Every instance of stepping outside your comfort zone won’t lead to an incredible sense of discovery and liberation. But it may happen when you realize that what you thought was your comfort zone is, in actuality, your compliant zone—where you’ve learned to behave in ways that you were expected to behave, perhaps by your parents, or your extended family, or your culture. Over time, through repetition, and by dutifully fulfilling others’ expectations, you internalize these behaviors as your own, even if they don’t actually reflect who you are.
Thank-you to everyone who sent me “Ask Me Anything” questions! Due to volume, I decided to address a few at a time. I also responded to several questions via private email as I didn’t think they would be of general interest, or because whatever answers I have to offer likely will not be helpful to a larger audience. Please keep them coming!
I included the quotation above as I referred to it in my recent conversation with Alister Benn, and it touches on some aspects of my answers below.
As always, I am grateful for your interest in my thoughts and work, and if I have been of value to you and it is within your means, please consider supporting me on Patreon for as little as $2/month.
Sarah Marino asked:
In your “Art and Flow” article for On Landscape, you discuss the need to engage in creative and expressive challenges as part of your photography practice. What are a few examples you might be willing to share about how you do this? Have any been particularly meaningful to you?
Thank you very much, Sarah! Before mentioning specific examples related to my own work, I think it’s worth starting with a general perspective that may be more broadly applicable. As creators striving to push our own boundaries and perhaps even to contribute something novel and useful to others, some of our greatest hurdles are rooted in norms and attitudes drilled into us from a young age. Some of these are useful in the workplace or the classroom, some are useful in maintaining good relationships with others, etc. But in the context of creative art, they may not serve us as well. Here’s a partial list:
- Fear of failure. When it comes to creative pursuits, failure is part of the game. The desire to avoid failure limits the range of possibilities we’ll even consider trying, before we ever set out to do anything.
- Conformity. In many situations, there is safety in numbers. In other situations, there is value to fitting into some social/tribal order by being similar to others, liking similar things, believing similar things, etc. And in the internet age, conformity (and its stepchild, mutual imitation) ensures avoidance of conflict and mutual “liking,” which takes advantage of our brain’s reward mechanisms to make so-called-social platforms addictive and profitable. In art, on the other hand, the things most worth celebrating about an artist’s work are not those that are the same as others’ (and that, with too much repetition, have a desensitizing effect, rather than more powerful emotional responses) but exactly those that differentiate an artist’s work from others.
- Expectations. Where conformity means yielding to others’ expectations, we are often also slaves to our own expectations. Most people these days have busy lives and little time for leisure (makes you wonder if we are actually making “progress”), and so are tempted to pre-plan and preconceive “successful” photographs to “make the most” of whatever travel and leisure time they have. The problem becomes obvious when you consider it in terms of the effects of art being founded in emotional responses. Not only do we have no way of predicting what our emotional response will be to some experience we haven’t yet had, but in deciding in advance what emotional response we expect to have, we may in fact prime our minds toward that outcome, and prevent ourselves from having spontaneous and unexpected responses we might have experienced otherwise. In other words, not only do we sacrifice the potential for novelty and creative expression by sticking to what’s known and expected, we may also prevent ourselves from feeling such things as surprise, discovery, transcendence, etc. Without such things, the effects of art (both making and viewing) are artificially limited to a narrow and benign scope, which is unfortunate.
- Results-oriented mindset. In our academic and professional endeavors, we measure success by results (or productivity), and not by the way these results are accomplished. This quantitative approach may be suitable when we are compensated for results but have little interest in the actual work we are doing. In art, this is not (or should not be) the case. Since art is subjective, and something we do by choice to elevate our lives, it makes no sense to find reward only when the work is done, when the process of conceiving and creating art has the potential to enrich our lives in powerful and satisfying ways as we are immersed in making our work. This is why a process-oriented approach has the potential to be much more satisfying than a results-oriented one. With a process-oriented approach, whatever time you invest in creative work is always rewarded (sometimes immensely so), regardless of outcome. Put another way: if you learn to find joy and value in the process, failure in the larger sense is no longer a possibility. You always come out ahead, even if you failed to produce any artifacts.
The value of challenges and difficulties in any activity that has a potential to be rewarding in itself, is evident from such sayings as, “When mountain-climbing is made too easy, the spiritual effect the mountain exercises vanishes into the air.” (D.T. Suzuki). The greater the challenge, the greater the potential for enjoyment and growth in the process of tackling that challenge and, if leading to some material outcome, also the greater the pride and sense of accomplishment.
The greatest challenges of creativity can be found in formal definitions relating to novelty (originality) and unexpectedness (surprise, discovery). This is because these things can’t be planned or guaranteed, no matter how much effort you put into them (at best you can hope your efforts to increase the likelihood of creative success). The challenges of self-expression are a bit more complex since they rely not only on having knowledge of the means of expression, but also having something worth expressing—simply put: an interesting life, whether by virtue of having a complex and interesting personality, gaining interesting knowledge and experiences, having a rich imagination, or partaking in interesting and challenging activities.
OK, now for some anecdotal examples relevant to my own work:
- Years ago, when I first fell in love with the Colorado Plateau, I admired the works of several artists who have worked here before me. For a few years I tried to find and replicate photographs made by others because I believed that my experience in those places will be similar to what I assumed those other photographers’ experiences were. After a while, I realized two things: 1) There is nothing a person can do to replicate the experience of another person; in fact, even the same person can’t replicate their own previous emotional experiences; and 2) It made me feel like a second-hand photographer, always chasing after others’ accomplishments, stealing their work and feeding off their proverbial crumbs. It was just not satisfying (at least not in the way I thought it would be). So, I decided to stop. Completely! The best way to make sure I will never copy another photographer’s work is to simply show it to me. If it’s been done before, there’s no reason for me to do it again. I strive for every single one of my images to be original enough (it’s almost never 100%) that it is obviously not the same as another photographer’s work. This allows me to enjoy fully the creativity of others without having to worry about it having any effect on my own work.
- In embracing my own personality and making it the driving force behind my work, I stopped stressing about travel. Once I concluded that I have many lifetimes’ worth of possibilities in places I absolutely love being in and don’t need any special consideration to travel to, I liberated myself from a lot of very stressful and unproductive urges. I am completely content working only in places I know intimately, and this intimacy in turn has led me to become more familiar with my subjects and increase the depth and uniqueness of my work. I have no need or desire to ever board a plane again, and I always look forward to seeing what surprises and discoveries may await me in my own “back yard.”
- I decided to only make photographs that have some personal and/or metaphorical meaning (if only for me). I am no longer interested in making “pictures of” things, and only interested in making “pictures about” things. In practical terms it means that found aesthetics, while important to my “message,” can never be the sole reason for me to make a photograph. I don’t just record found aesthetics, I use them, compose them, apply them deliberately, etc., with an expressive goal in mind.
Cody Schultz asked:
1) When did you know it was feasible for you to make a living off your photography/writing alone?
I never did, and I still don’t. For about half my life I worked to suppress the siren call of the wild, trying to convince myself that a life like I have today is unrealistic and unattainable. Then I decided that, instead of trying too talk myself out of it without knowing if it was really possible, I had to at least try. I’ve been trying ever since. The only thing that changed over the years is that I no longer feel I have anything to prove. Even if it all comes to an end tomorrow, I can look back with pride and fondness on the things I got to see and experience. I never again have to worry about looking back with regret or feeling like I wasted the gift of conscious life. I’ve already lived a very rich, interesting, and beautiful life. Every day is a bonus.
I am not, and have never been, wealthy, and my bank balance has always been a source of concern. Still, I found a way to make it work. I am often entertained reading advice from business mavens and career counsellors about what people “should” do to be “successful,” and what things are considered risky, naive, or impossible. Apparently, without knowing it, I’ve somehow managed to design a life for myself that many people think is impossible.
2) How do you recommend a photographer to start running workshops? I’ve been wanting to for a while now but fear that I have nothing worth teaching, that I won’t be able to find an audience in my area, etc.
Perhaps it’s worth first differentiating educational workshops from location/trophy tours. For the latter, you just have to be a good tour guide and stick to conventional business practices. Admittedly, that kind of workshop never interested me, both because I am an introvert and prefer to not have my income dependent on my (lacking) social skills and (very lacking) business skills, and because my relationship with the places I like to photograph is founded in deep familiarity with them over prolonged time. I’m rarely satisfied just visiting places when I am constrained by time and expenses, etc. Also, the places I love most are those that offer me the opportunity for solitude and prolonged contemplation, and therefore they are not places I am comfortable bringing other people to.
Educational workshops have a different dynamic. For starters, they require that you be a good teacher and have a high enough understanding of the material you teach, so that you can add value to (and not misinform) your clients. This should tell you something about me: I love teaching (and what I teach) enough to overcome my natural aversion to spending time with groups of people.
Whatever path you take, my advice is to be very clear about what you offer, so your clients can make an informed decision, and be confident you can deliver on your promises. Of course, there are always unforeseen circumstances that may make one workshop more/less successful than another, but unlike working on your own art, if you set out to provide a service you are not sure you can, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Until you evolve such confidence, try attending other people’s workshops and investing in your own knowledge and teaching abilities until you feel you can do it. You may never feel 100% confident, but at least get yourself to a point where you feel you have a high probability of success. Almost certainly, in time you will also learn a lot from experience about what works and what doesn’t, that you could not have learned otherwise.
Got questions? Please feel free to Ask Me Anything.