Diving into Unconsciousness

Andektig morgenstemning på toppen av Green Lotus Hill

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.

Photographic Development

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Sven fotograferer på Playa del Este

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Most artists go through different stages of development. So, too, do photographers. Their development, maybe more clearly than for other artists, proceeds along two parallel lines—due to the dual nature of photography. One of those lines is related to technique while the other is related to a more artistic aspect. These parallel developments do not always keep pace; one may progress faster—or slower—than the other. Some photographers don’t even realise or care about the lack of the development of one of the skills. I know successful photographers who have no clue about how to use aperture or exposure time in their shooting, and certainly don’t know a thing about post-processing. Their technical development stopped at an early stage. On the other hand, some of the best photo-technicians I ever met wouldn’t know how to make an interesting picture if their lives depended on it. Their artistic development never got off the ground.

In my own photographic development I started out with more emphasise on my technical abilities than artistic growth, but today I care much less about technique. For me the content and the story the pictures tell, particularly on an emotional level, is of much more importance that the technical appearance. I certainly don’t mind if both work together to form a higher unit. On the contrary. But nothing is more boring that a technically perfect, but purposeless picture that doesn’t evoke any emotions, simply because the photo is all about technical proficiency—and maybe composition—than content and purpose.

With my own development—and others as well—in mind, I clearly see that photographs often change their attitude in regards to both subject and the way they shoot as of a result of their technical and artistic progress. In his book Photographic Seeing the late and former Life-photographer Andreas Feininger distinguishes between three different photographic approaches, stretching from an almost pure technical focus to a complete artistic impetus. He talks about objective (which I prefer to call factual), subjective and expressionistic approach.

The factual approach is when a photographer tries to make his or her picture render as much as possible the visual facts, being careful to express neither bias nor personal point of view. Clarity of this rendition is of primary importance, colours should appear natural and the subject must be instantly recognizable. Prime requirement for this approach is photo-technical competence, whereas artistic talent and imagination are of lesser importance. This is often stage number two in a photographer’s development, following the stage of the happy-go-lucky snapshooter. (Personally I’d rather call this factual than objective approach, simply because the latter implies some level of objectivity in the rendered photo, and I don’t believe objectivity exists in any photograph).

The subjective approach is when a photographer makes a deliberate effort to express her or his personal opinion or point of view. It means showing in the picture what the photographer felt in the presence of the subject rather than what the eyes told him or her. In essence this is an emotional approach requiring a high degree of sensitivity, feeling, compassion, imagination and courage of conviction. Usually this approach is the third stage in the development of a photographer, when the photographer starts to realize that there is no objective rendering of any subjects and that an imaginatively seen and expressed photograph can be more stimulating than a purely factual, correctly rendered image. This approach requires are strong personal conviction and vision coupled with sufficient technical abilities to realize this vision.

The expressionistic approach is when the photographer goes all out of his or her effort to present his or her personal point of view, even if this requires a form of rendition which makes the subject partly or completely unrecognizable. As in modern abstract art, feeling is everything. It takes about the same abilities as for the subjective approach, only to a higher degree. Often the expressionistic approach is merely a more revolutionary form of the subjective approach. And some times expressionistic photographers rely on photo-technical abilities to a lesser degree. It’s all about feeling, intuition and being present with the subject.

Where do you feel you are along this continuum between a factual and a expressionistic approach?

The Compositional Dance

Danseforestilling i Habana Café

When I teach workshops or talk about photography in other arenas, one of the most frequent advises I give is to keep shooting a scene. Most photographers—professionals and recreational photographers alike—tend to not work their subject enough. They move on to the next scene or the next idea or the next subject far too soon. Often it’s partly due to impatience and partly because we don’t want to impose ourselves on the subject—we feel we are intruding or disturbing the subject’s private sphere when we photograph. But it’s when you give yourself and your subject time to get used to each other things start to happen. It’s also by spending time with the subject that you give yourself a chance to work out the best composition, wait for the best moment and organize the space.

This process is a bit like dancing. In this compositional dance you make yourself move around the space trying to find new angels to see what they look like, all while relating to and interacting with the subject. It’s an intuitive dance, in which you lose a bit control and just let yourself flow with the energy from the encounter with the subject. And it’s not just you, the photographer, moving, changing the composition and awaiting the best moment. The subject and the world are moving around you as well; the world is your dancing partner. You are two who dance together—without knowing the steps beforehand—even when you are photographing a stationary or static subject. The world is always moving and so should you when you are photographing.

In this world that is always moving and changing, the specific moment captured by the photographer has a huge impact on the final image. And so does the vantage point. A gesture or a look may be all it takes. This can differ from one frame to next, and this slight shift can have a dramatic impact on the success of the image. You move till you and your subject are in synch and the space is lined up to emphasize your purpose of the photo. Bend your knees and change perspective. Alter the juxtaposition of the foreground with the background and the horizon. Move high or low. Dancing with the subject.

It’s all about subtlety. It’s about trying to frame the picture by arranging visual elements for maximum impact and communication. And it’s about finding that moment when you and your dance partner are completely coordinated and in balance (or even off-balanced and by that finding a whole new expression in your photography), when the instant of the move reaches its highlight. The compositional dance is also about tweaking the technique. The subtle difference in depth of field from one stop to the next can perfect and sharpen the final photograph, as can the proper blur-inducing of life-stopping shutter speed.

As Steve Simon writes in his book The Passionate Photographer: «Show viewers of your work a new view of a common scene. Explore different points of view by getting down, up high, in close, or some other unexpected camera position. This is where the dance should take you. You can’t be timid when determining your camera position. Find the best place to shoot by boldly exploring the scene.»

So when you feel like you have worked the subject enough, keep photographing. Don’t stop. Keep dancing. Because the dance doesn’t stop before you do. Work the scene. Work, work, work. Doing so helps us see the world in different ways while forcing us out of that comfort zone we often tend to curl up in.

Energy, Enthusiasm and Emotion

En fisker med dagens fangst

Some years ago my blogger friend Robert K. Rehmann in a post on his eminent blog (the quiet photographer) quoted a famous photographer who had been a student of late Richard Avedon. This photographer had once said that Avedon used to tell his students that it was not possible to achieve good results in photography without the three E’s. Those three E’s were energy, enthusiasm and emotions. Ever since I read about them on Robert’s blog I have been pondering over these three E’s.

Needless to say Avedon himself was known for all three characteristics. He was supposed to have the energy, enthusiasm and relentless stride of a 30-year-old all up to his late years (he passed away at the age of 81). And throughout all of his work his emotional impact is very evident.

So what is it about these three E’s? In many ways they sum up everything that is needed for anyone pursuing photography as a way of expression—whether professionally or just for the fun of it. Everything in terms of personal qualities.

First of all, it takes a lot of hard work to become good as a photographer, in other words you need the energy to be able to develop yourself as a photographer. If you don’t put in the work, you will never reach your full potential as a photographer—no matter how talented you are. I have written about this before (Creativity is Work), and as I said back then; we all have creativity within us, but most of us need to dig it out. That’s also where enthusiasm comes in. Without enthusiasm you won’t find the energy to put in the work that is needed. At the same time enthusiasm is also about the necessity to let go, to lose control, take chances or just experiment in the creative process. Enthusiasm, as in passion, is what is driving us forward, that is where our wish to be spontaneous, to be free and joyful in our creative expression, comes from. This directly relates to the Greek understanding of Eros as the raw energy of our enthusiasm and passion. Energy and enthusiasm.

Finally; emotions. Without emotional engagement in our work, our photography will always become plain boring. In order to keep the attention of the viewers a photograph—as all artistic work—needs to have an emotional impact. It needs to speak to the viewer on some emotional level. And this emotional impact starts with our own emotional engagement. It starts with our own genuine interest in the subject in front of the camera—and then being able to convey that in the final photograph. Without it we have nothing to say, our photography becomes empty playing with forms and graphics.

Content Trumps All

Is composition overrated? Whether that is the case or not; what is it that makes for a captivating photo—composition, something else or a combination of building blocks? The reason I am asking is a newsletter I received the other day written by the Canadian photographer David duChemin in which he asks how much composition really matters.

DuChemin himself was triggered by a photographer who accused him of paying too much attention to composition, arguing that moment is everything. DuChemin’s short answer was, that it’s too easy to put it all down to the moment. To that effect, I agree with duChemin. There is more to a captivating photo that just capturing the “right” moment.

But does it all come down to composition, then? I think many photographers do think so, maybe including light in the equation, too. However, in my world, composition, as well as light and moment, are only means to a goal, not the purpose itself. These are building blocks for as best as possible expressing what a photograph is about.

Yes, you can create a photo that is all about light. Or it’s all about some compelling composition of visually interesting objects. Or even a combination of the two. And the result can be captivating simply by surprising viewers with something they never saw themselves. But will those images stand the test of time?

Composition and light were in fact my stepping-stones to photography. In the beginning, that was what I was looking for. I read everything I could about composition and about light and how to put it all together for compelling images. And I went out looking for strong compositions and/or enchanting light.

None of those images have survived my later critical sense. I did after some time, learn to include and look for the heightened moments in my photography, too. Still, something was lacking. At the time, I was happy with result, but as I look back today, my attempts were rather bleak and boring.

Are there more building blocks you need be able to handle in order to create strong images, and maybe even more important than moment, light or composition? First of all, I don’t believe duChemin means that composition is everything. Nevertheless, in the aforementioned newsletter he writes; “Arguing that some photographers pay too much attention to composition feels a little like arguing that some chefs just pay way too much attention to flavour”. This is of course a tabloid argument, nevertheless in my opinion, puts too much emphasis on composition.

I have come to realize that the most important building block in photography is content—or subject if you will. In fact, it’s more than just a building block, it’s what a photograph is about, or ought to be about. It can be a story, it can be an emotion, it can be a statement, but a photograph has to be about something more than just visual appealing elements. The equivalent goes for writing, for instance. You can write the most beautiful sentences imaginable, but if they don’t tell the reader anything, nobody is ever gonna care.

If you want to improve your photography, my best advice is to look for stronger content. You may ask what, then, is stronger content? Unfortunately, there is not a magical answer to that question. Strong content is everywhere, but you will have to see it. The best way to find an answer is to look to yourself. What triggers you? What makes you happy or even furious? That’s where you—not me and not anybody else—will find strong content and consequently be able to create strong photos. When you have found strong content, you then use your knowledge about the other building blocks, such as composition, light and moment, to express the content in the most captivating way.

Fact is content trumps the other building blocks. If you capture strong enough content, you may still be able to create something extraordinary, even if you screw up the composition, the light sucks and there is no moment at all.

You don’t believe me? Look at photographs at least 50 years or older that have survived in our collective memory. What is the common denominator? Strong content. Yes, most of these classical photos are beautifully composed, lit brilliantly and may have captured either heightened or subtle moments, but you will also find examples of the opposite. The photographs taken by Robert Capa during D-day are a grand case in point. Technically, they got completely screwed up, nevertheless still stand strong to this day.

There is one more point I would like to add. It goes back to how to find strong content. In addition to content, composition, light and moment, there is a fifth building block. That’s you and your personality. In order to create strong images, you need to find a way to express yourself, your emotions and your passions through the other building blocks. You can’t necessarily do much about or change your personality, like you can change the other building blocks, but by learning more about yourself and becoming more self-aware, you can use this fifth building block as much as the others.

In this post, I have referred to David duCheming a couple of times. If you are interested in topics about creating strong photographic imagery, I recommend following duChemin’s blog.

The Soul of the Photographer

If there is one book about the photographic process released the last year and a half that I really want to recommend it’s “The Soul of the Camera” by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. It’s book for those who have come to a point where equipment and technique is of less importance, but rather seek ways to express themselves and feel the need to develop their personal vision. As he writes himself; clearly the camera matters—otherwise we wouldn’t be able to take photos—but in the end the photographer matters more.

It’s the photographer and his or her approach to photography that duChemin addresses in the book. How can you use yourself, your curiosity, your emotions, your creativity to unleash your photographic vision, your distinctive voice? That is what he writes about. It’s about being authentic to yourself and about photographing with a clear intention. As such, the title is actually misleading: It is not about the soul of the camera, but rather the soul of the photographer. I guess what duChemin argues is that the soul of the camera is us, the photographers, the ones holding the camera. It is us, and our vision, that puts the soul into our photographs.

There are plenty of books about how to take pictures by mastering composition, exposure, lighting, post-production, and more. But there aren’t many books about what goes on inside the mind of a photographer, what they think about, and how they approach photography. That is what duChemin addresses in “The Soul of the Camera”. This is a book for photographers who want to take pictures, not play with their gear. If you want to think differently about photography—whether you have the latest gear or not—this book is for you.

The book is beautifully written and in a manner, that perhaps only David duChemin can write. He uses the own experience and development as a springboard to write about the photographic process from the point of the photographer’s mindset. The writing is philosophical and expansive and thus will have a different meaning to different photographers at different points on their journey.

The “Soul of the Camera” feels like a different style of book from some of David duChemin’s previous works, such as “Within the Frame” and “Photographically Speaking”. Yet it really isn’t so different. Each of these books takes a core theme and explores it, trying to convey to the reader its importance and how it might be used to better our photography, and even to learn what better photography means. “The Soul of the Camera” is similar to the other two in that it focuses on a theme, that of “the Photographers Place in Picture-Making.” None of these books are very focused on gear or technique and this book is even less so than the others.

The one objection I have towards his writing is that it’s a little too vague. It’s like someone saying you should be mindful. But if you don’t know how to be mindful, it’s a statement that doesn’t help you anywhere. In trying not to set parameters for other’s development, duChemin becomes too elusive and not concrete enough to help the reader on his or her way towards a more mindful approach to photography.

He writes so himself, about vision, that it’s an elusive topic. So instead of attacking the subject head one, he becomes unusual unclear. Yes, vision is a vague subject matter, but duChemin has written clearly and insightfully about it so many times before. He excuses himself for exactly that in “The Soul of the Camera”; he says he has written so much about vision before, that he has become very self-conscious about writing any further about. Unfortunately, that makes his writing in “The Soul of the Camera” less enlightening.

Do you need another book about photography? DuChemin kind of answers himself: “[Y]ou don’t need another book[…] Yes, read all the books you can get your hands on. But you probably don’t need them as much as you need time to make this craft yours. What you need is time to make photographs.”

I principally will have to agree with duChemin. However, that view doesn’t give the whole picture (no pun intended), as I am sure he will agree upon; otherwise he wouldn’t have written yet another book. Books are good for inspiration, good for new ideas and good for learning more. If that’s what you need, I will highly recommend “The Soul of the Camera”. Despite the few objections I have raised, it’s an inspiring book for any photographer searching for his or her voice.

Then, after having read the book, you still need to go out there and practice. You still need to put in the time to actually make photographs.

In the book, duChemin explores what it means to make better and more personal photographs. Illustrated with a collection of his black and white images, the book’s essays address topics such as craft, mastery, vision, audience, discipline, and authenticity. “The Soul of the Camera” is a personal and deeply sensible book that quietly yet forcefully challenges the idea that our cameras, lenses and settings are anything more than dumb and mute tools.

Once again; DuChemin’s and the book’s point is that it’s the photographer—not the camera—that can make better photographs. As he writes in the book: “The camera on its own is a wonder, but in the hands of the poet, the storyteller, the seeker of change, or the frustrated artist, it can create something alive that touches our humanity.”


The Soul of the Camera: The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making
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When Inner and Outer World Become One

En strålende dag i vinterfjellet
Artists and creative people frequently talk about the experience of losing themselves in the work at hand, being fully in tune with the process, with the heighten sense of being completely focused, being in flow—often emerging hours later as if having been in a trance. I know this from myself, and I also know that whenever I emerge from such a trance like state of mind after having worked hard during a photo session, I have been able to capture some great images. I can’t say which picture is going to stand out at the point of capture—as some photographers immediately are able to—but I know that within the batch of photos from the shoot there is bound to be some goods one. This trance like state of mind, in flow, when I lose myself, is for me the ultimate level of creativity, when everything can happen and I am not bound by my own preconceived ideas or thoughts.

I often compare this with being in a tunnel, where all kinds of unpredictable things can happen. I have now idea what happens in there before I finally emerge onto the other side of the tunnel. I wrote about this in the post “Tunnel Vision” quite some time ago. And it does resemble some of the ideas I wrote about the contemplative approach to photography in the post “Different Perspective” not long ago, in which I stated that contemplative photography in essence is about how to fully connect with the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience.

There is a duality to this process. It’s two worlds coming together – the outside world and our inner world. We perceive and react to what we see, and then bring our inner self and spirit into the equation, almost as if in a dialectic process. In this very concentrated process we focus deeply on a single task, and at the same time something opens, deepens and widens. We are fully absorbed and present to the activity and the moment, to the exclusion of other elements and influences in our lives. But we are also equally attentive to ourselves; our responses, our impulses, and our creative interaction with the medium.

The late and great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson has aptly described photographic seeing as having one eye turned outward and one eye turned inward. When the two images converge, that’s the moment for capturing the photograph. In his acclaimed book “The Decisive Moment” he writes: I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.

The Big Leap

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I often get the question what it takes to become a professional photographer. Here are some brief thoughts on what one should consider before making the transition, based on my own experience.

Photography is a wonderful craft, whether you are pursuing it as a professional or as an amateur. For me it’s brought me all over the world, connected me with people of all kinds and made me understand and learn more about the world at large and the various conditions that human beings seize to exist on this planet—not to mention how much it has taught me about myself. Still, and maybe most importantly, photography is a way to express ourselves through images; articulate our concerns, emotions and innermost opinions through a personal vision manifested in the multifaceted media that we call photography.

This is the basic drive behind most photographs I know. And that is also why many photographers who start out as amateurs—as most do—at some point dream about making a carreer out of their passion. Unfortunately, and in all honesty, it’s a tough path to choose, but if you bring the passion and a desire to succeed along with you, it’s all worth it. At least if you ask me. You will probably find that you lose the freedom you so much appreciated when you were still an amateur, you lose control of your artistic expression, and you lose yourself in the commerce and trade of the business. But it’s still worth it—if you ask me.

So what does it take to make the leap to become professional? I have already answered one part of it. It takes a desire to make it. Not necessarily to become the best photographer in the world, but to survive. It takes persistence to keep at it, even when it seems all in vain. It simple takes a hell of a lot of work, both as a photographer and as a businessman or -woman. You will probably work more than you ever thought you would do, but then again, if this is your passion, that’s quite okay, no?

There is a lot that can be said about making it as a professional photographer. In fact there are books written about it, so I will only point to two equally important abilities in addition to desire and persistence which for me are the ultimate prerequisites. To even be considered for hiring to shoot for a magazine or a client or whatever, you need to be able to show a coherent body of work. Not so much work you have previously done for clients, but work that shows your personal vision, work that shows your passion for photography and work that shows that you can handle the craftsmanship in such a way that your vision comes through in every picture. That is why the best recommendation I can give to any aspiring professional—or any professional who wants to stay in the business for that matter—is to produce personal work all the time. Do a long term project and/or do shorter projects. But do. And do it continuously. This is anyway where your passion will find its outlet once you become professional.

The final point I would like to emphasize here is a willingness to constantly develop. Don’t ever think that you have made it to the top, that you are good enough. The moment you think like that, you are not good enough any more. The world around you develops all the time—and faster and faster for each year—and you need to, too. Learn more about the craft, learn more about what you are photographing, keep developing your vision and don’t get stuck in old ideas just because they seem to have worked this far. And not the least keep develop your creativity. In the end this is what you are trying to make a living out of.

For me creativity is the most fantastic part of the actual shooting and also the reason why I have devoted my blog to this topic. To try to understand how creativity evolves and functions in our brains and how we can facilitate its wondrous act is nothing less than fascinating.

Just to make a few, final thoughts here, the four most important factors that will boost your creativity—as far as I see it are: First—and most importantly—be passionate. I am not talking about passionate about photography, but about the subject you shoot. With passion for the subject, the rest will come easily. Without you will never make interesting pictures. Secondly; do the work. As already stated, you will have to work and keep working, also when it comes to creativity. Without daily practise it will shrivel up and vanish. Nothing boosts the creativity as much as being creative. Again keep working on those personal projects. Thirdly; step out of the box, as the expression goes. It means challenge yourself, get out your comfort zone, do something you thought you would never do or dare do. Fourthly; keep your creative well inspired. Get out there, look at the world, enjoy Mother Nature, travel, watch a good movie, go to an exhibition or just sit down on a street café and enjoy a cup of coffee. A famous photographer once said; if your pictures are boring, it’s because you live a boring life.

So have fun, while you photograph the world around you.

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.

Zen Camera

A Book Review


In last week’s post I wrote about Your Daily Record, a creative habit that resembles a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions in which you let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. The idea I picked up from the book Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography by David Ulrich. The book itself is worth looking into for anyone interested in expanding his or her photography.

Zen Camera isn’t the first photo book which draws upon Eastern philosophy in its approach to photography. Others include books such as The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing and Opening The Good Eye: A Path to True Seeing, all books I can recommend even if you are not interested in Eastern Philosophy at all. They all, included Zen Camera, give you a unique and useful approach to expanding your photography.

However Zen Camera, differs from the others in that it’s more a cohesive program or a long term workshop than a book of inspiration and new ideas. David Ulrich draws on the principles of Zen practice as well as forty years of teaching photography to offer six reflective lessons for developing your self-expression as a photographer. His ambition with the book is to purify our seeing and allow our original self to emerge.

In my opinion, Ulrich largely accomplishes the objective. At least if you are willing to look beyond his sometimes a little lengthy deliberations about the meaning of it all, if you get my notion. The six lessons take you step by step from initially developing you seeing and observation skills to how to be able to reach mastery and being able to have your photography reflect whom you are as a person in grander perspective. Of course, mastery is not something you can learn by reading a book, but Ulrich’s reflections around the way to mastery are both well founded and encouraging. In fact, reading a book will not be of much help at all. You need to convert the words into skills by practicing. And Ulrich offers plenty of fun, applicable and challenging exercises.

The foundation of the “program” running as a red thread through Zen Camera is the Daily Record. All the lessons and all the exercises in each lesson can be fulfilled through the Daily Record. By working your way through the lessons and exercises you eyes will open up to seeing most likely in a different way than you are used to. It might also transform the way you perceive life, depending on your susceptibility to the Zen philosophy. At least Ulrich aims at making his thoughts valid not only for your photography but for life as such. As he write in the preface; “Zen Camera is not only about photography; it is about you. In six lessons, it guides you to cultivate creativity with the camera and all areas of your life… It helps you realize Socrates’ great directive, Know thyself, and uncover the seeds of the authentic self, hidden behind layers of conditioning and socializing”.

I am not a Zen practitioner myself, and sometimes Ulrich’s deliberations around life and meaning of life seem a little too contrived to me. It’s just too much of it and a bit too woozy and lofty. However, I am sure others will have a different perception of this. The language in the book is also somewhat scholarly and studious as is evident in the quote above—which at times makes it demanding to read. Furthermore, Ulrich’s wordiness can at times be a hurdle in and of itself for fluid reading. Personally, what I find most unpleasing is his tendency towards using a flourishing languages. An example: “Freshness blooms from the beginner’s mind that has its focus in the eternal now”. For me the language distracts. I get caught up in the wording itself rather than what the words try to convey.

Despite my objections, I have no problem recommending the book. You will just have to take it for what it is. But I am quite certain that no matter how you look upon Eastern philosophy and no matter how skilled or not skilled you are, you will arrive on the other side of the book with a different and more developed approach to photography, as long as you dig into it and transform the ideas into a practical approach. Zen Camera will make you a better photographer and if you can see beyond its elusive framework, it will be both inspirational and encouraging.

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