W Scott Olsen made this podcast for FRAMES deep, rich, and fun! We talked about origins, the creative process, connecting with nature, and so much more. Clear, flowing, heartfelt … I’m really pleased with this one.
Recently I had a wide-ranging conversation with Richard Bernabe for his Beyond The Lens podcast. I shared stories about being raised in a family of artists and how making art has helped me deepen my connections with the natural world and sustain me during these challenging times. I hope you find inspiration and fuel for your creative life when you listen to it.
Recently, I had a great conversation with Matt Payne (FStop & Collaborate).
We talked about …
- My journey into photography and how I differentiated myself as an artist,
- The difference between what art “is” and what it “is about,”
- Discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary through photography,
- Finding our voice as artists (and is that even a thing?),
- And a lot more!
In bonus content, we discuss studying creativity, ways to do it, and how it has helped me as an artist.
Using words can help you find new perspectives that can be translated into images. How? Tell a story, from at least three different points of view – it, I, and you.
First, tell the story in the third person (it) as a distant observer – “Just the facts ma’am.”
What images are needed to tell your viewers a complete story about your subject?
This perspective tends to be more objective, emphasizing facts and linear timelines so you do more research. It values clarity, balance (all sides of a story), and completeness (the whole story). It tends to avoid metaphor and stylistic distortion. It’s rarely the easiest way to build empathy for you subject. Be careful not to keep too much distance from your subject and find ways to make your viewers care.
Next, tell the story in the first person (I) as an involved participant – “How do I feel?”
What images are needed to tell your viewers the story or you experience with your subject?
This perspective makes it personal and so draws your viewers closer to you by helping them to live vicariously. This viewpoint can become highly subjective and opens up a lot of room for interpretation. It can become like a journal. In translating this to images you might include the traces of things you do and leave behind or even yourself. (Go ahead and stand by or with your subject but be careful not to leave your subject behind.)
Finally, tell the story in the second person (you) as if you were the subject – “How does it feel to be you?”
What images are needed to tell your subject’s story from the inside out?
This perspective encourages empathy, initially in you and later in your viewers. You can move deeper into this perspective by asking, “If I were you I would sense, think, and feel …” It might seem strange at first to do this with inanimate subjects – like rocks or buildings or roads. Remembering what it was like to be a kid playing these kinds of games will help you a great deal here. (We all know how creative kids can be, so have fun and play a little.) This perspective may encourage you to photograph from different perspectives; get closer or further, lower or higher, or turn around and photograph what your subject might see. Often, this voice will help you discover the most unusual perspectives.
It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
We’re capable of seeing a lot of detail. Sometimes detail is distracting. Eliminating it can help us see fundamentals more clearly.
1 Frame an image.
2 Defocus your lens enough to lose sight of details.
3 Refine your composition by moving the camera or zooming.
You can also do this with existing exposures to better see distracting elements that can be made less distracting or removed altogether.
Images that contain well-rendered detail without a solid compositional structure often appear cluttered and confusing. Develop the habit of slowing down and taking the time to make sure your compositions are as strong as they can be.
As a fine artist, I advance my career with personal projects. Personal projects also create a clearer direction for and develop greater meaning in my life. My life would be unfulfilled without them.
You don’t need to have a fine art career to benefit from personal projects. Many commercial photographers find that personal projects re-energize them, add purpose to their lives and quite often lead to new assignments or whole new streams of income. Many amateurs, making images purely for the love of doing it, find greater satisfaction and personal growth through their personal projects.
As an artist who mentors other artists in workshops and seminars, I’ve often been called to speak about the importance of personal projects; how to find them, start them, develop them, complete them, present them, and promote them.
Here’s an overview of what I share.
Define a personal project.
Defining a project is one of the single best ways to develop your body of work. When you define a project you focus, set goals, set quotas, set timelines, create a useful structure for your images, collect accompanying materials, and polish the presentation of your efforts so that they will be well received.
Focusing your efforts into a project will help you produce a useful product. A project gives your work a definite, presentable structure. A finished project makes work more useful and accessible. Once your project is done, your work will have a significantly greater likelihood of seeing the light of day. Who knows, public acclaim may follow. Come what may, your satisfaction is guaranteed.
Create a mission and set goals.
Define the purpose of your project and what you’d like to achieve through it. Many times, people adopt the mission and goals of others without first checking if those goals are personally beneficial. Some have professional aspirations, others don’t. Your goals will help you determine projects and timelines that are appropriate for you. The few moments (or hours) you spend clarifying why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you’d like to see come of it will save you hours, months, even years by ensuring that you’re going in the right direction – a direction of your own choosing. When you take control of your personal projects, you also take control of your life.
Make a plan to achieve your goals.
A plan will help make your project a reality. A simple action plan is all you need to get started. Action plans define the steps that are required to achieve completion. Action plans should be clear and practical. Action plans should be flexible; odds are, things will not go exactly according to plan and you’ll need to modify your plan to accommodate surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Reality happens. Grace happens too. Having defined what you need to accomplish, your unconscious will go to work on the task, generating many ideas. You’ll find yourself ready to make the most of unexpected opportunities as they arise.
Set a timeline.
A timeline can be used to combat procrastination and/or distraction and encourage you to produce work. Set realistic timelines. Unrealistic timelines simply produce frustration.
Identify where and when you’ll need and who will help you.
While many artists define and produce projects themselves, some artists engage a curator, gallery director, publisher, editor, agent, writer, or designer to help them realize a project, in part or in whole. Finding the right collaborator(s) can improve any project. Above all, seek feedback. Seek feedback from people with diverse perspectives whose opinions you value and trust. One thing you can always use, that you can never provide for yourself, is an outside perspective. People with different perspectives may identify ways to improve, expand, or extend the reach of your project. Remember, feedback is food for thought, not gospel. In the end, all final decisions are your decisions; it’s your project.
Stay focused and follow through.
You can work on multiple projects at a time. Be careful that you don’t get scattered. Starting projects is easy. Finishing them is hard. Make sure you’re working on the best project. List all your possible projects and identify the ones that are most important and the ones that are easiest to finish. If you’re lucky enough that the same project fits both criteria, focus all of your efforts there. Otherwise, you’ll have to strike a balance between what’s practical and what’s most important to you. Only you can decide this and the balance is likely to shift as time passes and circumstances develop. Look for a common theme among projects. Often your projects will be related. Focus your efforts on related areas. It’s very likely those areas have greater relevance for you than others. Your work will be perceived as stronger and more cohesive if your projects relate to one another, implying evolution.
What’s your project?
A project is a wonderful thing. It gives direction. It brings clarity. It increases productivity. It produces tangible results. It brings personal growth. It presents your work in the very best light. You and your work deserve this. Pick your projects well. They define not only how other people see you but also what you become. You are what you do. Take the first step today; make a commitment to creating a personal project. (Write something right now – put your words somewhere where you’ll constantly be reminded of them and can continue refining them!)
Now, let me speak in more specific and personal terms, as a way of sharing a few more of the insights I’ve found over the many years I’ve developed personal projects.
Plan to plan.
Many people refuse to plan, especially in creative fields where discovery is desired. They say, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Everyone needs a plan. Often, when you start a project, knowing you need to learn more as you go forward, you feel like you don’t have enough of the pieces to make a plan or you don’t have all of the pieces to make a complete plan. My recommendation is to start with a rough plan and continue to refine it as you go.
The best plans aren’t written in stone. The best plans remain flexible. Flexible plans allow you to make course corrections along the way as you learn more about your subject, your medium, yourself, and your audience. Expect to update your plan. I find that, if I don’t update my plan during the development of a project, this a clear indicator that I haven’t found the insight(s) necessary to complete it. I expect to be changed, for the better, by the projects I engage in. I expect to grow.
It helps to have a mission.
You have so many options before you, and so many more will soon present themselves to you, that you’ll find it challenging to choose which project(s) to move forward on or which path(s) to choose during project development. Defining a mission for your creative efforts, in general, will help ensure that you stay on track. I don’t take on a project unless it contributes to my mission (what’s achieved), reinforces my brand (how it’s communicated), or makes a lot of money (how it’s supported).
My mission is to “encourage conscientious creative interaction with our environment.”
The first time I went to Antarctica in 2005, I planned to make altered images. I was surprised that I had enough finished images by the end of the trip to exhibit a small body of images, that were comparatively unaltered. This represented a significant challenge to my brand. I found the challenge created to the public perception of my work, in general, was useful; rather than creating confusion, it clarified many things about my vision and my purpose, especially how I create images that are unaltered and altered in parallel with one another.
You don’t have to know all the answers before you begin to work. You just have to know the most important questions. Creating is a matter of solving mysteries, of finding answers. You don’t have to solve a mystery completely; you just have to find a few answers that you can stand by. If you’re lucky, you’ll find new questions and new mysteries along the way.
The second time I went to Antarctica in 2007, I had a lot of questions about how to complete an unaltered body of work. How journalistic or cinematic should I be? Should I photograph everything I saw? Ultimately, I found a balance between my personal concerns and passions. I focused on climate. I returned with enough material to produce a book.
Find your groove. Find your message.
Doing things consciously, repeatedly, and consistently brings mastery. Repeat your successes
and find meaningful variations on them. When you do this you give your work a theme and style, which communicate a message. When does a groove become a rut? Don’t worry about the rut too soon, most people don’t stick with one thing long enough to find a groove. They go off-road, traveling anywhere and everywhere, by any and all means, and ultimately don’t end up anywhere in particular, much less a place to return to, a place they can call their own.
The third time I went to Antarctica in 2009, I expanded my body of work further adding relevant variety to the material. I searched the work I had produced to date and listed the missing pieces, as well as the ones I wanted to reinforce. Each voyage was significantly more productive than the previous one. I created a website to support and extend the project, which includes blog posts made live during the voyage and details my creative process.
Past projects lead to new projects.
Often the seeds of future work lie in present work. Themes that were unclear or latent, at the beginning of a personal project, once developed, lead to new lines of inquiry and more work. A creative life is never truly over. The best creative lives evolve; growing deeper, more complex, and more sophisticated.
Now as I plan to return to Antarctica (Find out about my next Antarctica workshop here.), I’m developing my original idea of producing a body of altered images from a new perspective. As I recently sketched out this plan, once again, I realized much of the work is already done. I’ve been producing altered images with material from the region all along, but not presenting them in this way. Now my challenge is to develop them in a way that makes this collection cohesive and contrasts the collection of unaltered images in a useful way – or to move in an entirely new direction.
Having developed an Antarctic body of work, I’ve also been developing an Arctic body of work, to create a useful comparison and contrast. I’d have gone to these regions sooner, but the opportunities came later. I learned I had to make the opportunity rather than wait for it – and that took another kind of planning, so did getting there at the right times of year. Now, like Antarctica, my Iceland and Greenland photography workshops are semi-annual traditions for me.
Projects take time. Time is money. Don’t fall prey to the cliche that art and commerce are and should remain separate. If artists can’t make money with the fruits of their labors, then they need grants or patrons. Projects need funding. You often can’t do the work unless you can afford to do it. There are many expenses to consider – equipment, travel, production, collaboration, presentation, promotion, etc. You need to think about these things early in the development of a personal project or you may later find yourself without the necessary resources to finish it. So empower yourself with good business practices. You can be just as creative in business as you are in other arenas.
Prepare to make your work effective.
Even the best images will go unnoticed if they’re not presented and promoted properly. If you’ve spent a significant amount of time and resources to develop a personal project, you own it to yourself to see it presented well. This may be as simple as presenting your images well to yourself or as complex as promoting a publication and or exhibit, physically and/or virtually.
I’ve created my own exhibition/publication workflow. Framed exhibits are ready to ship with supporting biographies, statements, and press releases online. Complete bodies of work are supported by a portfolio of matted prints, also ready to ship, and a print-on-demand catalog. This makes producing, shipping, and promoting exhibits much easier, so I can readily respond to new opportunities at a moment’s notice.
One project begets another.
What’s better than one project? Two – or more. Often, one project leads to another. While you’re developing a project you find more ideas than a single project can accommodate – and some of those ideas can become new projects. This continuity can give your work a discernable arc that communicates your visual voice even more strongly.
While my initial goal was to produce a book of one hundred straight images of Antarctica (Waking), I later decided to collect altered images with sources from Antarctica (Dreaming), and then to launch another multi-continent project Global Warning by first focusing on images from Antarctica.
Make visible touchstones to guide your progress.
If you’ve got a personal project you want to complete, make a visible touchstone and keep it in one or more places where you can see it frequently. By doing this, you’ll be directing your conscious mind to focus on it and suggesting to your unconscious mind that this is a matter of importance – both will start to work on the challenge, even when you’re unaware of it. You will literally be sleeping on it. Many of the best ideas come during this period of gestation and incubation.
I print covers of unfinished book projects for developing series and display them in my studio.
Projects take time.
Projects can take hours, days, weeks, months, or even years to complete. Some projects can be completed very quickly, especially once you’re familiar with the concepts and skills necessary to finish them. Projects get easier with practice. Some projects are ongoing and never end, producing many milestones along the way (publications, exhibitions, commissions, etc. Some projects lie dormant for a period of time and then suddenly come to life again. Some projects change over time. Projects have lives of their own. Projects require commitment, but the depth of your commitment will be reflected in your work and in the achievements you make with it.
I can’t recommend more highly that you start your own personal project – now.
There are so many reasons to write! You don’t have to write professionally to experience the many benefits writing can offer you. Remember, while few people write professionally, everyone writes, most often to help them do their work. While you may not consider yourself a writer, you already write. So write more! Even if it’s just a little you’ll find it will help a lot.
Here are four reasons to write.
Writing will help you remember things. Most people can only hold seven things in their minds at once. Many times, if you’re full up, new ideas won’t come, until you make space for them. Other times, when new information comes in, old information is lost. Either way, the solution is to write it down – and there are additional benefits to making notes. You’re 73% more likely to remember and act on something if you write it down. (If you type your notes, this number drops to 39%, which is still much better.) Part of this stickiness comes from finding the words that work best for you, so use the language that you’re most comfortable with and that means the most to you. You probably have a to-do list professionally, so why wouldn’t you use one to help you excel in your creative life too? And there are times when everyone needs a checklist. (Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto shows how doctors used checklists to reduce hospital deaths and complications by more than 33%.)
Writing helps you see more and see more clearly. Like any creative discipline, writing encourages closer observation. You note more things – more information. Plus you’ll find patterns in the things you note – information about information. You’ll understand your experiences better and you’ll find more ideas. Unlike photography, which encourages observation of things you can see, writing can also help you observe things you can’t see like your thoughts and emotions, interactions within relationships, and processes unfolding in time. When you find the right words to describe something you understand it better.
Once you see what you’ve written new ideas will come to you. You can accelerate this process by playing word games. Alex Osborne’s acronym SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put To Other Uses, Expand, Reverse) is a mnemonic device for a series of mental operations you can use, each of which is capable of leading to countless new ideas.
Organizing your writing helps you organize your thinking. Often the process of taking notes isn’t linear, you simply let it all out. When you revisit and reorganize your notes you make even more sense out of your observations. Lists help you identify steps in a process, set priorities, and identify more important items. Remember, you can also use size, color, or graphic symbols like underlines and stars to make some words stand out more than others.
It’s important to file your notes in an easily retrievable organized system that you trust, otherwise your mind will continue trying to remember everything, which no one can do, not even the gifted who have a photographic memory.
What about taking notes with audio? Many apps (like Notes) will turn what you say into text. This can be a fast way to take notes, especially when you’re multitasking.
Audio files that aren’t turned into text take more time to review as they’re played back, as much or more time than it took to make them, so they’re not the most efficient way to retrieve. However, if you are having a conversation with someone and you don’t want to interrupt the flow audio is very useful. Nothing records intonation and inflection as audio does. And there are occasions where you want to note the particular sound of something, which words can’t duplicate.
Take Notes With Images
Some things are better noted visually rather than verbally. If you can see what you want to make a record of then a photograph can very efficiently make a note, often one full of detail that would take more time than necessary to record. If you need to make a visual note and you can’t photograph it, make a doodle instead. Diagrams can be particularly useful for recording processes (vectors, paths, timelines, etc) and relationships (maps, graphs, Venn diagrams, etc).
You can combine text and audio and images. Together they’re even richer and more powerful than they are alone.
Perfect takes time, so for this purpose, it isn’t. Not only is it too much pressure, in the wrong way at the wrong time, it’s a distraction. So satisfice. And above all, enjoy the process. Think of your notes as a place to record and explore your observations – not the way you’ll present them to others. With this realization, you’ll be freer about what you record and how you record it and so you’ll do it more often. And that’s the point.
Make notes, lots of notes, and keep doing it. Developing this habit will help you see more, think more, feel more, do more. You’ll get more out of life.
(Want more on this subject? I recommend David Allen’s book Getting Things Done.)
We have so many choices in life. As a teacher I’m frequently asked questions like these.
“What should I do? Should I do this? Or, should I do that?”
I invariably reply, “What are you trying to do?”
Our choices imply our intents and we don’t all have the same goals, visions, or styles. (Thank goodness; our variety makes life so much more interesting.)
And then I recommend rephrasing those questions to get better results.
Here are questions that you can use instead.
How many ways can I do this?
This question is a creative challenge designed to open up many possibilities. Start here. Don’t skip it before rushing to the next question. (I recommend you write down all the answers you can think of and keep adding to your list over time.)
What happens when I do that?
This question provides clarity on the most likely consequences of your choices. It’s cause and effect, which can sometimes change in different contexts so add when and where into the equation.
Why am I doing this?
This question helps identify goals. (If you’re unsure of your goals ask “Why?” five times in a row. You may not find your final answer this quickly but you will develop a clearer picture.)
Should I do this or that?
It’s a question that limits your choices to two. This question is useful only after you’ve identified your goals, limited many possibilities to two, and you’ve asked the next question. So ask many other questions first.
Whenever possible, avoid using the word should. It’s limiting and in most situations, you have more choices. The word should often implies obligation. There are reasons you choose to do what you choose to do. You may not like all the choices you have and sometimes have to make the least objectionable rather than the most favorable. Still, you choose it. So own it.
Self-talk matters. Becoming more conscious of the language we use internally has many benefits including increased awareness of what’s going on outside and inside us as well as our reactions to these psychic events … and with that awareness comes choice. Once we’re aware of what’s going on inside us we can choose to let it flow uninterrupted or we can influence its speed, course, and tone. It’s not just stop or go, it’s also how and where would you like it to flow?
You can learn a lot just by listening to yourself. Listen not only to the words you actually say, usually to others but also to the words you use in your inner dialog. When you speak about yourself, your creative life, and the works you produce, the words you use can be very revealing. They mean something to you. You choose them. Often you do this without realizing it and once you do new creative connections and opportunities will open to you.
Ask yourself …
Do you keep repeating specific words?
Do you use different words that all point to similar meanings, orientations, or attitudes?
Do the words you use share common concerns?
Do you tend to use more nouns (things), verbs (actions), or adjectives and adverbs (qualities)?
Do you tend to speak actively or passively?
Do you tend to speak in the past, present, or future tense?
Do you speak specifically and concretely or do you speak more generally and abstractly?
Do you finish your sentences or jump to new ones before you do?
It’s best if your observations about the words you use are made without judgment. Simply make observations. You can use this practice to savor the qualities of your everyday experiences that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It can be helpful to expand your statements; say more to describe it better and find its connections to other things. After that, it can help to distill it all back down to what’s most important. If you do this you’ll feel freer, clearer, and more energized.
Becoming more aware of your concerns and attitudes will ultimately help you make more considered choices about your actions, reactions, emotional responses, and even self-image.
Greater awareness of the words you choose and how you use them can inform the images you make in many important ways – how you make them, the images you select, how you sequence them, how you process them, what you title them, what you write about them, how you talk about them, how you present them. Your words can help you discover and shape identity, meaning, and purpose.
Thinking too much about the words you use while you’re using them can sometimes get in the way. When this happens, record yourself and listen to it later.
It can also help to talk with someone about a subject that’s important to you. They can help you get your tongue rolling and keep it going by asking you helpful questions and offering you useful reactions while you’re talking together. Again, make notes while this is happening, or better yet record it and make notes then so you can stay in the flow while it’s happening.
It only takes one important observation to make the practice of observing how you speak extremely worthwhile – give it time and it will lead to breakthroughs if that doesn’t happen instantly.
When was the last time you wished you had someone to listen to you? When was the last time you listened to yourself? We all want to be heard. Don’t wait for someone else to come along, do what only you can do for you. Listen – carefully.
Turn Your Inner Monolog Into A Dialog
Go ahead, talk to yourself. Don’t worry, it’s not crazy. We all do it. Don’t think so? Try not to do it. Monks spend years developing the ability to empty their minds so they can be here now instead of imagining what did, could have, or might happen.
We see things, we hear things, we feel things, we do things, we react, and all the while we interpret what we’re experiencing if we’re not stuck in our past or planning a future. That’s part of creating our story, the essential narrative we shape from too many facts.
We all have a running commentary provided by our minds and tuning into how it goes and flows can be very useful.
Speaking your mind can help you become clearer about what’s on it. Where did that come from? Pay closer attention to find out. Broken record? Skip a track. It’s your choice, whether you decide to speak your mind silently in your head or speak your mind out loud, either alone or in the presence of others under the right circumstances. No one ever has to know how much you talk to yourself; they rarely know how much they talk to themselves. Most of the time, we’ve become so accustomed to the familiar voices inside of us that we’re often unaware of what’s being said and who’s saying it. It seems natural to us. That’s just the way it is. But, in reality, that’s the way we are. If we actively listen to ourselves, we become more self-aware and realize we have many more choices available to us.
Be More Creative By Changing The Voices You Use
Do you ever get tired of the sound of your own voice? Same old same old? Try another. People often talk about how helpful it can be to hear another’s perspective, but they don’t talk often enough about how you can get other perspectives from yourself.
We all have many different voices within us – aspects of ourselves that can be seen as being distinct from one another – an optimist, a realist, a pessimist, an inner critic, a cheerleader – they all set different tones and offer different perspectives, which can be very useful when you’re looking for better ways to do things or ways to get more out of your life, with and without art Expand your mental wardrobe. You can wear many hats. Imagine your inner voice speaking to you at different ages – your inner child, your adult, your elder. Try on a few Jungian archetypes – a child, a lover, a parent, a warrior, a dreamer, a scientist, etc.
We can make the life of our inner community richer and more dynamic by encouraging these separate voices to speak in turn and even to speak to each other. Over time we may even discover that each voice has a consistent set of concerns and skills and knowing this can help us decide which voice to call on in a given situation. This is a more personal version of the very useful question, “What would (Add the name of a person with a potentially useful perspective.) do ?”
When you’re working with your personal advisory council, it can be helpful to put a neutral moderator in charge of conversations. His or her job is simply to listen and observe non-judgmentally and to make sure everyone is heard. At times your moderator may direct specific questions or make a motion to table one issue and move on to other subjects. Later, you can weigh the evidence, draw conclusions, and make decisions about what you’d like to do or not do.
This imaginative exploration can be extremely useful. We not only come to better understand ourselves, we also come in contact with vast sources of information and understanding that we often leave untapped. The best thing about listening to ourselves is that we come to realize we have many more perspectives to draw from and options to choose from than we had previously imagined.
Is your self-talk good talk? Is it useful? If not, change it. It’s your talk. While you’re at it ask “How many ways can talking to myself be useful?” Your imagination can offer you unlimited possibilities and the only thing limiting you is giving yourself permission to explore them.
So go ahead. Talk with yourselves. You’re sure to find surprises, delights, and many interesting perspectives.