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).

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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. 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.

Come Rain, Come Shine

© Erik Lind
© Terry Shoobridge
© Inger Stenstrøm
© Tori Tollefsen
© Mary Shoobridge

Street photography is challenging. Most of us feel like intruders when we shove our cameras into the faces of strangers on the street. It’s intimidating, and most intimidating is approaching strangers asking to take their photo. Even just being a fly on the wall, letting street life pass by unobstructed, capturing it without any interaction, can be daunting enough. We just don’t feel comfortable photographing people we don’t know.

For participants during the extended weekend photo workshop in Bath two weeks ago, they all experienced the challenge of street photography. In the beginning, they were pretty much reluctant to the thought of approaching strangers on the street. Resorting to zoom in and use a long telephoto lens was much less intimidating. However, taking captivating street photos more often than not requires using a wide-angle lens or at least a so-called normal lens.

Over the next three days during the workshop, they were pushed ever closer to whatever took place on the street. And they were pushed to use a more wide-angled approach. They also started approaching complete strangers on the street. To their surprise, they found out that most people don’t mind having their photos taken. On the contrary. With that insight came also more audacity—and in the end amazing results in terms of photos they have captured.

To challenge the participants even more, the weather was far from cooperative. Whereas Bath had been bathed in sunshine weeks before the workshop—and in fact ever since the workshop was done, too—during the extended weekend the rain came down reluctantly most days. However, the participants passed this challenge with blistering energy. Come rain, come shine, they were all out shooting every day.

Here is a small selection of what they came back with after an inspiring weekend in beautiful Bath.

Back from Photo Workshop in Bath

Last night I got back from teaching a photo workshop in Bath, England, over an extended weekend. The participants and I had a great experience, despite the weekend being clogged down by some heavy rain. After weeks of lovely sunshine and what seems to have returned to more sunshine, the workshop really found the one weekend with pretty nasty weather. Particularly on Saturday it was wet and cold, and we all felt a little demolished after a whole day out in the rain. But I have to praise all the participants for their determination not to let the rain take them down. They kept shooting until late in the evening. We did get some sunshine, too, but as one of the participants said, the rain will make sure we won’t forget this workshop.

For me it was also an unforgettable workshop because of the group itself. The spirit and the eagerness to learn and willingness to being challenged was enormously inspiring for a workshop teacher. I think it shows in the result they came home with. They all captured some outstanding images. Street photography is always difficult, because you photograph in an environment where you have no control, and thus will capture a lot of less than satisfactory images. They never gave up pushing on and searching for new possibilities and photos.

For me—as in all the workshops I teach—I learned just as much as the participants did, by their vision and the way they see the world through the camera. We all bring ourselves into our photography and thus we all shoot differently. And nothing is more inspiring than seeing how others perceive the world in their pursuit of photography. I had a great weekend, to put it simple. In a later post, I will get back to the amazing work of the participants.

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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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?

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. 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.