The Creative Struggle
One of the hardest things about being a photographer is managing that feeling of “Am I being creative enough”. To be honest, it’s a consistent nagging feeling. When I’m making a salad, I’ll wonder if it is colourful enough. I’ll fold my laundry and question the geometric symmetry. I’ll take a simple photo of a bank statement and question the quality of window light. The list goes on.
When I started out as a photographer, the relationship with making pictures was pure and seamless. I enjoyed observing people and their connections with one another, and this sparked my interest in street photography and later led to my mild obsession with portrait photography. As things progressed and I started to earn money from photography, I realised that it was harder to enjoy because it was now “a thing” with an expectation attached to it. Something I needed to nurture and get better at, and something that had to give me something in return. No longer just for fun, photography had become my tool to survive.
In the early part of my career, I didn’t judge my creativity and just made stuff that felt good. It didn’t always make sense right from the start, but the concepts felt naturally interesting. I happened to make work that people connected with and work that I was proud of. But this meant that people were now watching. Like anything, you very quickly become self-conscious when people are looking at you. One of the nicest and most crippling things that someone said to me after reviewing one of my projects was, “I can’t wait to see what you come up with next…” But what if that’s all I’ve got? It’s a terrifying thought.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been wracking my brain with the notion that the next big – no – HUGE creative idea will come to me out of nowhere, and I’ll be set to make something brilliant. The more I push, the less creative I seem to feel. The harder I work, the smaller and more confusing the ideas are. That overwhelming feeling of “Am I being creative enough?” can unexpectedly pass over me like a thick, grey cloud and linger. It pushes me to question if I’ve worked hard enough, if I’ve given it my all, if I’ve put enough time into it. Switching this off can at times feel impossible. When your hobby is your job, it feels like it can swing one of two ways: it’s all you can think about, and it feels great or it’s all you can think about, and it’s exhausting. Depending on the day, I’m in both camps, and that in itself is exhausting.
The Pandemic Work-Life Balance
So what does any of this have to do with the Coronavirus Pandemic? Now I know that I’m just a tiny grain of sand in all of this, and compared to the people out there working on the front line – actually making a difference – I’m just a guy with a camera feeling a little lost. But the part about feeling lost has actually been the best thing that could have happened to me in my career so far. I feel terribly guilty saying that in these circumstances. But it’s true. I realised that feeling lost and being told that I have to stop what I’m doing for a few weeks because the world needs some time to mend has given me time to breathe. Don’t get me wrong, I am quite literally living my dream and successfully supporting my family with my job, but man alive does it come with some stressful territory.
During the first two weeks of Isolation, I was bouncing from wall to wall wondering if I should be out there surfing the “doorstep portrait” wave. Don’t get me wrong, I have heaps of respect for people that have done this and created some historically powerful work, but did I really want to do it? Or would I be doing it because other photographers were doing it, making me feel like I had to keep up? It took me some time to work out the answer and I’m content with my decision to have not done anything. I didn’t start any projects, and I didn’t try to create anything compelling. Why? I had no headspace, so to throw myself into a situation of trying to create, under pressure, at a time when I had no idea what planet I was on made no sense. I needed the time to re-align my thoughts and for the first time in a long time, I had permission to stop. Instead, I decided to take some time to photograph my little family, with no expectation. Just go back to where it started with photography, pure and seamless. In this time, I’ve managed to take some of my favourite photos of my son and create memories that I hope will remind us of a time of love and unity. I totally appreciate that the world isn’t in the best state it can be, arguably far from it. But by turning down the volume on life and just embracing isolation – I was more free than ever.
A Gentle Murmur
When you really think about it, when was the last time you stopped? Care-free, no burden, no expectation and felt that stillness. The last I can remember would be around 25 years ago. It would have been the freest my mind would have been. Ever since then, it just felt like I’ve been trying to grow up – constantly pushing for something. I grew up with a misconception that being an adult would be easier than dealing with a stack of homework. I got that wrong.
I’ve heard a gentle murmur amongst my community that enforced Isolation has been some of the most cathartic times they’ve had in years. Time with their thoughts, time with their family and time away from what we’ve allowed to become our “normal”.
There’s no doubt that the NHS and frontline workers have been working relentlessly to keep us safe, and honestly a thousand thank yous will never be enough for their bravery and commitment. But when things get back to some kind of “normal”, I hope I’m able to take this sense of calm and recognise when I should stop. Recognise when I’ve worked too hard and give myself more than just a moment to breathe and re-set.