Wherever You Go, There You Are
"To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening."
— Eihei Dogen, founder of Soto Zen in Japan, written in the autumn of 1233
I want to take a look this week at creativity, or rather what blocks creativity. Sometimes it's easy to blame things on your gear or the weather, or just bad luck. But it can be worth considering what role you play in your photography. The one constant element in every image you shoot is you.
First of all, creative blocks can come to anyone. It's normal. Sometimes it can be nothing more than a bump in the road, and other times a more significant obstruction, but it happens to everyone sooner or later to some degree. If you go out shooting and come back with nothing it can be discouraging. If you look at the work of others and feel your images don't measure up you may feel you'll never get the hang of it. Neither of these is really true, but they can seem that way.
Some people will advise you just to keep on working in an attempt to break through your block through sheer force of will. While this can sometimes work, it will always be difficult. Forget about photography for a minute. Suppose you are out for an afternoon stroll and walk into a wall. While you might be able to bash your head against it long enough to break through, that likely isn't the easiest resolution to the problem at hand, or the least painful. The same is true for creative blocks.
If you really sit down and examine the situation, are likely to find that it has been you yourself that was the block. Whatever subjects and techniques you have found to work well in the past has, over time, become the only thing you look for when you go out shooting. Whatever you have had a difficult time shooting you avoid like the plague. The accumulation of your previous successes and failures can build up to the point where they become a straight jacket constraining your creativity. It's all too easy to view the world in terms of your past experience of it rather than what is going on right now.
For me at least, the secret is to let go of preconceived ideas of what and how to take pictures. Relax. Go some place interesting, find a comfortable log or rock and just sit down. If practical, do this by yourself so you don't have to feel self conscious of what others may think. Allow yourself plenty of time. Don't commit to a schedule or a deadline. The goal is to remove the pressures you might feel whatever the cause. It doesn't even matter much where you go so long as there are no distractions. Enjoy the feeling of being in the natural world and don't worry about photography or anything else for a bit.
After a while you'll probably start to see and feel your surroundings in a new way. No longer are you looking for something, but instead you're just looking. Allow yourself to be fascinated by whatever you are presented with – ants on the ground, the wind blowing the leaves on the trees, the changing light on the opposite side of the valley, it doesn't really matter. Again, just relax and enjoy the day. Rather than framing everything you see based on how you've approached things in the past, just allow the world around you to make its presence known. When you feel ready, get out your camera and start looking at things with it. A camera with a macro lens makes a great magnifying glass. A telephoto lens becomes a telescope. A wide angle lens or especially a fish eye can really make the world look interesting. Forget about what things actually are. Just look at them without labeling them. Look at shapes and colors, patterns and movement.
Now try something wild. It doesn't matter if it works out or not, just so long as it's something different. Don't judge, just experiment and shoot. Digital makes this easy. You don't have to worry about counting frames or rolls of film anymore so just go for it. Experimentation is the name of the game, but keep in touch with what you find interesting. Exactly what that is may shift as you explore, but let it be your guide. Don't get caught in doing what you usually do, just go with whatever comes up in the moment. Have some fun.
This approach is more akin to going around your creative block rather than trying to go through it. Much less painful than banging your head against a wall.