What if? A story about being creative

That creativity is important in photography is a given. What’s not so clear, is where creativity comes from, where it sometimes disappears to, and how it can be nurtured and developed in those times when it’s sadly lacking. Candide McDonald gets to the root of photography’s most important question.

Creativity is a relentless fascination with the question, ‘what if?’ One of those ‘what ifs’ is invariably, ‘What if I’m not creative enough?’ And, perhaps more importantly, what can you do if you’re going through a ‘not-creative-enough’ period? Let’s start with a fundamental ‘what?’ What does it mean to be creative?

Couple In The Street, 2014, from the series, Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz. © Richard Tuschman.
The Potato Eaters, 2014, from the series, Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz. © Richard Tuschman.

Adelaide-based Gee Greenslade, AIPP Australian Illustrative Photographer of the Year (2015, 2016), says that being creative is “this deep need to stay childlike in how I see the world and react to it. It's about staying curious – if I see a thing, I want to try, I try it without question.”

Meanwhile, landscape photographer, Mel Sinclair says, “It’s like a friend that never left; a sidekick that has stuck with me through thick and thin in my life…always finding a way to make things interesting. It’s been a superpower that I have possessed, sometimes secret, other times exposed. It keeps me entertained, intrigued, and always curious.”

Tied to creativity is a drive to produce, a drive that begins with a proliferation of ideas, many of which remain inside a creative’s head. “The creative mind is more likely to be too cluttered up with a million different thoughts and ideas, rather than not enough - and it can be hard to pull things into focus,” portrait photographer, Kym Griffiths explains.

Be yourself, the world will adjust. © Angie Connell.
Be yourself, the world will adjust. © Angie Connell.

Creativity is not unfettered. For the commercial creative, it is limited by the constraints of a brief. Often the creative part of the job is to find the solution to a problem. At the very least, it is chained to a budget, a pre-existing idea, a defined objective, and the input of, sometimes many members of a project team. Artistic projects are freer, but that freedom has borders, one of which is the creative’s knowledge of their craft. Creativity manipulates its rules and conventions to create effect. To manipulate a rule or convention, you have to have a very finessed grasp of what it is.

The creative in business

That creativity is important to a photographer is a given. That it’s important to a photographer’s business is a truism as well. In fact, it’s essential, and not only because it’s the soul of the endeavour. “I can’t survive in my field without innovation,” Greenslade states. “No one comes to me and says, ‘I want a boring photograph.’ That’s insane. They come to me saying, ‘I want something super creative.’”

Pretend it’s real, 2016. © Gee Greenslade.
Pretend it’s real, 2016. © Gee Greenslade.

“I believe creativity is equally important in your business as it is in your artistic work,” adds Jerry Ghionis, who is regarded as one of the top wedding photographers in the world. “So many photographers focus only on creating beautiful images, but there is no point in being the most talented artist that is also starving. So, creativity has been very important in my work, but it has also been equally important in my business – in my marketing and in my branding.”

The creative source

The question, “Where does your creativity come from?” baffles most creatives. Lisa Saad answers it with an analogy – the story of van Gogh. In his early days as a painter, van Gogh was stifled. He was trying to emulate the creativity of his day, and this undertaking oppressed him. When he moved to a farm in the country, he became enchanted with nature. He realised that he could create whatever he wanted, however he wanted. He didn’t have to be like, or better than, any other artist. He then completed seventy paintings in seventy days. “You have to tap into yourself and find out what feels right to you, not base your work on how you think it should be,” Saad added.

Sports photographer, Delly Carr’s explanation is more complex. “I will state something that sounds really silly, but would you ever really get an answer that does make sense from a creative? For me, it comes within a corner in the brain, a vault that is filled to the max, but with a slow leak. With each drip, the chemistry of that creativity is different. This chemistry is influenced by all my senses – sight, sound, smell, touch – and when the mix is perfect within the environment and circumstance, then that is what helps you to be creative.”

The creativity of New Zealand-based portrait photographer Esther Bunning comes from creating in-camera. She has recently returned to working in camera, rather than in post. “I find it liberating and inspiring being open to whatever might come out of a particular technique or way of shooting. It means that I don’t over-think things,” she says. “The processes or lenses I use makes the results random, and I’m never entirely sure what I’m going to get. It’s where the magic really does happen.”

Oscar & Kylie, 2017. © Lisa Saad.
Oscar & Kylie, 2017. © Lisa Saad.

The creative dilemma

‘Can you make yourself more creative,’ is also a question that baffles creatives. A mind that’s always wondering, ‘what if?’ is never satisfied with what is. Ghionis has a personal mantra. It’s not uniquely his. And it’s often overlooked, which is a shame as it’s unfailingly powerful. It is, “You don’t have to be the best. You just have to be better than last week.” Ghionis says that he truly believes this. “Instead of comparing myself to what photographers around me are doing, I’m always trying to beat last week’s effort.”

New York-based Richard Tuschman says, “This is what I do to nurture my inner life, and the advice I give to students”. He also has a number of practical things that one can do to help the creative process. “Pay attention, surround yourself with images and objects you find beautiful, spend time alone, read fiction, take a walk,” he suggests. “…and one of my favourite quotes, by the great painter, Chuck Close, is, ‘Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.’”

The Potato Eaters, 2014, from the series, Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz. © Richard Tuschman.
Couple In The Street, 2014, from the series, Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz. © Richard Tuschman.

Melbourne-based conceptual pet photographer, Angie Connell thinks of her creativity as a muscle. So does Greenslade, who states, “You need to flex that fucker a lot before doing the seriously heavy lifting.” Connell’s personal exercise is to keep coming up with new ideas for images of her pet rabbit. “I’ve done quite a few now, and things are just now starting to get really creative... and harder,” she adds. Ghionis also has an exercise. “I always ask myself, ‘If the TV character, MacGyver, were a photographer, what would he do?’ and that often helps me to think outside the box in a creative way,” he reveals.

For Bunning, it’s about experimenting, with “gear, light, processes, kooky practices…whatever pushes your buttons”. She believes that the key is being open to ‘seeing’ more than what is visually in front of you, or what you have in your mind’s eye. “It’s about having an open mind, and not worrying about what’s popular or trending.”

The creative block

For every creative, the most fearsome barrier is creative block. Its sibling is creative rut and that’s a fearsome barrier to a photographer’s reputation – and therefore, business. Creative blocks and creative ruts happen. “The creative mind is more likely to be too cluttered up with a million different thoughts and ideas, rather than not enough - and it can be hard to pull things into focus,” Griffiths says.

Early morning moon raising at Nuga Nuga, close to Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland. © Jannick Clausen.
Early morning moon raising at Nuga Nuga, close to Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland. © Jannick Clausen.

When she’s stuck, or trying to come up with a new idea, Griffiths says that she likes to move away from all things digital. “Often, I pick up a sketchbook, get out of the office, and start to draw. I find the connection between pen and paper earths me. I’m not the greatest sketch artist, and my notes and drawings in my visual diary are generally only seen by me, but they start to form a collection of ideas and concepts I can look at and draw from.”

Ghionis uses competitions to reinvent himself year after year. “They force you to think differently on every shoot you do. Also, I believe strongly in setting aside time to create personal shoots for yourself. These past couple of years I have allowed regular time in my schedule to develop my personal work and it has allowed me to create something different and try new techniques, and just play. And that is where all of your best ideas often begin. It not only refreshes your creative heart, but it also breathes new life into your day-to-day work.”

Greenslade sometimes feels daunted by what she calls “following her curiosity”, and it’s “usually something to do with having a GIANT idea in mind that I can’t seem to work out how to make,” she says. “But I had a really great mentor, Geoffrey O'Donnell, who told me, "I’m never happier than when I’m the artist" - and with that in mind, I know that simply returning to doing something – even if it’s not the project at hand and regardless of its outcome – is better than psyching myself out over some big idea.” To conquer GIANT ideas, she has also taught herself to start small and break it down into small tasks.

Saad has found that her creativity has become more intuitive over time. “With more and more experience, it becomes easier to tap into your mind and get what you need. And that’s a good thing. You can’t tell a client, ‘Shut up while I get inside my head and work it out.’” She explains there’s no cap on your creativity. “Children, for example, are endlessly creative. They don’t worry about whether their creativity is right or wrong.”

To spur his creativity, landscape photographer Yannick Clausen goes bush. He has developed a circle of friends who are also photographers, and they take day trips or go camping for a few days – trips that are all about photography and the exchange of ideas. “It’s nice to go away and just concentrate on photography. To get to somewhere different, just shoot, and maybe try things that are a bit crazy,” he explains.

Blue Water. “A moment seen and shot within seconds of each other.” Jokulsarlon, Iceland. © Mel Sinclair.
Blue Water. “A moment seen and shot within seconds of each other.” Jokulsarlon, Iceland. © Mel Sinclair.

Apart from daydreaming more, Connell, uses her notebook. “I always carry around a little notebook in which I write down the ideas that randomly come to me when I’m not in a rut. When I am, I go back to that notebook and flesh out those ideas that I’ve already come up with a little more. That’s usually enough to get the juices going again.”

Creative inspiration

Nearly all of the photographers interviewed also draw inspiration from arts other than photography. If they’re feeling stale, they’ll explore art, films, books, or music. “I once bought a ukulele and spent six months not taking a single photograph,” Greenslade confesses. “It was the single best decision I made for my creative life,” she says. “Why? Because it gave me a chance to take a break from this thing that was kicking my ass a bit. I wrote a bunch of shitty angry songs about how much photography sucks. I raged against photography, then came back to it with fresh eyes. I had to tell photography how much it sucked before we could kiss and make up,” Greenslade says.

These days, everyone is exposed to thousands of creative ideas and executions every day. Being unique, one would think, is a challenge for any creative. That’s not the case for Tuschman, Sinclair, or Bunning. “We’re exposed to so much material that is cause for creating, to responding, and replying to all the issues that surround us. Living in such a technology-rich environment, we have many avenues in which to express our creative thoughts and get our messages across,” Sinclair explains.

“I don’t think it is difficult if you stay true to your own aesthetic, and vision,” Bunning adds. “There’s a famous quote, I’ve forgotten whose, about drawing inspiration from all sources, but putting your own spin or stamp on it to make it authentic. It’s never been easier to source creative ideas, direction, and inspiration from either other photographers, or the creative world at large – but I think the key is not to copy, but make something unique to you and what resonates with what you want to tell the world with your own imagery,” she says.

© Kym Griffith.
© Kym Griffiths.

It’s not the case for Griffiths either. “The Earth is huge and even now not every inch has been captured or explored. New creatures, places, and worlds are being discovered all the time. How can we possibly keep chanting that everything’s been done?” Griffith says that while an artist will draw from inspiration sources, past and present artists, and the creative imagery around us, we also draw from our own experiences, upbringing, education, bias, and opinion. “As a photographer, you quickly learn there are hundreds of viewpoints to every scene, each potentially capturing a different emotion or story,” she says. “There are thousands of different post production techniques in process and treatment, too, and that’s just a single capture, let alone once you start launching into mixed mediums, digital compositions and other art forms.”

A story about creativity can never end. It will have been written by a creative, who will never stop wondering, “What if?” This, undoubtedly, is both the greatest obstacle to, and the greatest catalyst for, creativity. If you want to be a happy and successful creative, and surely, these two must be interlinked, learn to turn on, and off, your what if?


Esther Bunning: www.estherbunningcreative.com
Delly Carr: www.sportsphotography.com.au
Jannick Clausen: www.clausen.com.au
Angie Connell: angieconnellphotography.com.au
Jerry Ghionis: www.jerryghionis.com
Gee Greenslade: www.geegreenslade.com
Kym Griffiths: kymgriffiths.com
Lisa Saad: www.lisasaad.com
Mel Sinclair: www.melsinclair.com.au