I believe all artists experience “blocks” every once in a while. Feelings of discouragement or lack of motivation, inspiration, and will to do something we know we love to do.
Writers have a “writer’s block” – a condition in which a writer is unable to write anything. Logically, it doesn’t make sense; how could a writer who has written hundreds of pages before not be able to form sentences all of a sudden? But it’s nothing to do with writing specifically. And I believe it is the same for any form of art, photography included.
It’s really just a “creativity block.”
Paticia Huston, MD, MPH has written a research paper on the problem writer’s block and how to solve it. I’ve gathered some nuggets from it and put it in a photography context, as well as a few other ideas from various sources and some of my own experiences and ideas sprinkled in.
1. Lower the bar
One of the reasons you’re uninspired might be the fact that you have unrealistic expectations. You put too much importance on the photographs you’re creating. Realize that not every picture you make needs to be a great image or shared with others.
Shoot for fun, leaving your expectations behind. Take photographs you normally wouldn’t take. Shoot the sky, trees, mannequins, houses, street signs. Just start clicking the shutter. Soon, you’ll gain momentum and the creative juices will begin to flow once more.
“I write how a child plays. And I’m having so much fun, and I’m just getting started.” – Eric Kim
Essentially, you’re just giving yourself permission to be imperfect, as perfection is impossible anyway.
If you’re working on a project and feeling uninspired, try thinking like a sculptor. A sculptor doesn’t start from the head, trying to make the head perfect first and then moving to other parts. The sculptor has a rough idea of what he or she wants to make out of the block of stone, and slowly starts to carve out the pieces.
This is the way we should approach our work. Do the rough draft first, and then start improving on the different parts.
Don’t stress over being perfect. It’s a lot more important to get your work out there than spending so much time trying to make it better that you never end up shipping it at all. The longer you sit on something, the harder it becomes to get it out there. Our minds come up with all sorts of excuses why it’s not ready yet and why it needs more this or that.
2. Let success land
Give yourself positive feedback, even on minor progress. In other words, if you’ve improved somehow or achieved some small success, reward yourself. Letting success actually “land” is necessary.
Some people, no matter how much success they achieve, refuse to acknowledge it. It’s mentally unhealthy. I think it stems from deep-rooted insecurity—thinking that you don’t deserve success. I was like that.
When I received my LLM degree, I simply went and picked up the diploma as if it were the morning newspaper. I did not celebrate with anyone. I didn’t even attend the ceremony.
If you never appreciate your successes because you’re always looking for the next thing to conquer, you’ll lose motivation at some point. It’s not sustainable. You’ll burn out.
This might have something to do with the so-called “imposter syndrome.” You might feel that you’re fake, that you’re not really an artist and that people will call you out sooner or later. For this, Huston gives the following advice: you either pretend that you are, in fact, someone else, or you reassure yourself that you’re an artist by finding your unique voice.
Peter Elbow (the author of Writing with Power) suggests that pulling yourself out of your usual perspective can help sidestep your preoccupation with the block and start thinking more productively.
3. Take breaks
Sometimes we simply need a small break before we can become inspired again. Do something else—don’t do anything photography-related for a couple of days or even for a week. Or take a break from your gear, shooting only with your phone for a whole week.
I can still remember the time when I first got into photography. I went out to shoot with my phone every day because I didn’t have a “real” camera yet. I had some of the best times of my life.
Another great piece of advice: take long walks to clear up your mind from clutter.
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.” – Søren Kierkegaard
As the famous director and writer Ingmar Bergman once said: “Demons hate fresh air.”
Countless artists and creators throughout the history took regular walks—Bob Dylan got once picked up by the police for wandering in the suburbs of New Jersey. If you’re not taking long walks, you’re missing out. I try to walk a minimum of 2 hours every day.
Walking is not only good for regaining inspiration and maintaining your physical health, it’s also good for your mental health in general. Especially in today’s world, where people are almost constantly plugged into their phones.
4. Read (photography) books
Always have a photography book that you’re reading. Study the book carefully, so you’ll really let those photos sink in. By looking at the photographs made by the masters of photography, you’ll realize how much room there is to improve.
The first time I went through Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” it left me lukewarm. I didn’t think it was bad, but I didn’t think it was anything special either. I thought it was overrated. I recently went through it again and looked at the photos from a totally changed perspective. The images had a different meaning for me this time around.
I think that it has something to do with certain information not being accessible to you yet. When you’re a beginner, a decent amount of theory is good for you. However, at a certain point, the theory or information doesn’t give you anything anymore. In fact, excess information usually makes things worse.
It’s as if you haven’t unlocked the next level yet in order to be able to access that information. Once you gain more practical experience, visit that same material again—it might offer you something new.
5. Quit social media
Quit Facebook and Instagram. You don’t need to delete your accounts, but take a step back from the noise for a while.
One of the worst things you can do after waking up is to start your day by immediately checking your phone for news and notifications. This sets the tone for the rest of your day, putting you at the mercy of the most recent headline or status update.
I’ve found out that a lot of creativity and inspiration comes to me when I’m not doing anything that requires cognitive thinking.
What’s the first thing we tend to do when we’re bored? Check our phone.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow our unconscious mind to work because we’re constantly putting pressure on the conscious. If we free up space in our mind, we can allow the unconscious mind—which is often critical to creative work—to do the thinking.
“The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from.” – Lynda Barry
I don’t think I was ever really inspired by visiting Instagram. To be honest, it usually made me feel worse. Browsing through the mediocre majority of the images in my feed, I felt guilty for wasting so much time. After quitting Instagram, I feel much more inspired to go out and do stuff—to produce instead of consuming. On my blog, I don’t have any way to comment, and I have turned off all the stats.
Also, instead of posting directly to Facebook, why not post to your own blog and simply repost automatically to your Facebook account? This way, you’re building your own platform instead of someone else’s.
6. Don’t make photography a job
If possible, don’t try to turn your hobby into work.
If you work as a photographer, making similar pictures every day for work, it’s hard to stay inspired. Many full-time photographers don’t have the energy for personal projects after work. It’s the same reason why a chef might not want to do any cooking at home.
“One of the easiest ways to hate something is to turn it into your job: taking the thing that keeps you alive spiritually and turning it into the thing that keeps you alive literally.” – Austin Kleon, Keep Going
Be mindful of the potential impact that monetizing your passion might have on your life.
7. What about traveling and new gear?
Traveling to new places seems like a sure way to get a quick hit of inspiration, but it’s just a side-effect of novelty. Since everything around you is new, you feel more inclined to take pictures and walk around more.
However, once the novelty wears off, so does the inspiration.
There’s a similar effect when buying new new gear: you’ll feel inspired at first, but after a couple of weeks you’re back to baseline.
Don’t buy new gear to feel inspired! This is terrible advice. A few weeks later, the “high” is gone and you’re a couple of thousand dollars poorer.
I do recommend that you travel though. Not to fix creative block, but to widen your perspective and invest in experiences that will fill your creative library. Just be mindful. You need to be able to feel inspired where ever you are. If you can’t be inspired to do photography with your old camera in a small town, you haven’t fixed the underlying problem.
8. Turn “pro”
I saved the best for last. “To turn pro” is a term author Steven Pressfield uses. It’s not meant to be taken in its conventional meaning; rather, it means to take your art seriously, the way a professional does. It doesn’t necessarily mean turning your art into your day job (we already covered that).
“‘Mr. Faulkner, do you write on inspiration or do you write on a schedule?’ Faulkner replied. ‘Well, of course I write on inspiration. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at a quarter past nine.’”
We shouldn’t simply dabble around with our art. If you do street photography, then do it! If you write articles, then write articles. Every day! This is what it means to “turn pro.”
We show up to our jobs whether we feel like going there or not. Treat your art the same way.
Sometimes, before sitting down at my computer, I have no idea what I’m going to write about. Yet, in many of those instances, I end up writing a thousand-word article in one sitting.
Sometimes, I’ll force myself to go out and do street photography even if I don’t feel like it. I just start taking pictures; before I know it, I’m inspired again.
Inspiration comes to you after you start to do your work, not before. And if you do your work every day, you build momentum, making it easier to show up the next day.
For me, it’s actually easier to write an article every day than it is to write 2-3 times a week. Momentum. The same applies to photography. If I haven’t gone out to shoot for a couple of days, it becomes harder to get up and go. I guess this is also why people find it harder to go to work on Mondays.
To paraphrase Newton’s first law (also called the law of inertia), an object will continue to do whatever it happens to be doing unless a force is exerted upon it.
If you sit still, you’re inclined to keep sitting still. If you do your work five days in a row and then stop for a couple of days, it’s harder to start up again—you have to exert more energy. If you’re already moving, all you need is a slight nudge to keep yourself moving forward.
All artists experience a lack of inspiration from time to time. Although it’s natural, it’s also curable.
Here’s a short summary of the tips we went through:
- Lower the bar. Even if you’re a professional photographer allow yourself to make “bad” pictures. Not everything you make needs to be shared online. Shoot for fun and for yourself.
- Let success land. Award yourself even for minor improvements. Keep in mind that celebrating success is a sign of a confident person.
- Take breaks. Sometimes we need to stay completely away from our art for a little while in order to come back stronger. Take regular walks.
- Read books. One of the best ways to go out to start taking pictures again is to look at the photographs of masters.
- Quit social media. Stay away from the noise for a while. Instagram is bad for inspiration.
- If possible, don’t make photography into your day job. This way you can take the pictures you want, not what is expected of you.
- Don’t buy new gear in order to fix the inspiration problem. Travel as much as you can, but realize that if you think it’s going to fix your inspiration crisis long-term, you’ll be disappointed. Fix the root cause instead.
- Turn “pro.” Inspiration will come to those who do the work no matter what. Whether it rains or whether or not you feel like it, you always do your work — every day.
The common denominator for most of these items is to take action: to move, to change, to surprise your brain, to get out of the house.
This is a list of ideas that I personally resonate with; it is by no means an exhaustive list meant to fit everyone. Find out what you relate to and then use whatever works for you—I just hope this article helped you come up with a few ideas.
About the author: Kristjan Vingel is a street photographer based in Luxembourg. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Vingel’s work on his website and Twitter. This article was also published in 9 parts here.
Credits: Header image by QQ.