing around with direction and different ways of moving the camera, I discovered that shooting up against the sky created some beautiful, mixed shapes in the boundaries between highlights and the much darker leaves. I experimented with the shutter time, and shot with anything from a ¼ of a second to a couple of seconds. The images captured were extremely low contrasting, though, so in postproduction I had to amp up the contrast significantly. Usually increasing the contrast will also increase the saturation, so I chose to de-saturate the colours drastically.

If you haven’t seen my previous photos, here is the links to post about my backyard project: Shooting Sideways, Backyard Bliss, Experimental Backyard, My Photographic Retreat, My Backyard Project, My Personal Challenge, The World from the Backyard, Instagram my Backyard, Out of Comfort Zone and Challenge and Expand.

Training the imagination


It is the imagination that makes an artist capable of going beyond anything he or she has learned about the craft and from others in the field. It’s the imagination that makes the artist create something new in his or her own work; a new idea, a new approach, a new point of view, a new effect, a personal style. A person may read all the right books on the craft, attend lectures, go to school, and yet still not be able to do anything but copy from what he or she has learn. But we all have imagination and creativity latent in ourselves and it’s possible for all to bring out and develop that potential.

A good way to train one’s imaginative faculties is through mental exercises: try to imagine different ways of doing the same thing, different ways of rendering the same subject, different applications of means and technique. When confronted with an artistic problem we may try to visualize how the subject would appear from a different point of view – for instance in photography from higher up, from lower down, from the side, from the rear. Or how would it appear if the subject would be taken farther away with a telephoto lens? What would happen if a wide-angel lens were used? What about a different type of illumination?

By investigating systematically every controllable factor which contributes to the appearance of the work of art, by patiently searching for other ways than the obvious one for solving a specific problem, by critically analyzing the result of these investigations, by making clever use of the possibilities inherent in the subject, the inventive artist creates the kind of work that makes less patient or less creative artists exclaim: Why didn’t I think of that? How could I overlook such possibilities! Haven’t we all experienced this feeling at some point? But don’t worry, though, don’t get discourage by other’s creative work, it’s all about training your imagination.

Another way to do so is exactly to study and analyse the work of other imaginative artists, much as the student artist learns by studying the work of the masters. I believe there is no artist who, in one way or another, has not been influenced by the thought and work by others. Such influences are necessary catalysts to the artistic growth and development of any creative personality. We are not talking about imitation, but influence.

How do you train your imagination? And keep it sharp every day?

Photo Workshops in Planning

Two of the participants during the Bolivia workshop in 2013
The participants of the 2010 Bolivia workshop

Sitting at my desk here in Seattle, looking out at the cold mist cramping down on the urban scenery outside my window, I can all the more enjoy spending time planning next year’s photo workshops. Honestly, it’s always fun to plan upcoming workshops. I love teaching and planning is part of the built-up.

If everything goes according to plan, next year I will teach four workshops on three different continents. Some of them will be very adventurous while others while be more laidback. They will vary from weekend long workshops to a tour stretching almost a fortnight. There should be a workshop for most aspiration. Maybe I’ll see you in one of them?

Once again, I will teach a photo workshop in Cuba in May. This is my most popular workshop, which I teach together with my friend and colleague, Sven Creutzmann. We have done this since 2007, almost every year. Here on my blog I have written many a post about Cuba, and if you follow me, I don’t need to introduce you to this fascinating country. It’s certainly a country that it’s a dream place for most photographers, colourful with openhearted people and photo opportunities around every corner.

Next year’s photo workshop will take place from May 4th to 11th. If you may be interested, you’ll find more information on Blue Hour Photo Workshops, «Street Photography in Cuba».

For Sven and me it’s extra exciting to re-launch a photo workshop in Bolivia. This will be a truly adventurous workshop, in which we follow the footsteps of Che Guevara, up until he was captured and killed by the Bolivian army. We will travel through small mountain towns and off the beaten tracks in a lush and beautiful landscape. We will meet local people and we will talk with some of those who took care of Che Guevara after he was captured. In all modesty, this is quite an extraordinary photo workshop.

The Bolivia workshop will take place from September 15th to 24th. For more information, once again look up Blue Hour Photo Workshops, «On the Tracks of Che Guevara».

In addition to the Cuba and Bolivia workshop, I will teach yet another weekend workshop in Bergen, Norway in the beginning of June. Next year I also plan a complete new photo workshop in Seattle, USA. The date is yet not settled, but it will take place in the autumn of 2019. These two workshops I will get back to with more info.

Find Your Own Way

Do you confine yourself doing what you know your peers like or what is considered “good” photography? Do you show work to get positive feedback instead of giving the rest of the world your take on whatever it is you have photographed—or painted or written about or…? At least talking for myself, I know that is so easy to fall back on conformities and too easy to take the well-trodden path.

Some time ago, I came across a blog post by David duChemin, the Canadian photographer based out of Vancouver. He writes about a village in China called Dafen where thousands of painters make a living by making replicas of world famous paintings. They do this year in and year out, being very accomplished at it. If you can’t pay the millions it cost to get hold of a Picasso, you may get a copy by one of these very skilled painters in Dafen for a just a few dollars.

His point is that however good the paintings from Dafen may be, they are not art. They do not offer anything to the world except cheep copies of something that once did and still do create aw and admiration in the art world. The copies themselves do not. As skilful as these painters in Dafen are, nobody will ever become inspired by them, or boosted by them, or stimulated by them. Crafts in itself is not enough, an artists needs to put some of her or his soul into the creation to touch anyone else.

I know art is lofty and pretentious word, and if you are like me, you probably hesitate a little to call yourself an artists. But it still doesn’t change the point and it still doesn’t change fact that both you and I most likely are photographing—or painting, sculpturing, writing, making music or whatever you do—out of a desire to fulfil a creative desire.

In so doing we want to creating something that at best may touch others or at least be or some inspiration or maybe just result in a smile in another’s face. That is pretty close to art, in my opinion. However, according to duChemin, “if art is more than just technique and imitation, no matter how perfect that imitation, then it requires something more than years of practice. It requires us. It requires interpretation. It requires that we bring something of our own to the table, preferably something that means something to us, something that’s a part of us. It requires vulnerability and soul and thoughts of our own.”

We need to leave Dafen—figuratively speaking. We need to break out of conformity and what is considered the “right way”. Because there is no right way. There are no rules, and if you believe there are, then break those damn rules. Jump out of the stereotype and become yourself in the creative process. As duChemin says; you don’t want to spend your life imitating others, do you?

It takes one thing, though, and that is courage. It takes courage to be yourself. It takes courage to create on your own terms. In takes courage to stand out from the crowd and not be like everybody else. It takes courage to accept your own quirks and oddities. However, it’s from this place you will find your true, artistic expression. You art will grow deeper and become more authentic if you draw the artistic expression from your real self, the one that you sometimes, or most of the time, try to hide—as I wrote in my post Embrace Your Oddities some time ago.

As David duChemin writes in this post: “We’re all trying so damn hard to blend in that we have no chance at standing out. And that’s a shame, because if you just let your freak flag fly, you’d find it was that to which people were the most attracted. The real you. The messy you. The you who had the courage to leave Dafen and try it your way. Not to be different, but to be you. Imperfect, weird, intriguing, fantastically human you. That’s the kind of person who makes art, not copies: someone who is truly him or herself, not a copy of someone else.”

Skills and craft are good and necessary to be able to express ourselves, just like you need to learn your mother tongue to be able to express yourself with words. But take it to the next level. When talking about photographing, don’t just show us where you have been or what something looks like. Show me why it so important for you that you actually took a photo of it.

If you haven’t visited David dChemin’s blog, I strongly recommend to do so. He is full of inspiration, encouragement and a well of poignant thoughts about photography and art. Start here then: Leaving Dafen (From Craft to Art).

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.

The Curse of Good

Technology has helped us improve our creative output dramatically. It’s probably more obvious in photography than in any other creative endeavour. As a result, there are a lot more good photographers in the world. Good isn’t the big deal. Simply point and click. Yet, a few of the good photographers become truly great. Why is that?

Good is easy, but greatness is always hard. When I started out as a photographer, I wasn’t even good. Of course, that’s always how it is in the beginning. Back then, with manual and analogue film cameras, it was even harder to get started than today. Nevertheless, it didn’t take very long to become a pretty decent photographer, at least technically speaking. Getting beyond that level, though, is a much tougher travel—and still is today. Even these days with cameras that do all the thinking.

We all know it. It’s not the camera and it’s not their built-in ability to handle all the technical challenges that makes great photography. It’s still the photographer and his or her willingness to go beyond the obvious. The pursuit for great photography is a quest for hidden things. That’s why the best photographers are such a quirky bunch—like oddly equipped treasure hunters who get out into the world look for the magnificent. Leaving no rock unturned, they search high and low for the perfect shot. The result may still look like an easy accomplishment, but the truth is that effortless and deep photographs take decades of commitment to the craft.

When I teach photography, I am often asked for tricks that can make a student’s photographs better. The truth is, there aren’t any easy tricks that will quickly result in great photography. The curse of today’s technology is that it is fairly quickly to get good at it. That is literally the problem. It’s like inheriting money before you have learned the value of hard work.

Too much good too fast can distract us from a higher goal. When life is good, we stop trying so hard. That’s why so many of the great artists often started out starving. They weren’t only hungry for survival, their hunger infected their art. And, yes, I know it’s a cliché, but not completely. The American author Jim Collins distilled the curse of good in this way: “Good is the enemy of great”. He explained; “Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life”.

When we become good, we might not see it this way. We think to ourselves, how can this be a curse? Good feels nice. But good is not a stable spot. We might soon becoming dissatisfactory with the result, particularly when we see others climbing higher than us and thus demoting us. When good is good enough, it stops the creative flow. Not good enough is what drives growth. It’s when we feel that we can still become better that we pursue that next level. And then do it again. And again.

Creative Magic

You may have noticed that this blog of mine has been titled Creativity Is within Us All. It’s not only something I have put there (look to the right), I truly have faith in it. I do believe we are all creative beings—as long as we are willing to uncover our creative abilities, which lies within us. It takes courage. It takes faith. But it’s there. This is how I see it metaphorically: the universe hides gems deep within us, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

Sometimes these gems reveal themselves without any effort from us. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to uncover one. When it happens, however it does, when a sudden idea out of the air appears for our inner eyes, it feels like magic.

Elizabeth Gilbert—the bestselling author of Eat Pray Live—does think it’s magic. Literally. In her book Big Magic about creative living, she writes: “I believe the creative process is both magical and magic.” She believes our planet is inhabited with ideas, as disembodied, energetic life form. These are ideas can only be made manifest through collaboration with a human partner.

“When an idea thinks it has found somebody—say, you—who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re are consumed by your own drama, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration. […] But sometimes—rarely, but magnificently—there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something.”

Personally, I don’t quite believe as literally in ideas as real life forms, but I think, as a metaphor, Gilbert’s description gives a way of understanding how creativity works. It’s the way it feels when we are struck by ideas. As something, that just comes out of nowhere to be grabbed.

It’s up to us what we want to do with ideas that come our way. We can ignore them, we can think it’s too hard to follow through or we can say yes to the idea and make something out of is, however hard it’s going to be. For Gilbert the point is really how you embrace the ideas. She suggests to cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully with the inspiration. You may not achieve success or make a living in your creative pursuit, but if you welcome creativity into life as such, enjoying being creative for itself, you will thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting , passionate existence.

Another quote from Big Magic: “I believe that inspiration will always try its best to work with you—but if you are not ready or available, it may indeed choose to leave you and search for a different human collaborator. This happens to a lot of people actually. This is how it comes to pass that one morning you open the newspaper and discover somebody else has written your book, or directed your play, or released your record, or […]”

Whether or not you believe in ideas literally as life form is not important. What is important is to act on inspiration when it arrives. Not wait until better times. Not postpone until the idea is fully developed. Not put off until a better idea comes around. Not delay because you don’t feel ready.

Are you ready to act on inspiration when it strikes?