I had an email from a photographer the other day, let’s call him Dave, detailing how his mojo has up and left.
He commented on how he ‘can’t be bothered to take his camera out any more’, it’s 'all the same old places, same old shots' and on top of that everything he was looking forward to had been cancelled this year.
In just a couple of paragraphs Dave eloquently summed up the feelings that lots of creatives are sharing with me at the moment.
I sense it too and nicknamed it Lockdown Lethargy. That feeling of being unable to get back to how it was, to tap back into the motivation and inspiration that seemed to be flowing not so very long ago. However, after a good few weeks of wobbles I do believe I’ve cracked it and am back on form again. Dave asked for my suggestions and mentioned that I might write about the dilemma in ‘one of my blogs’. So here it is. Just my thoughts, right or wrong, but you may be able to pick up a thread here that can give you a way ahead if you too are feeling that sense of ‘can’t be arsed-ness’!
Of course this isn’t a new problem, artists’ mojos have been abandoning them frequently ever since art became a thing. It’s quite the opposite of the call of the Muse, maybe it’s the Flight of the Muse. However, right now, as we are emerging from this state of lockdown it has become a monster and I don’t think it’ll go away of its own accord. We need to own the solution! We need to proactively do something about this.
I’m no psychologist, obviously, but I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with a psychotherapist recently and she confirmed that, at the moment, it’s a ‘thing’. And work needs to be done to come back from the dark place of insidious inactivity.
Have you heard of Stockholm Syndrome? I hadn’t. The phrase was coined after the kidnap and release of Patty Hirst, the daughter of a rich family who was held hostage. Apparently she eventually became enamoured with her captors and even joined them on an armed robbery.
Becoming attached to one’s kidnappers, prison guards or abusers is one of the side effects of becoming conditioned to the captive’s way of being. As the captors grant small mercies, perhaps letting up on abuse or providing the basic essentials of life the relationship becomes similar to a parent child one. The captive of course has to ask permission for even the most basic of human needs such as using the toilet, having a drink or even being allowed to sleep.
As time goes on the hapless victim can start to form a bond, become conditioned to the captivity and can even begin to prefer this life to the one they’ve been deprived of. This is what happened in the case of Patty Smith, and countless others who’ freedoms have been denied them. It’s as if the new way of being becomes the norm and replaces the real life.
Right, enough of this history / psychology stuff! What does this have to do with the Flight of the Muse, the mojo? Well, according to my psychotherapist friend, lots.
Related to Stockholm Syndrome is the impact a lack of freedom can have on our own view of reality. When we are confined, trapped and locked down we can eventually become confined, trapped and locked down mentally and emotionally too. To use a modern phrase, this state of being becomes our ‘new normal’ and we can easily lose sight of how it once was. We can become attached to the situation, even as our rescued battery hens were attached to their cage and took days to venture out of the open door into the garden.
Reconnect with your Muse
I found it immensely helpful to discover that it’s actually not my fault, that there’s a cause and it’s recognised as a thing that needs to be addressed if we are to recover quickly. These weeks and months of restrictions are sufficient to embed a new pattern in our psyche, but we can reprogramme and replace this with a healthier way of being that also reconnects us with our Muse, and brings back our mojo.
First and foremost for me was the realisation that it was important that I stepped up and worked on this. I absolutely had to get back to my creative self because I was becoming moribund, lackadaisical and prone to procrastination. While I could focus on the ‘important’ tasks I was reticent to do anything that took any kind of motivation - sticking to a good diet, exercising properly, getting out and walking and of course, going out with my camera just for the sake of it. All the things that mattered for my quality of life were taking a back seat and I couldn’t allow that to continue.
I absolutely need to be creating, otherwise I become cranky. Julia Cameron mentioned in “The Artists Way” how an artist who’s not creating becomes a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at the slightest prod. And I could see that in myself. Talk about being irritable! It was insane.
Fulfilment, fun and freedom
Once I realised that I could not allow the situation to continue I became motivated to seek a way ahead, to return to my creative life once more. I revisited to the three tenets of my photography, my reasons for shooting and determined to find ways to get back to each one. For me these are fulfilment, fun and freedom. That’s what I want from my photography. I could be all worthy and say ‘there are stories in the world that it’s my responsibility to share’, that ‘art will save the world’ and similar platitudes, but at the end of the day I want my photography to give me fulfilment, fun and freedom. Selfish maybe, but honest and true.
So below are my suggestions. See what you think and please do share your thoughts in the comments below. Knowing there’s a community out there, many of whom feel the same way can be a big part of the solution. So touch in here, or in my Facebook group and get the support of the clan.
Yes this is another word that’s bandied about a lot and perhaps is just another word for ‘attitude’. It’s so easy to just sit back and accept this new normal. To let it have it’s way with us and slowly pervade so many aspects of our lives.
Revisit your reasons for photography
I suggest you revisit your reasons for taking up photography in the first place. Try to move your focus from the ‘can’t be botheredness’ to exploring why you bothered with photography in the first place. What was it about this particular craft that drew you in? When you could be bothered what did photography give you? You may well kick back at this suggestion but I advise writing it down. Folk don’t bang on about journaling for no good reason. It really can make a difference.
Maybe it’s an age thing with me, but I can ponder and muse on a topic like this till the cows come home, but after I’ve had a night’s sleep there’s a good chance that any connections, decisions and realisations will have fled with my dreams! At least if I have written my contemplations down I can revisit and build on them.
Ask yourself searching questions such as:
You can make these reasons as selfish and personal as necessary. We are not looking for high and mighty reasons. No, just your truth however self focused that may seem. Perhaps you liked the feeling of mastering the tech stuff, maybe you enjoyed the likes from social media, maybe you looked forward to the time out it gave you. However selfish it seems it’s important to nail your reasons here.
Get back into the Flow
These reasons are your key to getting back in the flow. Maybe like Dave, the closure of much of life has taken away your very subject matter. But you absolutely must turn this around in your head and get back to your creative path. Despite the cancellations and closures there’s still a whole world out there and we may just have to get over ourselves and switch things around for a while.
Sulking and digging our heels in will do us no good at all, so let’s look at stepping up and taking action. Determine that you are going to sort this and then put a plan in place. Attitude is everything. Take ownership of the solution rather than waiting for someone else to remove the problem. A bit of tough love there!
Know your Freedoms
Also, realise exactly what freedoms you now have. Deep down in the confusion of advice we’ve received there are some solid guidelines, rules even, that dictate what we cannot do, and more positively what we can do. Get to know what is possible rather than pondering on what’s currently lost.
Not many weeks ago everyone appeared to be policing everyone else with their own random set of rules. I mentioned in an email early in lockdown that I’d be taking my camera out with me on my once a day exercise walk in the valley behind our house and I got hauled over the coals by some photographers for not sticking to the spirit of the rules. I was adhering very closely to the rules! But I was not prepared to stick to their made up rules that were unnecessarily controlling their freedoms.
Find out where the boundaries really are and then feel free to go right up to the edge of them as you reclaim your creative life of freedom.
2. Establish a regular practice.
I mentioned putting a plan in place and for me this is a key element of my recovery. Once I’d reminded myself what I was missing I hatched a plan to get back on track. I suggest you do that too, even before you’ve decided what it is you’re going to do. Put some time aside for your creative recovery, even if it’s just ten minutes a day.
And if you’re not feeling like going out with your camera just yet then let yourself off the hook. The main thing is to reconnect with your Muse, your mojo, and break through any sense of inertia and lack of motivation.
Devise a regular creative practice for yourself and do your utmost to stick with it on a daily basis. This could be as simple as exploring online images of the kind that interest you, browsing through photobooks or examining the work of other photographers or artists in some other way.
Perhaps check through your own archives, repurpose some of your existing images, maybe develop them again with a different process. Catalogue your images, gather them together in sets, or ‘bodies of work’ to use the official term. There’s so much more to photography than the taking of the photos.
3. Make something
While you’re working with your archive why not step up and make something of your photos. There are probably billions of images languishing in the world of hard drives and clouds that really wish they could become something.
Explore the options open to you and set to work creating something tangible from a set of your images. A Blurb book, a handmade book, a boxed set of small prints, bookmarks, a calendar, an online gallery, a pop up exhibition in your home, a triptych, chap book, fridge magnet, set of cards… could you add more to this list? Brighten someone’s day by gifting them a set of your shots using one of the ideas below.
Bookmark * Contact Card * Self Published Book * Small Prints * Boxed Prints * Keepsakes * Hand Made Book * Mandalas * Memes * Downloadable eBook * Calendar * Chap Book * Fridge Magnet * Message Cards * Post Cards * Wall Art * Online Gallery *
You may well find that as soon as you decide to make something with your images your photography becomes more real again, and before you realise it you’ll be looking for topics you can shoot and exploring subjects that are available to you rather than focusing on what’s being denied to you.
4. Get yourself a project
I do tend to bang on about projects don’t I! Truth is though, they really do focus the mind on something more solid than just heading out to see what we can see. Get a project to work on, write about it, search your existing collection for suitable shots, get a picture list together to fill in the gaps, set a deadline, choose a final output for the work and then outline your schedule.
By working in this way you’ll have a goal, a todo list and a schedule to stick to which will prove very useful should motivation try to flee again.
List thirty potential topics
Begin your project work by devising a list of potential topics. This can be challenging but is an essential part of the process. See if you can force yourself to come up with 30 project topics. Do your best to make them narrow and definable rather than wide and woolly.
When I was restricted to shooting very locally on my morning walks I decided to shoot a handful of projects all based on the topic of Flow. The flow of the river, the blocks that hindered the flow, the patterns made by the flow of the water, the flow of paths through the valley, the flow of branches in the wind, the flow or roots down the steep banks, the flow of new leaves out of the spring twigs, the flow of clouds across the sky, shadows across the landscape, the flow of emerging flower petals.
That was ten projects that could all be done within five hundred yards of my home. I wouldn’t have chosen those topics if I’d been free to travel, but needs must and all that. These mini projects kept my hand in and gave me something to get my teeth into, even if rather tenuously at times.
So, build your list, choose a couple to work on now and get cracking. Take it seriously and the projects will begin to look after you.
5. Learn something new
If you’re bored with your photography perhaps it’s time to mix it up a bit. Is there a technique that intrigues you, or even challenges you? Do your research into it, chase links down on YouTube and put some practise in.
Are there post processing techniques that are baffling to you? Give them a go. Try your hand a split toning, monochrome work, emulating old processes such as cyanotype and sepia. Go deep with this until you gain mastery.
What about Intentional Camera Movement, Multiple Exposures or Long Exposure techniques? Or all three together as below! These might not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you commit to at least giving them a wholehearted trial your photography will develop in unexpected ways.
Yes, go on, challenge yourself to do something new.
6. Compile a Field Guide to your Creative Life.
This is something I’ve done this year and it keeps on repaying the effort allotted to it time and again. Often, it’s entirely possible for us to forget how to be, to lose track of what matters and just bumble along in life. If you have a Field Guide to your own creative life you will be able to refer to this and get back to who you choose to be. It might sound a bit daft but it really does work.
You can create your personal field guide in any way you like however I’ve made mine on my computer in a notebook programme. It’s already many pages deep and is becoming a reference source that I refer to often, as well as adding content to it on a weekly basis.
In my Field Guide I keep a list of places I want to shoot, along with photos, detailed plans, hopes and possible timelines. What began as a simple list is now developing into something much deeper as I give each location and subject a page or two of their own. By doing this I’m much more likely to follow through on at least some of them.
I also list websites of inspiring photographers, galleries and tutorials, these links give me somewhere to go when I’m feeling less than inspired. My Field Guide holds ideas for future projects, again written down in some detail. I also write out specific processes that I use both when shooting and processing.
Can you see how this Field Guide is becoming a resource of inspiration and guidance for me? Maybe you could benefit from your own too.
Yes, times are different, we can’t do what we normally would and while it’s right and appropriate to mourn this and feel the sense of grief it makes no sense to wallow in this pit of despair. We need to take responsibility for our own recovery, supported by whatever network we choose to attach ourselves to (my facebook group is just one of countless communities available out there), and just do this.
There’s a whole world of topics and subject matter for us to explore that may not be our number one choice, however by stepping up and keeping our creative connection with our Muse we will be able to reclaim the very real life benefits that drew us to the creative life in the first place.
Remind yourself what it’s all for, ring fence some regular time to establish a creative practice, proactively work up your plan and, in the words of Steven Pressfield: Do the Work If we let our inner resistance keep us in a stranglehold our whole life will suffer.
Sometimes it can be tough, and we need to be disciplined, (Pressfield penned another book entitled The War of Art) but as we begin to stick to our own plan to make things happen we can take back the ownership of our own fulfilment and find the joy and freedom of the creative life once again.
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Hi Jason, what a wonderfully expressed guide to moving out of lockdown!
My journey has been somewhat different but there are notable similarities especially in keeping getting out there with my camera, which started with Big Bertha, my trusty Canon 5Ds, but moved within a few weeks to just using my phone!
So, why do I photograph? I just have to! It's part of me.. I notice something, the view through my window blinds whilst lying on the floor, the resin dripping from a piece of of timber in the warm sun, the evening sky, devoid of con trails.
Next, having a project. During lockdown this wasn't a photographic one. It was building a Garden Room. This kept me outside, initially amongst the birdsong and also feeling the warm sun and getting plenty of light. I had to think creatively but in a different way – how to make joints and work out the order of construction rather than where to place myself and my camera and which aperture. I am sure you have mentioned doing something creative other than photography before. It has certainly worked for me.
I have started getting back to photography 'proper' and am planning long term projects as well as preparing for a new date for my exhibition that was postponed in June.
Hi John, thank you for your comments here. It’s so useful to have a ponder on our motives isn’t it. For me it helps to remind me what it’s all for. I do hope your show happens some time soon for you, I know how much thought, time and energy you’ve put into the project up to this point.