Being honest with yourself

If there is one thing that I have learned while taking photographs is that there really are no limitations. No limits to what can be photographed, no limits to how things are photographed and no limits to the number of people telling you how to photograph. There is no ‘best’ way to do things. There cannot be. There is only the ‘honest’ way to do things – and if that way is followed then there can be no limitations, because it can take you anywhere.

I suppose that you could call it being open to new ideas, or to be able to follow your intuition. Maybe you could call it a way of thinking in an unusual fashion – or making strange leaps of imagination. Wherever these ideas come from, they must come from within you and they must be you.

I imagine it as a bit like that cartoon cliche where the cat in the toy train is laying the track in front of the train as it moves along. You are not sticking to the rails that others have put down, you are discovering and laying down the track as you go. And you decide where you place the track by following your honest, true feelings.

The tricky thing is that following yourself can lead to quite a few crashes. It doesn’t matter. Just keep on going. It is so much better to have just one year of following your own crazy ideas than to have ten years following someone else’s.
And thinking about this made me wonder why it is so difficult sometimes to understand what artists in general are talking about. They can talk in such a way that can alienate you and confuse. They often seem to make no sense at all. This is because they are deep inside themselves, and their process of creation is so wound up with their essentially unusual way of thinking. It is as if they have discovered their own language to allow them to make work.

Now, this is so often mocked and taken advantage of by artists who have not delved deeply inside themselves – they can basically talk any old bollocks and if you don’t understand it then that only proves how deeply they have thought about the subject and how little you actually know.
However, this fake arty talk cannot get an artist very far. They get found out. The ones who talk honestly about their work and themselves can always be spotted. The ones who try to sound deep but who have not been deep inside themselves just end up in knots.

But the honest artist or photographer doesn’t have to speak in a certain way or act in a certain way. They can keep their thoughts hidden – their inner process hidden – their honesty hidden. And that leads to quite a charming, humble and fascinating person. Someone who seeks things in secret. Someone who doesn’t need reassurance or to discuss what they discover to see if it is valid. They don’t need to work using old processes, or new processes, or unheard of processes. They just need to do what it takes to get the results that they have been looking for – that special moment that gives you your reward. And that is something well worth going deep inside yourself for.

Are personal goals important?

As with any other art form, photography takes the photographer on one hell of a journey. We’re all doing it. We’re all moving forward towards something or other. For some there are goals to achieve, for others there are places to visit and photograph and for a few it is a business with profits to be made.

Observing how other people are managing with their journeys is fascinating. There are those that produce a small amount of work every year and you hardly hear about them – until they suddenly appear everywhere. There are those that lecture and talk and talk and lecture and exhibit and exhibit and exhibit. There are those that retreat into their own worlds and never seem to come out. There are those that tweet and tweet and tweet and keep on tweeting.

Each of these approaches seems to suit the individual. The way that they approach their work often comes down to their personality – they have all made a conscious decision about how they want to move forward. And it seems to work. You have those that use every trick in the book to get noticed – and you also get those that actively avoid any social media but still manage to get their work seen and sold. There are those that follow the rule of ‘fake it ’till you make it’ – which are often so obvious but still manage to inspire the self belief that the artist needs to move themselves forward.

There doesn’t seem to be one ‘true’ way to move along on your journey. It seems to come down to what type of a person you are.

And I can think of examples for each of the above approaches where the artist has made it – where they have reached a certain status – and then it is all straightforward and easy – right? No, I don’t think that it is. I think that there are many many false summits on the photographer’s journey. And then it becomes a journey that is tested on how you can handle these false horizons and still push forward. You have to fight on.

And this, I think, is where the true love of what you are doing comes through. Because to keep on going with your own approach you have to have a lot of self belief, a short memory when it comes to disappointments and an amazing love for what you do. It almost has to be like a family member – or a partner. You have to love it. You have to need it in your life. It is like any relationship – it has its rough times – the trick is to work at it until you get past them.

And this is where some approaches come unstuck. It seems that you can only reach so far if you are making art without the fundamental ‘love’ that needs to underpin everything that you do. If the art is secondary to making money, to making friends, to being popular, to massaging the ego, to travelling the world, to giving you a wonderful lifestyle – then it is as if the most fundamental building blocks are missing.

However, if you put your desire for creating above the desire for personal goals – then maybe that is enough to see you through to the end.

Fear of the future

I have always thought that there is a certain amount of ‘input’ placed by a photographer into their work – whether the photographer realises it or not. Like a subconscious fingerprint, it sits hidden in the work until something triggers the reasons, the thoughts and the final understandings of the what and the why. I had recently had a moment that suddenly made me see something, a glimmer of understanding. It was a story on the BBC webpage about a man in his 50s with HIV – and his fear of the future. His fear of death, his fear of poverty, the uncertainty that has been with him for over 25 years. This story made me realise, in a flash, that these fears are alive and well in my own mind too. And now I can see these uncomfortable feelings in my own work.

I have talked about this before, in an interview with Bill Steiger. I don’t think that I really understood what I was talking about then, but they seem strangely prophetic now.

BS Do you think that there is more to your work than meets the eye?

MJ I think that beauty is a strange thing. It can be so instantly compelling, and yet empty. It can be so exciting and still unsatisfying. I would hope that there is something more than beauty in my photographs.

BS Such as?

MJ Well, I think that beauty is the initial attraction for me. The beauty of a form, an abstract composition that makes you excited. But I think that there must be something else, another level, that your mind reaches into and somehow makes decisions without you realising it. I am pretty sure that there are reasons for me working the way that I do, that I do not know about yet. And to be honest, I’m not too sure that I want to know!

BS But surely, if you know about the reasons then you would understand your work more and be able to talk to people about it?

MJ Its kind of like a cave that I don’t want to go into. If I can make stuff without going in there then that is ok with me.

BS You don’t want to find the source of your creativity. I can understand that. Are you afraid of what you might find?

MJ (laughs) Yes! It all starts to sound a bit self centred doesn’t it? But maybe that is what you have to be? To be deep inside yourself?

BS I know of a lot of artists that are. They go on about their own mortality. Doesn’t that become a cliche?

MJ (laughs) Maybe all a cliche is, is a conclusion that a majority of people have come to? But I can understand why artists think about mortality and death and how it creeps into their work.

BS And they use it to feed their feelings and to get work done?

MJ I suppose so, but it seems like quite a dark bedfellow to have – to use your thoughts of death as a slave for your creativity!

BS Your work is quite dark isn’t it? Quiet empty of warmth?

MJ Not for me. It is full of excitement and wonder. I can sometimes sense sadness though. I have no idea where that comes from!

BS Maybe it is a hidden emotion, tucked away?

MJ I suppose there could be something hidden that made me make certain choices over the years? I don’t know.


Little discoveries like this, for me, make the journey so fascinating. It kind of like a train trip where you spend the whole time looking out of the window and start to learn about yourself from what you see along the way.

It can get quite self centred. Maybe that is what you have to do – to get deep inside of yourself?

Do artists want to be children again?

I have been thinking about how a photograph is somehow a mirror of the photographer. The number of choices that are made when it comes to creating a piece of art are so many that they surely must show a certain reflection of the personality that made them. The selective process when it comes to taking or making a photograph starts right at the beginning – the actual impulse to use a camera. Then comes personal choice about camera type etc, which can be influenced by others initially but then changed as the artist grows and finds his or her own needs.

And this started me thinking – where does this love of creating come from? Why does making an image feel so good? Do we actually subconsciously look to create a mirror of ourselves in our work – and if we do, then why are we so satisfied with our work when in fact we are subconsciously looking at ourselves – an image that has been created through multiple choices overseen by our own personality? Something moulded by many hundreds of little decisions that have along the way moved us in a certain direction?

While thinking about this for a bit I started to wonder more about the actual act of creating something. Is this act a type of playing – many people say that for them it is – a way of discovery by playing and finding out and going into mental free fall. If this is the case, and the act of creation is playing, then this would link in nicely with many artists feeling childhood bonds and experiences that feed into their work.

Is the act of creating really just us being children again? The freedom of a child’s mind when they play is lost when we grow up – but when you create something, is this freedom discovered again?

Does making art satisfy us because it is feeding the subconscious need to be a child again? And is the finished piece of art created with such a flourish because it subconsciously satisfies a need of approval from our parents?

The need for approval and appreciation is strong in many artists. Can this be linked to a childhood need for parental recognition?

Maybe this is not the case – I’m not sure yet. What I do know is that the enjoyment in the act of creating something is still a bit of a mystery. Maybe there are very good reasons why artists create things and get such a life affirming charge from it. And a similar strong feeling could be part of our childhood memory. Being a child again, if only just for a moment, and having that freedom to create unhindered and get a warm glow of parental recognition does sound as if it fits the bill when it comes to mirroring how many photographers and artists find that they work.

Maybe that could also explain why many artists act the way that they do.

The truth behind not being a very good photographer

I am spending a lot of time on the road at the moment and I find the travelling a wonderful way to think and question and try to form some concrete answers for myself and my work. As I was driving happily along today I was thinking about Poppit and the structure and beauty it so ceaselessly provides, and a realisation suddenly popped into my head. I never, ever take a shot at Poppit of something that I don’t think is amazing. I am so limited by the number of shots that I can take that I like to self edit my work before I take a shot. What I see through the viewfinder has to be wonderful and hit me in the stomach to make me use up that precious film.

Now this is all well and good – being selective is a good habit to have if you want to save money – but what struck me as I drove along in my car is the fact that the beach does its bit by offering me incredible glimpses of what it can do – and in the vast majority of cases I recognise this, I take a shot – but fail completely to create something of worth from the situation. I get at best maybe 1 image on a roll that is ok – the rest go nowhere. It isn’t down to the beach – the actual physical thing is there, looking amazing, in front of me. It is my inability as a photographer to capture what is being offered. These priceless moments are working out their existence before me and I , basically, muck it up.

And this thought made me come to terms with actually how difficult it is to create something of worth – and how It can make you see and accept your own shortcomings.

And then I thought some more. The image that works must have a special something about it – to make it work. To make it fill your heart and to satisfy your need as a photographer. And that thing, in my case anyway, must be luck. It has to be luck.

And if luck is the defining factor that makes an image special then that must make any skill as a photographer quite redundant.

And for me this is quite a revelation – a revelation that is actually wonderful. It makes me realise that I am not a photographer who tries to control a situation and demand a result. I am more of someone who stands back and accepts any luck that is offered to me.

I am not a good photographer – I am a photographer that wastes the majority of what is offered to me, one that isn’t technically proficient and really only uses one setting on his camera, but gets lucky from time to time. And that is enough to keep my heart singing and enough to keep me going back again and again. How free I feel!

An obvious answer – why didn’t I spot it before?

I wonder how many photographers, or come to think of it, how many artists in general have trouble trying to explain where their work comes from? It seems that the work springs from nowhere – it just becomes.

I have been trying to figure this out myself – as it does feel that the work just comes to me – and it is quite a natural desire to discover the source of the river, so to speak. But I can never seem to figure it all out.

I then became resigned to the fact that creativity is impossible to track down (see last blog post) and that kind of settled it for me.

But then I realised the obvious. I have no idea why I didn’t see this before – as so many others had done. The whole subject can be wrapped up in one little word – intuition. I checked this word out on Wikipedia and this is what it says –

‘Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference and/or the use of reason.[1] The word intuition comes from Latin verb intueri which is usually translated as to look inside or to contemplate.[2] Intuition is thus often conceived as a kind of inner perception, sometimes regarded as real lucidity or understanding. Cases of intuition are of a great diversity, however processes by which they happen typically remain mostly unknown to the thinker, as opposed to our view of rational thinking.’

I especially liked the bit about the sources being unknown to the thinker. It has a nice ring to it – to shoot using intuition, not thinking, just feeling.

I must admit though, it does have a mystical whiff about it that does sit uncomfortably with me – as if the photographer has magic powers – where as in fact the mind is probably using past references in a subconscious way.

So intuition is the answer to my many questions. It ties it all up nicely. That feeling that you get when you shoot without thinking and produce work that you cannot explain but makes your heart sing – that is being intuitive. And that cannot be controlled. It just comes to us. It knows when things are right or good or solid and true. It may be just our subconscious working on past experiences, but as feelings go it is one of the best.

I just don’t know why on earth why I didn’t realise this before. Maybe looking too hard for something makes the obvious fade. Or maybe it started an important phase of self questioning that was important in unravelling knots in my mind. Whatever the reason, I feel that my questions are answered – and I can now just get on with photographing things in a serene stupor.

The problem with searching for creativity

It seems to me, after looking at a lot of blogs, that the ‘creative act’ is something that interests an awful lot of people. It has a mystery about it. I think that some people see it as a silver bullet to creating great images. But I was wondering the other day, do we find creativity or does creativity find us?

Is creativity something that you can search for – something that you can hunt down and attain? I’m not so sure that is. I suppose that it is different for everyone, but is there really a route to becoming creative? Surely if there was then anyone could do it.

I would say that the first and probably the most important step in being creative is having a need to be. That ‘fire in the belly’ need. The same type of need that you hear athletes talk about – the way they seem to have had no choice but to follow their need to run, or their need to jump. A passion is probably the best way to describe it. But a passion that you yourself discovered. Maybe someone lit the fire inside you, but you fan the flames.

I don’t think I have ever seen creativity without passion. It has to take over your life somehow. And you have to be able to manage that passion and also handle the rest of your life too. It can get a bit tricky.

And it is as if that passion makes you unsatisfied with doing what others have done. Your desire to be different makes you think about the work you are creating.

Now, during all of this we are not thinking ‘I need to be more creative! I need to be more creative!’ – we are thinking ‘I need to satisfy this urge within me and nothing else will do’.

And then we do look further, and we are honest with ourselves, and we carry on looking – not worrying about how creative we are or how long it is taking us – until something starts to happen with our work, a little shift towards something unexpected or difficult to explain. And we see that crack in the door and we start to push it open – remembering that maybe nobody has been through this door before so we don’t want to be distracted by other paths, easier paths, which may make us cock the whole thing up.

And behind that door there are things that make your heart sing, and paths that make us doubt ourselves and want to get back to an easier way. And then, while you are there, is this where you find creativity? Or does creativity find you – rewards you?

I am pretty sure that for me anyway, creativity is not something that can ever be understood, or taught or documented in a book. But what can be taught and written down is the way of thinking that can fuel the desire to open up that door and make your heart sing. I think that creativity has to be learned the hard way, on your own. It cannot be picked up and understood in a day, a week, a year. I don’t think that it can be captured, controlled or tamed. In my minds eye it comes to you when you are ready to receive it – when you are able to use it to create a new thing for you.

It’s sounds all very mysterious and a bit wanky doesn’t it? Well, I think when you deal with something that cannot be understood, then it cannot be understood for a good reason and words definitely cannot convey enough information or emotion to explain it. And I think that this is a good thing – so that each of us are visited by creativity in different ways, creating different things for our different reasons.