Stop Judging Yourself

Who is usually your worst critic? Am I terribly wrong to think it may be yourself? At least talking for myself; I sure don’t get as harsh critique from anybody but myself. Maybe not right away, but at some point I do get at myself for not having done my best. More often that I like to think.

When I am out there shooting, I usually get that great feeling of being completely present in the moment, and get sucked into whatever I am photographing. It’s what I call entering the tunnel—which I wrote about in the post Tunnel Vision some time ago. If things work out alright while shooting—when I actually enter that tunnel of creativity and concentration—I know after the session is over, that I haven gotten some pictures that will work out fine and might even be quite good.

But no matter how inspired I feel out in the field, whenever I come back and look at the pictures for the first time, I always get disappointed. Fortunately enough I know that with time, usually if I put the pictures aside for a couple of days or even weeks so that I get disconnect from the moment of shooting (and if I have the luxury of time), I will start looking at them differently—and I might start to see the potential in some of them. Still, sometimes, even after having been in the creative tunnel while shooting, I end up with a result that I am really unhappy about. None of the pictures captured the moment or the mood or the emotional context of whatever I was shooting. It’s always very disappointing to have to say to yourself; you did a lousy job.

When I am on assignment I cannot be in this place, and I know enough about photography to make things work so that a client will be satisfied. But it’s usually not during assignments I push myself beyond the limits of myself—at least not without playing it safe for the majority of the shots. It’s with my own projects things can really go completely wrong. And that’s when I become most disappointed with myself. It’s so easy then to backtrack and do the safe thing, save yourself from your own harsh critique. Why go there, when it doesn’t work anyway? I know now that I need to overcome that feeling. It’s almost exactly when things go wrong that I might be on the break of something completely new in my way of shooting. We are all so eager to dismiss ourselves. If the result isn’t perfect we love to give ourselves a slap in the face. You say to yourself: Stay away! Do what you know will work! Or even; stop doing this, because you aren’t good enough! Remember last week’s post about how destructive perfection can be?

Rather, we should say to ourselves: Stop judging yourself. Things go wrong from time to time—in all aspects of life. No big deal. Instead of coming down hard on yourself, try to learn from the experience, and if there is nothing to learn because it was all just a very wrong turn, then step back and give yourself some space. You don’t need to judge yourself so hard. You can’t always expect to please yourself as a creator. The fact is that some of your creations you will like—others not. But don’t stop doing what you are doing for that reason. It’s just like people; you don’t stop meeting people because there are those you don’t like.

Advertisements

Death by Perfection

Perfection. It’s a word often associated with high marks, implying you won’t let go before it’s just right. You always deliver top notch. People know they can trust you to make the best. It’s an attitude that shows you are a person having standards. Can’t go wrong if you strive for perfection…

Wait a minute.

Perfection or perfectionism could also mean that you take forever to get anything done, since nothing is good enough. If you are a perfectionist, maybe you aren’t getting much done at all, since there is always room for improvements. Maybe you don’t even try, because you know it’s not going to be perfect anyway.

I remember when I was younger I was living by the idea that it was better to do only three things and get them right from the start than trying a hundred things an maybe getting ten of them halfway right. In retrospect, I see that I was scared of not getting it right, rather than just trying out and see where it would lead. First time I jumped from a 10-meter diving board, I used the whole summer to build up courage to climb the tower. I wouldn’t let myself get up there and have to turn around not daring to do the jump. That would be too embarrassing. So, I used the summer to infuse mental strength in myself—and then did it. It did take the whole summer, though. And it seized my summer to such an extent that I couldn’t enjoy much else.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It’s a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or photographing or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get caught up in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none,” Miles David so correctly stated.

I know the feeling too well. I am out shooting an assignment for some magazine. I won’t let the editor down. I want to deliver perfect images. Instead, I stall my creativity because I am anxious about not being able to make those photos as good as I believe they should be—whatever that really means. I get more and more frustrated when I can’t get anything right or capture any photos that stands out. I keep digging myself deeper and deeper in expectations that just get higher and higher. There is no way out, at least not until I get so angry with myself and in pure frustration am able to let go of any pretentions.

The perfectionist processes and re-processes a photo. Keeps adding layers, keeps juggling settings, tries new filters, adds a detail here and another there. Darkens, brightens. Increase saturation. Decrease contrast. He or she never gets to finish processing the photo. In fact, if he or she would take a birds perspective he or she would see that the photo might just have been better from the start before all the excessive processing.

The perfectionist is never satisfied. The perfectionist never says, “This is pretty good. I think I’ll just move on.” To the perfectionist there is always room for improvements. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it’s ego-centricity. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, take and process a perfect photo.

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again. Don’t get me wrong. This is not an appeal to be sloppy with our creative outlet. We should do our best, but we shouldn’t keep striving for perfection. That may only lead us into a creative block or performance anxiety. Yes, we all want to become better at what we do, but getting better is a process not a finalized result. If you seek perfection, you seek an unattainable goal. As you get better so does your idea of perfection. The stake will always move outside of your reach since everything can always get better.

Instead of seeking perfection, accept that things are as they are. And rather do and risk failure, than wait until you know you can do it to perfection. You may never get started otherwise. And remember, failure is never failure if you look upon it as an opportunity to improve as I wrote in my post Weakness as Potential Strength more than a month ago.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a EOS 5D with a 24-105 mm lens set at 24 mm. It’s a double-exposure merged in Photoshop and then processed in both Lightroom and Photoshop.

Listen to the Creative Flow

The act of creating is closely related to the ability to listen. Listening to our unconscious mind, or listening to the muses, or listening to the creative power of the universe that we are part of, or listening to our inner artist—whatever you prefer to call it.

We create not in a vacuum or out of our little self. We create in an exchange with something bigger than ourselves. By listening to what is always flowing through us as an underground river of creativity, we are able form work of art that expresses a deeper truth or communicate a universal human experience. It doesn’t matter whether we photograph, write, dance, perform, paint or sculpture or express ourselves through other kinds of media, by listening we create with strokes of unknown potency as if we are vehicle for a creative power must stronger than ourselves.

I think we too often forget to listen. Because of that, we often end up with a writers block or aren’t able to break through a barrier of mental obstacles that holds our creative back. We yearn to create something unique or something that expresses who we are, and in so doing, we try to wrestle it out of our conscious self. That’s not how it works, though. We need to listen instead of speaking—figuratively speaking.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes; “Art is not about thinking up. It’s about the opposite—getting something down. The directions are important here.”

If we are trying to think something up, we are striving to reach for something that’s just beyond our reach, “up there, in the stratosphere, where art lives,” as Cameron puts it. On the other hand, if we try to put something down, there is no strain. We are not doing, we are getting. Something outside of our conscious self is doing the doing. Instead of trying to invent, we are rather engaged in listening.

The great Michelangelo is said to have remarked that he released David from the marble block he found him in. “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through,” said Jackson Pollack. If you have been in flow, you know the feeling, that whatever it is you are creating already exists in its entirety. Our job when creating is to listen for it, watch it with our mind’s eye, and write it down, photograph it, paint it, sculpture it.

I think it’s nowhere easier to understand this idea or concept than in photography. As photographers, we are not creating a new world to photograph (well, if you are not a studio photographer that is). We take what is, we see—or we listen, figuratively speaking—and transform what we discover in this process into a photograph. We often talk about “taking” a photograph, which I find to be a somewhat imprecise phrase. It implies that the photograph is our doing, rather than we see and received what is offered us. The American documentary photographer Charles Harbutt often said that he doesn’t take photographs, photographs take him. The New York photographer Jay Maisel has a similar approach. He doesn’t look for specific photographs. Rather, he’s open, perceptive, and ready for what comes to him unexpectedly.

The thing is, in the act of creating, we are more the conduit than the creator of what we express. The making of art is like dropping down in this underground river of creativity. It is as though all the stories, paintings, music, images, performances live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like this underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap into. By listening.

I have a good friend of my, a colleague in photography, who is staging his photography meticulously. He is in full control most of the time, and don’t let anything be formed by coincidences. Yet, he often shoots his most brilliant imagery when for a split second he let go of the control.

When you learn to trust the process, you will see that inspiration—whatever that is or whatever word you want to use for it—will come to you. You will hear the dialogue you need, find the right light for your photo, discover your David in the clay or hear the right tones for your song.

We must learn to listen to the creative stream. The more we practise the better we become at it. In the beginning, it might be difficult to quiet the mental noise that we impose on ourselves. One way is for instance through free writing or through free photographing as I wrote in my post Free Shooting a couple of weeks ago. That is, to create without thinking, just letting go and flow with whatever comes to mind without trying to modify or reshape whatever comes to you as you think it ought to be. This way of creating you can do in all works of art.

Listening is imperative in the creative process. Like in the good conversation, the one with the ability to listen will learn, while the one, who only speaks, inevitably will keep repeating him- or herself.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Nikon FinePix E900 with the lens set at 28 mm (the equivalent of a 128 mm full frame). The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

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.

Burning Passion

Passion is the driving force for our creative ventures. Passion is what keeps me photographing even when my critics give me a hard time. Passion is what keeps me travelling even when I end up in intolerable situations I wish I’d never experienced. Passion keeps me writing even when my scribbles are turned down, whether by publishers, editors or the public. Without passion, there is no true creativity.

However, passion is not all that is needed in our creative ventures. Passion alone cannot sustain a healthy creative life on its own. As much as passion can drive you forward, it can also make you blind. It is not a license to do whatever you want. It certainly cannot justify all means no matter how deep you passion swells. There is still an ethical dimension towards yourself and not the last the world around you. Or maybe, rather a focused or decisive dimension.

Yes, Mark Twain famously said, “twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” I totally believe so and very much try to live by this notion. However great these words are to put on a motivational spark for many of us, though, it’s not all there is to it. They ignite the spark, but if the fire they ignite then burns the wrong stuff, you might end up with nothing at all—or even worse. You don’t want the spark to burn down your whole cabin rather than just the chopped wood in the fireplace.

Nothing epitomizes the creative fight more than turning tragedy into triumph. That’s what the cyclist Lance Armstrong had done if you remember back when he won Tour de France seven times on a row. That was after having defeated server cancer. The world rallied for him every time he neared the finish line in Paris. His passion burned bright. The way he overcame the odds inspired all of us to do the same.

Then we discovered that Armstrong’s victories were unfairly won. It wasn’t a creative fight but a cheater’s lie. The betrayal stung. Twenty years from now, Armstrong will still be living in the shadow of his mistake. Armstrong doesn’t stand alone; there are countless others who took their creative license too far. My point is, creativity isn’t carte blanche to do whatever you please.

Most of us don’t cheat. We try to go along with honesty and as best as we can. Still, passion builds dreams and hopes, flying high above us. Those dreams and hopes night blindfold us. We need to hold on to them, yet at the same time, we need to stay rooted in the dirt of reality. If we let our dreams take us wherever the wind blows, we might end up getting lost.

Mark Twain loved to stir people up. Since the beginning of his writing days, he was rallying people to “throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” We will always need to be reminded to leave safety behind for the pursuit of our dreams. Yet such advice is in itself not enough. You can’t just run out of the door, jump on a sailing boat, and hope to survive. Without proper understanding of nautical navigation, you will die. Incurable optimism is valuable, but when it comes to taking a journey so is planning ahead.

I remember quite a few years ago, my travelling buddy with whom I have been making stories from all around world, decided to go to Ukraine. This was long before the present conflict between Ukraine and Russia. We had already worked together in many tough places in the world. We felt invincible. Ukraine was going to be our next triumph. We were cocky. We were sloppy. We embarked on the journey without much preparation. We were experts on improvisations. However, that’s just not how serious journalism works—if we didn’t already know. Which we quickly discovered. We didn’t get access to the coal mines in Antratsyt. We didn’t get access to Chernobyl—the site of the nuclear disaster in 2005. We didn’t get access to Anatoly Onoprienko—one of the worse mass murderers—in his prison cell. And so on. Simply because we hadn’t made any preparations beforehand. Because we knew how to make our way in. Nobody could stop us. Well, so we thought. Cockiness has its prize…

Dreams float in the clouds, but true creativity is always rooted in the ground—in the dirt. What gives creativity its strength is having a compass reading to follow. It’s passion combined with mindfulness and directions from the heart and the soul. Lance Armstrong was driven by power and his passion to succeed. Blinded by passion, he neglected the rest.

Passion transfer energy to your creative pursuits. It gives you the courage to bounce back even when you fall down. Yet, too much passion can get out of control. And passion in itself isn’t enough. Without the sure footing that strong values and thoughtfulness provides, pursuing your dreams can be an icy slope. Clearly defining your values and sticking to them is like putting on metal crampons that give you a grip on the ice.

“Passion, though a bad regulator, is a powerful spring.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Natacha with a photo of her in laws who were murdered by Anatoly Onoprienko in their own house.

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.

Backyard Bliss

Some of you, who have followed me for a time, may know that I have this ongoing, unpretentious photo project. It’s as simple as photographing my backyard. There is no prestige or any achievements associated with the project. I do it in order to have a project I can turn to whenever I have a spare moment and don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort to get started. It’s as easy as can be to just pick up a camera and step outside into the backyard.

What more is, I want to have a project in which I can experiment to my heart’s desire, throw myself off the usual rut, do anything differently just to do something different. On assignments, I can’t take chances, not to the same extent at least. Neither do I want to when I am working on one of my “serious” projects. Therefore the backyard project.

It’s really not a photo project about the backyard, I am not trying to make a story about it or convey some of its mood or the feeling it can evoke. The pictures don’t have to say “backyard”. The only condition I have set to myself is that all pictures will have to have been captured in the backyard. Furthermore, I have imposed onto myself to not photograph the way I usually do, but rather break anything and do opposite of whatever I do when I am in my usual flow. Everything is allowed and nothing is ruled out.

My first post of the backyard projects goes back to July 2011. If you want to look up previous posts and photos, you’ll find them here: 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.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Canon Eos 1D with either a 16-35 or a 24-105 mm lens. The photos were processed in Lightroom, Photoshop and Nik Color Efex.

On a different note. If you would like to have a photo critiqued—almost like I do in my workshops—remember I only keep this offer open a couple of more days. By the end of the month I will again close the picture critique. If you have a picture you would like to have feedback on, post a link to it on my Picture Critique-page.

Into the Unknown

When we start our journey into the creative realm, we venture into unknown territory. We need to. As a matter of fact being creative means embracing what until the moment of creation was completely unknown to us, otherwise we wouldn’t be creative. After all; to create means to originate or to bring into being from nothing. It means bringing into life something completely new. We—figuratively speaking—take on a journey into new territory. We cannot make this travel without facing the unknown. When we do we are creative discoverers.

For many people, though, the unknown creates a sense of conflict, disorientation, and discomfort. People often attempt to reduce this experience by pretending to know what they actually do not know. But in doing so, they disconnect themselves from the creative source. In order to reduce their discomfort, they manufacture explanations, engage in speculations, and make up theories. They try to make the unknown known through speculations and inaccurate descriptions, and if they aren’t able to, they turn away from the unknown and stay with what they already know. Doing so, though, is detrimental to the creative process.

We grow up in a society that values knowledge, so that we may adopt the premise that we should know what’s happening. This is a value fostered by traditional education, where we are rewarded for knowing and penalized for not knowing. When we create we need to open up for not knowing, be willing to let the journey go wherever it takes us – without knowing.

Thus, an important ability for all who create is being able to live with the unknown, the unresolved, the incongruent, and the contradictory. This contradicts the popular myth that creative people are those who generate fantastic ideas and always have the answer. The truth is that creative people often do not have the answers and are quite aware of the spaces.

It’s like when I go out and shoot on the streets. I literally venture into spaces of unknown. It’s often places I haven’t been to before, but I am curious and open to where the unknown will take me. It’s also a journey in a figuratively sense. I don’t know who I will meet on the street, I don’t know how they will react to me, I don’t know if the will want to meet me at all, I don’t know what these encounters will bring—maybe new friendship, or maybe new knowledge, or maybe hostility or disapproval. Sometimes I do not dare face the unknown on the street, but when I do, my life is always enriched beyond anything I had thought beforehand. And I come home with new and inspiring photographs. I am creating

The Picture Critique is still open, but only for another week or so. By the end of the month I will close this offer to give some feedback if you have a picture you would like to get an outsider’s opinion about. If you are interested, please don’t hesitate to submit a link to a photo on my Picture Critique-page. Remember, it’s not about submitting excellent photos, but about photos you feel uncertain about or photos you would like to get an outsider’s opinion about.

Get Feedback on a Photo of Yours

Do you have a photo you need feedback on, a picture you are unsure about, a picture that is different from your usual style or just a picture that you want to know how to do better? I have once again opened up for my popular picture critique. Post a picture on my Picture Critique page here on this blog and get my feedback on the photo.

It’s been a while since last time (as a matter of fact summer 2015). But here I am with another round of picture critique! So once again, I open up for submission of photos anyone would like some feedback on. This is the fifth time I do this, and the previous rounds were well received by those who sent me their photos.

As last time my idea is to let any of you who have pictures you want to have some feedback on to post them on my site here. Go to the Picture Critique page, post a link to the picture and I will soon give my honest view and perception of your picture in what I attempt to be constructive and meaningful critique.

I both teach and attend a lot of workshops, and one of the greatest values from participating in photographic workshops is the possibility to have feedback on pictures you take. I know from the workshops I teach that this is what students appreciate the most. Therefore, here is a chance to get feedback on your pictures without having to participate in an expensive workshop. Not quite the same of course, but I hope it can be of some value.

If you are interested, go to the Picture Critique page to read more or just post a picture there. I hope to see your picture soon. Please do not post any picture or links to pictures here, but go to the Picture Critique page.

Beneath are a collage of the pictures submitted in the last round of picture critique. Are you ready for – or need – some feedback on one of your photos? Here is the chance.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. Except for the technical details beneath the pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-100 with the lens set at 10,9 mm (the equivalent of a 24 mm lens for a fullformat camera). The photo was transferred to my cell phone and processed first with the Snapseed app with various adjustments before uploaded in Instagram.