It’s OK to be Uncomfortable

Nice landscape. Taken in rest area

I recently read an article from a photographer who admitted he sometimes doesn’t stop to take a picture he wanted because he was afraid of what people would think. I understand that. I have been there many times. But I have come to the conclusion that it’s OK to be uncomfortable.

What will people think?

You’ve probably been here. I know I have. You are driving down a crowded road and you see a scene you want to photograph. But we decide not to pull off and get out the equipment because we would look foolish standing there beside the road taking a picture. All those people going by would think we’re weird.

The reality I have learned, though, is that no one thinks about you as much as you do. That is a fact. We overestimate our importance. We will be more free and inventive if we stop worrying about what they may think.

People go about their dreary lives almost totally focused on themselves and their needs. If they do momentarily notice you, even if they criticize you, you do not know what they are really thinking. Most often, they are responding to something in themselves. Because they do not really care about you.

I love this quote from Susan Sontag: I envy paranoids; they actually feel people are paying attention to them.

And from Olin Miller: You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do!

If that random person driving by thinks you are doing something foolish, so what? How did that affect you? Did you feel it? Did it hurt? No. You do not know what they are thinking and besides, you are doing your art, not theirs.

The anxiety we feel is internally generated.

Attract attention

I understand. I’m very introverted and I am uncomfortable attracting attention. An interesting dynamic because of where I live is that I do attract unwanted attention sometimes.

In my area there is a lot of wildlife, such as elk, deer, moose, bear, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, etc. I guess I am missing the right genes, but I have little interest in them, other than to observe them. I almost never take wildlife pictures. But if I am setting up to take a picture beside a road, it is not unusual for people to pull off and eagerly ask me what I see. They seem so disappointed when I point to a tree. It’s actually kind of funny.

And for the occasional street photography I do, I am one of those people who wants to be totally anonymous, unseen. It is uncomfortable when someone “catches” me taking their picture.

They won’t like me

So what do I do about this fear that people will think badly about me when I’m out shooting? The right answer is, ignore them. Easier said than done, but that is true of much of life.

I have learned to try to put them out of my mind completely and get in the zone focusing on setting up the shot I want. Generally this works. Replace the negative concern of fear with the positive action of taking a picture.

But even if it doesn’t work, more and more I come to the realization that I don’t care what they think. I am not trying to get them to like me or post a Facebook note about how much they admire that photographer they just passed. I don’t care.

The results I get in these situations validates and justifies my callous “don’t care” attitude toward them.

What are they going to do to you

Let’s say some of the passing people give you enough attention to say to themselves “that’s dumb”. So what? What happened? Did you feel it? Did they throw a rotten tomato at you? Did they stop to get your name and take a picture of you to post on Facebook to shame you?

Of course not. Absolutely nothing happened. They went on down the road and immediately forgot about you. If they were stopped 20 miles later and asked, they probably wouldn’t remember someone standing beside the road taking a picture.

This is the quandary: we fear what people might think, but the reality is they don’t bother to think about us. And even if they did, it has no effect on us.

Do what you need to do

If you do what other people do, you get the results that other people get. – Bill Miller

We are artists. We see things differently. That means we do things differently. Other people cannot know what our vision is at any moment unless we tell them or show them. Showing them is typically what we do.

So do what you need to do to make your art. Do not be concerned about what anyone may think about you. First, they probably don’t. Second, it doesn’t matter. You have art to do.

If you were embarrassed taking the picture feel doubly joyful when you see the great result. You can say to those people passing by who you imagined felt you were silly, “see what you missed”!

Get over it

I hope I have encouraged you to forget about your fear of people’s opinion and go for your art. Art is action. It is only an idea unless we create something.

Act while you feel fear rather than waiting until you feel unafraid. – David Richo, in How to be an Adult

How sad it is to think about what could have been a great image, except we were too embarrassed to stop and take it. I have done it both ways. I have passed by and regretted it and I have overcome my fear and stopped and usually been happy I did.

I am old and calloused enough to believe now that I shouldn’t be overly concerned about what I think other people may be thinking. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. If being uncomfortable is a price for making our art, that is what we have to do.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. – Anon

To you who have never been intimidated by other people’s opinions, congratulations! You have a talent most of us do not have. Use it well. Don’t be an ass.

Today’s image

Do you like this image of the vast Utah plains? I do. It is not a result of trekking hours across the barren desert, watching for rattlesnakes. I took it in a rest stop on I-70, right next to the restrooms. It felt uncomfortable at the time, but I loved the scene and had to take it. At this point, I don’t recall the discomfort. But I still like the image.

When you see something you like, stop and take it, unless it is dangerous or you have higher priorities at the moment, like a critical appointment. There are some things more important than our art. Not many, but don’t ignore them.

Created From Joy

Radiance. Sun beams over mountains on a summer sunset.

There are many motivations and reasons for creating art. I can’t say any are wrong if the result is art that truly pleases the artist. For me, I am sure my art is created from joy.

Many motivations

What is it that motivates artists to create? Trauma? Money? Desperation? Joy? I am not qualified to say, because I can only speak for myself. Without being in the mind of another artist and experiencing their motivations, I cannot know.

Much has been written on this, but, again, i am not sure we can fully know what motivates someone else.

We can look at some works and believe they were created as the artist tried to work out some grief or tragedy or great wrong. Or maybe just try to understand life.

Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica seems to be a deep reaction to the horrors of war. Actually, he had been given a commission by the Spanish Republicans to paint a mural for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. He was not making much headway on it and did not seem highly motivated. Then on 26 April 1937 the Nazis bombed the village or Guernica. Picasso was urged to make this his theme and, after reading eye witness accounts of the attack, he did.

Yes, he was Spanish, although he did not live there at the time and never would again. But rather than being a deeply personal experience for him, he seemed to be able to empathize well enough to bring the emotion through. Anyway, it is considered by many to be his masterpiece.

This does not prove or disprove anything. It just shows that artists motivations are deeply internal and personal. As much as critics try to analyze and dissect a work, they are groping in the dark unless the artist enlightens them.

Joy motivates me

I have discovered myself well enough to understand that joy is my primary motivation when I am making images. Even though I am old and increasingly cynical, joy is what enlightens my work.

Joy can be a small thing like finding a dew covered spider web in the niche of a wall or it can be the sweep of a grand landscape at the right time, like the image with this article. It is not a particular thing or place or time. It is my reaction to it. How does it move me? What does it bring to me at the moment?

Finding these moments of joy draws me on from one to the next. The act of selecting a scene to photograph, framing it, composing it, deciding on exposure settings, etc. is a skill. Doing it is a calming and pleasant activity to immerse myself in for a few moments. Everybody takes pictures. To take one that people stop to look at or talk about is art.

My joy is in capturing and expressing a scene in a way that will be memorable. But even if no one other than me sees it or enjoys it, it is joy and it is my art. No critic or reviewer can take that joy away from me. It matters little what other people think about an image. It can still give me joy.

Not happiness

We need to distinguish between happiness and joy. Many people take them as about the same, but they are quite different. Happiness is a pleasant feeling because circumstances made us content at the moment. A warm cup of cocoa on a cold day. An unexpected letter from a friend.

The next moment, something can take away our happiness.

Joy is a long term view of life. It comes from within and is not completely dependent on what is happening around us. We tend to be joyful when the way we are living our life is aligned with our values and beliefs.

Making images that bring me joy definitely aligns with my values and closes the loop. It reinforces my joy. That is, my images come from joy and making them increases my joy. For me, they are created from joy.

Values

Do you ever consider your values? The principles you build your life on are too important to go un-analyzed. We are more fulfilled when what we do is aligned with our values and we tend to be frustrated and unhappy when we are opposing them. Think about what you believe.

I’m not saying everything we do needs to be for some grand social cause. Not at all. I think that tends to make our work stiff and preachy. I am just suggesting we will be happier and do better work if we are doing it for the joy of our feelings and the pleasure of the creativity.

Try it. You might find more joy in your art and it might come across that way to your viewers.

Learning Takes Effort

Avalanche

Contrary to the forest of web sites and blogs and newsletters promising you easy hacks, quick fixes, and effortless skill building, let me disillusion you. Learning takes effort. The more different your new subject is from what you already know, the harder it gets.

Curiosity

I think I can speak to this. In a previous post I said I was afflicted with curiosity. That is stated in a humorous way, but I am very serious. I have a deep and burning curiosity about many things. Learning new things or just extending my knowledge of an area occupies a lot of my time.

I’m the kid who, way back in the days before internet, would spend hours browsing through encyclopedias. Any one remember what those are? Looking up a word in the dictionary could take me an hour. I kept getting sidetracked by other interesting words I see along the way.

It also drives my approach to photography. I am more interested in finding interesting things, no matter what they are, and making interesting pictures from them than I am in looking for particular subjects or iconic scenes. Almost anything can be a good subject if you can “catch” it doing something interesting.

Learning

But if we want to go beyond just an idle curiosity, we have to learn new things. That requires significantly more effort.

Learning demands a commitment of time and study and effort. And dedication. And drive. It is not easy to master a new subject or field.

But what is learning, really? It is the ability to independently use knowledge or apply a skill over time and in new situations. As opposed to just recalling facts. The American education system is woefully deficient on this. Our schools teach and measure mainly performance, not learning. That is, what is 3 times 4? Who gave the Gettysburg address and what year?

It is not that performance is unimportant, but recalling facts for a test is just not making us much more educated. For instance, I love studying history. There are usually several history or biography books around me in various states of completion. But I only care about dates as much as required to be able to put things together in a timeline. It is much more interesting and enlightening to find out why things happened, why to those people, why then, what is the back story.

Failing

Actual learning is hard. It requires work. And, sorry, but that is the way it has to be. We learn more deeply when we have to work at it and when we fail.

Fail?? Yes. I don’t mean like repeat a grade. Failing as in try to use your knowledge and find you are incorrect or inadequate. Then you have to concentrate more on it to learn the right way. This reinforces the correct way and you know and remember it better.

A small personal experience: one of the things I am learning is French. It’s a long story. You know that old expression that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks? That is true for me when it comes to learning a new language. A theory, that seems to hold true, is that it takes repetition and mistakes to learn new words. Repeating them over time builds memory, but repeating the ones you miss more often reinforces them.

My point here is that the purpose of learning is to be able to use the knowledge or skill independently and with some confidence. We usually can’t do that until we have tried and failed and reinforced it and practiced. This involved making mistakes and correcting them and building on that. This applies to our everyday lives and our art. I don’t recommend that as a way to learn brain surgery.

Interleaving

Another learning topic that I have found to be very relevant to me is called interleaving. Conventional wisdom says to practice one thing intensively until it is perfected. Then move on to the next thing. If you are learning tennis, then, you should practice forehands over and over until you have mastered them. Then go to backhands. Etc.

Interleaving, though, says you should mix a variety of things, even if you have not mastered each of them. So in the tennis example, is says it would be better to mix forehands and backhands and volleys in a match-like experience. There is evidence that this is a better way of learning.

I am sold, because I do it in many ways with good results. I believe interleaving the activities forms more and stronger connections between different components you are learning. The long term benefit is deeper understanding or skill.

Learning builds on itself. The more diverse things we learn, the easier it is to learn other new things.

Dots

Steve Jobs famously called it “connecting the dots“. He stated it best in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech. The picture is that we learn many different, unconnected, things and have experiences we may or not welcome. We can’t look ahead to see how they will connect. But somehow, looking back, they form the path we have taken.

I love his example of how his audited calligraphy course led to personal computers as we know them. Read it!

In order to connect the dots, we need a rich set of “dots” in our lives. Because the more we know the more there is to connect to.

Photography

What does this have to do with photography and art?

I am suspicious of typical ways photography is taught. A linear process seems logical and fits well in a course outline, but I believe students should be out making bad pictures from day one. They should have daily or weekly project assignments. As they see their results they can be shown what aperture or shutter speed or ISO or lens choices could do and why they would want to make tradeoffs. They can be shown compositional problems they made and pointed to great artists to see the choices they made. Students can quickly get the hang of manipulating the camera to get results they want and can then get on to the harder part – figuring out what they have to say.

But in an environment of experimentation and unlimited choices. After all, we are learning to create our vision.

I believe we should be life long learners and open to new influences. The attitude that we know all we need to know is dangerous. We can always learn something new and get inspiration from new sources. I recently saw work by a contemporary artist I had never heard of. But some of Aline Smithson‘s project The Ephemeral Archive touched me in new ways and opened windows of inquiry for me. And I didn’t think I liked contemporary photography.

Learn to be comfortable with being challenged with new ideas and with failing. It is one of the best ways to learn. It’s not supposed to be easy.

If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.

Neil Gaiman

I want to hear your comments! Let’s talk!

To Be, or Not to Be.

A mindful view of fall colors near me

I’m not discussing Hamlet’s famous existential crisis. I want to continue an ongoing theme of mindfulness. To be or not to be refers to our state of mindfulness when we go out shooting.

Backwards

John Barclay is an excellent photographer and workshop leader. I read an interesting article where he talked about a student in a workshop who changed John’s approach to photography. The student was a new photographer, but a Zen priest. His work was noticeably better than the rest of the student, even maybe John’s. John said “I had been approaching photography backwards and I believe this to be true for most people. Flint arrived at photography because he had learnt how to become mindful and present in the world, so when he picked up a camera, he’d already done all the hard work.

What an interesting idea. And I see it playing out constantly. Photography instructors spend massive amounts of time teaching the technical process of taking pictures. Apertures and shutter speeds and depth of field and rules of third and all the other trivia we think is important to taking a good picture.

But this student, Flint, had already figured out how to see what was interesting. Now he just needed to learn the technical process for recording it. Amazing. He starts out at the level most of us strive over years to attain then just has to learn to use a camera.

Mindfulness

John’s takeaway was a change of philosophy. A desire to become more mindful. He states it as “we don’t take pictures, we are taken by them.

Cutting through the mystical fog that often surrounds its discussion, mindfulness is learning “to be”. We need to be present, to be still, to pay attention, to quiet our minds and let go of the plans and schedules and demands and interruptions that are constantly calling us.

This is increasingly hard for most of us in the Western world. It’s a 24/7 world. We are over scheduled; we multitask; we carry devices with us that are always connected and bringing us “critical” information that is more important than our art. If we don’t respond immediately to every ding of our devices, we might miss out on something.

Out culture is the opposite of mindful.

Why do it

I believe, and have seen research supporting it, that we cannot really multitask. We work much better concentrating on one thing for quality time, even getting into a flow state. Every time we are interrupted, it takes us at least 20 minutes to fully engage with the previous task we were doing.

Even more seriously, as artists, we cannot think, reflect, introspect, envision creative new work when we are constantly stimulated and distracted by other things. The arena we perform in is our mind. We must take enough control of our mind that we can focus our creative energy on our art.

Our work comes from our own mind. We need to carefully protect that and be serious about managing our own thoughts and environment. Outside forces want to impose on us and control our attention. We must fight that.

How to do it

Ah, how. That is the challenge. And the challenge is different for everyone and the solutions are different for each. We are each in a different situation.

My personal experience and what works for me is all I can speak of with any confidence. I do not have a problem with social media, because I have never let myself become addicted to it. I realize this is a problem for many people to day. While I can sympathize, I do not understand it. In the same way that I can sympathize with an alcoholic even though I do not truly understand because I do not have a problem with the addiction myself.

Social Media

Social media is one of the worst attention sinks in most people’s lives.

I know people who are on Facebook, or their drug of choice, dozens of times a day. They feel compelled to immediately respond to everything they see and spend hours hypnotized by short video clips. And if they do not post something every day they fear they will become irrelevant – in a couple of hours. This Fear of Missing Out is a primary tool of the media companies. They have huge staffs of unbelievably smart people working daily on ways to keep us addicted to their service. Results show that it works.

What would happen if you put yourself in control of your attention instead of defaulting to what the media companies want you to do? For instance, if your main creative time is 8 to noon, then turn off your devices and do not allow yourself to access social media during those hours. Set a meeting on your calendar to block out time for you. Honor it and reserve it for your creative work. Put a wall around yourself and fiercely protect your creative time.

After that, get in touch with the world and light up your huge network of followers if you need to. But an interesting thing to ask yourself is, in cold marketing and financial terms, what are those likes and followers worth to your business? How much revenue does it bring? Might your time be better spent on your art?

Benefits

I am talking generally about mindfulness. I strongly believe that we must be mindful in order to create the art we want.

Do you ever just take your camera and go for a walk? I highly recommend it. But it is not effective if you are still fully tapped into the online world. Silence the phone, Take out the AirPods so you can actually listen to what is happening around you. Coach yourself to look at the world you are passing through. Really look. Take some time. Walking is good exercise, but forget the personal best goals. Just walk. Maybe even slow down if it will help you to pay more attention.

It will take practice to slow down and start seeing. Keep doing it. It is a form of meditation to unplug from the connected world and get in touch with what is actually there. Life is a series of moments, and we have to re-learn to recognize them.

Having a camera along is important to me. It gives me license to look for pictures. This ties back to what John Barclay said “we don’t take pictures, we are taken by them.” I go out, not to force myself to take a picture, but to allow myself to find something that interests me that should be photographed. I am often amazed.

To be

To be, or not to be. Being, in the moment, undistracted, is a powerful tool and a strong meditative force for artists. We engage different parts of our mind, waking up the right-brain creative side.

Plus it has other benefits. We come back refreshed, more alive. Ready to do more creative work. Maybe we even want to keep the devices silenced for longer periods. Unwilling to put out precious attention under someone else’s control.

Like the student John Barclay mentions, being in the moment is the hard part. Then we pick up the camera and capture it.

We don’t take pictures. We are taken by them.

Today’s image

This was a mindful day in the woods. It was fall. The leaves and undergrowth were changing color. I love that time of the year, but I was feeling a reluctance to just snap pretty pictures of fall trees. On this occasion I got in tune with the rhythm and flow of the day, The wind blowing the leaves and grass. The light moving through all of it. Rather than a normal picture of fall leaves I worked on capturing the movement, the transitory feel of the season. I like it. It seems more in spirit with the day as I remember it.

I want to hear your comments! Let’s talk!

If We’re Not Moving Forward…

Rise Against, representing the daily struggle

We can get trapped in our own mind. Fear can pen us in. We must constantly remind ourselves of what happens if we’re not moving forward.

Can’t stand still

The actual quote, attributed to Sam Waterson, is “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling back.” There is a lot of truth in that. As much as we sometimes would like to lock things down, we can’t. Time moves on. We move on. Relationships change. People grow apart or together. Our knowledge and tastes and perceptions change.

Have you ever gone back and looked at some of your art or writing from a few years ago? It can be depressing. Our first reaction is probably that our work was terrible back then. But no, that is not necessarily true. That was the best work we could do at the time. We are seeing what we were at that moment in the past. But we have moved on now and are in a different place. And it’s an ongoing process.

Fear

Some of us get trapped in the past by fear. We did some work we thought was very good. Maybe we received some recognition for it. Perhaps we even were so unfortunate as to become famous. Now we are afraid to move away from what we became recognized for in the past, even though we are feeling a pull in a different direction.

Past work becomes an anchor on our creativity unless we consciously cut it loose. But it is all to easy to fear that we have peaked and will never be able to do any more work as good.

Well, maybe that is true. Maybe the next body of work we do will be inferior. We won’t know until we do it. When we strike out in a new direction it is quite natural to grope around hesitantly for a while until we find our footing. The first versions of new work could be fairly bad. But if it is where we are being pulled, we will find what we are looking for.

Growth

We are growing creatures. Life constantly gives us new stimulus, new knowledge, new ideas. We meet people and have good discussions. We learn new things and connect ideas and resolve old questions and ask new ones.

At least, we are intended to do that. Some people stay in their rut, doing the same thing over and over without advancing. It’s like the question do you have 10 years of experience or 1 year of experience repeated 10 times? When put like that it seems obvious there is a big difference. But a rut is safe and comfortable. There is no risk. No one criticizes us. But where there is no risk, there is no change, no growth, no reward.

As artists, we should be comfortable learning and changing. Experimenting with new ideas and ways of looking at our art and the world. Having confidence that our best work is yet to come.

It really is true that there are only 2 paths. If we stop growing, we start dying. When we find ourselves in the inevitable rut, they can be hard to get out of. You have to very deliberately and carefully steer out. Let the wheels grab the sides and climb out slowly. Your car will complain, but change always causes criticism. Hopefully, you are not in too deep.

We are different every day

We are not the same person today that we were yesterday. Like the expression that we can never step in the same river twice. Of course, that does not mean we are jerked around in some type of schizophrenic fugue. We don’t bounce randomly to wildly inconsistent states. At lease, I hope you don’t.

Who we are, our values and beliefs, stays relatively constant. We build on that base and develop as a person. Growth is usually incremental. Hopefully becoming a better person as we progress. Our art may seem to jump more as we embrace new expressions of what we are feeling. Like Picasso going through a blue period or an African period or a cubism period. He never changed who he was, he just responded in different ways at different phases of his life.

Our art changing as we grow is natural and healthy. It is much easier said than done, but we should not fear letting go of what we have done in the past, even if we are well known for it. We should trust that we are growing as an artist and being led to new and better work.

It is exciting to look forward to what is to come and what we have yet to create.

What would be of life if we didn’t have the courage of doing something new?

Vincent van Gogh

Today’s image

I chose this to represent the daily battle we all face. The internal struggle to rise above conformity and create what we have inside us. Don’t settle. Don’t give in.