Do you ever experience a clash of opposing feelings when photographing at your favourite locations? A tension stemming from the pressure to create rather than simply go with the flow?
Picture yourself roaming freely in your ideal location. Alone in a Japanese temple on a misty day. Rock-crawling through a deciduous forest in France. Scaling a Munro on a bright February morning in Northern Scotland. Resting by a tent in the Lake District. Walking, feet at the edge of the water, after snorkeling at Ningaloo. Camping in the boondocks after 9 hours of overlanding over sand dunes. Sitting at a cafe watching the world go by.
There’s no covid restrictions, no need to rush to work, no personal health issue, no financial squeeze, no kids or parent to look after, no email to tend to, no Facebook to bend the knee to, no shopping to finish. Only pure freedom like only (some) young children and mild sociopaths get to fully experience.
I experience that sensation in two situations.
While training at karate classes. Our teachers are two of those remaining treasures from another age when classes started by bashing hands into sand or stone to make bones harder and kumite (sparring) had nothing to do with scoring points and everything to do with hitting efficiency, measured in knock-outs. And even their toned-down version of that training for modern-day wusses and insurance policies requires a level of self-preserving concentration that powerfully chases away any extraneous thoughts and leaves you utterly cleansed mentally and exhausted physically. Walking away from such a class sometimes feels like a transe, a walk out of time that goes a long way towards explaining why those teachers consider their martial art a form of Zen meditation.
And when walking long distances. Forget anything extra strenouous or extra short. Brisk walking in a foreign city or through a peaceful landscape is more like it. After several hours of this bilateral regimen, your mind floats away from the reality your body is navigating, to the point where you can “wake up” with a slight shock in a different spot and in awe of everything around you.
Those are powerful moments that require time and commitment, but can be provoked (almost) at (strong) will.
In the best of conditions, photography comes close to those experiences. The elusive flow that creatives talk about and crave, and which those who never experience it sneer at in denial, is just that : a mind so utterly and effortlessly focused on one thing, and one thing only, that the rest just disappears. While the older, darker parts of your brain still deal with the unconscious tasks of breathing and walking and avoiding obstacles, your conscious mind’s entire processing power is unleashed on a single creative task, with results that no one in a more diluted state of mind could achieve so easily.
It is a fantastic feeling to experience and the resulting photographs are systematically of a much higher caliber than those achieved through mental brute force or lazily acquired as a by-product of being in a spot. Let’s not even get into the negative creative process of photographing one’s ego in the center of every possible famous background know to social media. That is not bringing your perception of the world to others but imposing yourself upon theirs.
Why, then, isn’t every trip to the hills a resounding success? Why don’t all the photographs from those mind-altering walks end up on the walls of prestigious galleries? I know the recipe, after all, so why can’t I turn out masterpieces with the regularity of a politician uttering lies and committing high-treason?
After all, I have taken the two most nefarious creativity-killing sins out of the equation:
Watching the aging of my face over the years in front of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and Sagrada Familia was never a big one for me, so banishing self-centered photography was easy.
And, I’ve streamlined my process and my gear, ruthlessly eliminating anything with ergonomic glitches, build issues, interruption-based logic … The little Pixii scored really high with me (partly) because there was no rear screen and (partly) because it got everything right on the first attempt. So there was never any need to chimp to check exposure, colours … “Do or do not, there is no try” must have been the motto of the engineering team, and it does wonders for preserving that precious sense of flow. That can never been overstated and isn’t measured in a lab.
Having taken all left brain interruptions out of the equation to hand full power to the creative side of my grey jelly, what more is it possible for me to do to ensure better results? Obviously, it isn’t enough to ensure mastery.
The answer feels a little paradoxical.
“Kick the ego in the nads” is what!
At some point in a shoot, an unconscious desire to do better seems to set in. Even though it was the casual walking to an interesting location that put me in the right mindset to create good shots (and my conscious gear choices go far towards eliminating interruptions) the same desire to create a fruitfull process goes a step too far.
The terrible “go get them, Tiger” psychology creeps in to ruin everything. That horrendous pursuit of productivity lauded by Homo Linkedinus insinuates its deleterious pestilence into the cracks of what should be a totally receptive mind.
And, at that point, the inevitable urge to do better, get back in the zone (feel free to add any similarly ridiculous cliche here) only makes things worse. Witnessing the decline of quality (you guessed it, on the rear screen), the need to shoot more to compensate becomes overpowering. And, of course, it only goes downhill from there.
But it doesn’t have to. This is a good time to put the camera back into the bag and start enjoying yourself. Flow is broken, there’s nothing you can do about it now, good shots are already in the card, just let go. Dip your toes in the water (literally, not Internet-guru-ly), enjoy the view and the connection to nature or whatever surroundings you have chosen to bask in (this is a fun hobby, if you’ve chosen to photograph a war zone, you’re on your own …) and recharge the creative cells. And, soon enough, you might realize your camera’s out of the bag again. Huh! How did that happen? 😉
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