How to Express Yourself as an Artist and Photographer

NYC, 2014
NYC, 2014

Continuing the lessons I’ve learned from “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”, I want to share some thoughts I’ve learned from Carol Bove, one and the artists and “tutors” from the book.

Carol expresses ideas on self-expression, what work means to her, time and information management, as well as uncensoring and finding yourself. I hope you enjoy these ideas:

1. On Work

If you live in an industrialized country or in the west, there always seems to be an unhealthy amount of obsession with “work”. Whenever we are not working, we feel like we are committing a cardinal sin. To not work is to be lazy, unmotivated, and a failure at life.

Work has also been tied into this idea of “busyness”. The more busy we are, the better we feel about ourselves. The more accomplished we feel about ourselves. The more “productive” we feel.

Think about it– whenever you have a conversation with your high-achieving friends, co-workers, or anyone random in the city and you ask them, “How are you doing?” what percentage of people say, “Oh, I’m crazy busy” (saying it with a badge of honor).

Not only that, but we see sleep as a disease to be cured– sleep is something that we don’t need. Think about all the energy drinks out there, caffeinated beverages, and “life hacks” which promise you how you can be more busy, more productive, on less sleep.

One of the concepts that Carol Bove shared in “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life” was how she stopped trying to use the word “work” and tried to substitute it with something more specific to the task at hand. She explains further below:

“I decided to stop using the word ‘work’ as an experiment. It was very difficult! I had to compensate by substituting a more specific description of the activity. For example, instead of ‘I’m going to my studio to work’, I’d have to say, ‘I’m going to clean the kitchen and fold some laundry.’ I discovered that the absence of the word ‘work’ forced me to reconsider assumptions about leisure, because the idea of work implied its opposite.

For example, when it comes to exercise, a lot of people say I’m going to go to the gym to “work out” (implying that exercise needs to be arduous, unpleasant, and “productive”). I have heard a better phrase to describe a workout: calling it a “practice”. So when you are the gym, don’t ask people, “How is your workout going?”– ask them, “How is your practice going?” A lot of people in Yoga also refer to their Yoga sessions as “practices”.

So when it comes to photography, don’t treat it like “work”. Don’t feel that your photography needs to be “productive” and that you need to put in the same amount of begrudging “work” as you would do in your job.

Rather, treat your photography like leisure. After all, aren’t you shooting photography because you enjoy it? You don’t want photography to just become more “work” because others expect you to do so.

Carol considers that in-fact, we should dissolve the boundaries between labor/leisure. Meaning, our labor should be our leisure:

“I let go of the notion that I deserved a certain amount of downtime from being productive or from being active. The labor/leisure dichotomy became uncoupled and then dissolved. I couldn’t use labor to allay guilt or self-punish or feel superior. Work didn’t exist, so all the psychological payoff of work for work’s sake had nowhere to go.”

Takeaway point:

I know on this blog I often write a lot of “should’s”. However I don’t mean to write what I write to force you into shooting or thinking in a certain way as a photographer.

Ultimately you should (dang it I said it again) photograph in a way that makes you happy, and in a way that makes you feel fulfilled creatively, emotionally, and spiritually.

Photography is something precious. Street photography is even more precious. It is an experience that is highly personal, deeply involved, and requires a lot of mental and physical effort from us.

But we shouldn’t treat our photography like work. We shouldn’t work in a way that feels incongruous to our own beliefs, morales, and manners.

Follow what your heart tells you, and disregard the rest.

*[I know I contradicted myself a lot by writing more “should’s” – but my main concept is not to listen to me, listen to yourself.]

2. Time and information management

Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource that we have in this world. The only real truth in the world is that sooner or later, we will all die.

We don’t own anything forever. Even our lives and our bodies are on “loan”.

Each day is a ticking clock, in which the numbers are going down, not up. No matter how rich, powerful, or successful we are, we can never add days of life. Sure we can buy more houses, more cars, have more 0’s in our bank account, but we can never buy more time.

Time is the ultimate resource that we own in life.

In Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” he writes how silly that we can be so stingy with our money, but too openly wasteful with our time:

You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

So know that as a human being, artist, and a photographer, be stingy with your time.

Most photographers I know who are well paid and have comfy lifestyles always complain that they never have enough time. What is the point of having all the riches in the world if you have no time to enjoy life?

I know that we all have different life circumstances. Some of us literally have to work 80+ hours a week just to pay the bills. But if you are just working extra hours in order to get a promotion, to earn more money, or to just kiss more ass in the office with your boss to look good (I used to do this), consider spending less time at work, and more time following your passion.

The less time you spend on the non-essentials, the more time you can spend on what is essential (creating your art through your photography). Carol Bove expands on the importance of time in “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”:

“Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument. Time is a part of what you’re made from. Emerson said, ’A man is what he thinks about all day long.’ Everything that you do and think about is going to be in your artwork. The computer-science idea ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies to artists. This is something to consider when you’re choosing your habitual activities.”

Also be sensitive in terms of the media that you let into your life.

For me, I try to embrace a “low-information diet” as Tim Ferriss encourages in his book: “The 4 Hour Workweek”. I don’t watch TV, don’t read/watch the news, don’t play games, don’t look at my Facebook newsfeed (I recommend downloading the “Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator” for Chrome), don’t look at Instagram (I found myself addicted to it, so I unfollowed everyone as an experiment).

Be extremely guarded in terms of the kind of information, stimuli, people, and ideas you let into your mind. I have personally found that my “media tolerance” is a lot lower than I thought.

If Emerson was right in saying, “A man is what he thinks about all day long”, I want only to think about things that matter to me: photography, philosophy, close friends, and family.

Carol Bove expands below:

“One question is, how do you create a way of being in the world that allows new things (ideas, information, people, places) into your life without letting everything in? I want to point out that your tolerance for media saturation might be lower than you realize. You need to conduct an open-ended search that doesn’t overwhelm you with information and at the same time doesn’t limit the search in a way that pre-determines your findings. That is a puzzle.”

Takeaway point:

I think it is always hard to “make” time in today’s “crazy-busy” world. After all, how can we add an hour to our days, when our days are already jam-packed?

I say take the opposite approach (what Nassim Taleb calls “via negativa” in his book ‘Antifragile’). The concept is this: rather than trying to add things to your schedule, try to figure out what to remove from your schedule. Removing things from your schedule will free up more time than trying to “add” free time.

So if you don’t have enough time to go out and shoot, think about what you can remove from your schedule to have more time to shoot?

Perhaps your morning workout takes you an hour to do. Maybe you can cut time out of your morning workout by just doing kettlebell swings at home (it takes me only about 10 minutes for an invigorating “practice”. Random side-note, I am currently following “Kettlebell Simple & Sinister” by Pavel).

Perhaps your commute to work takes too long. Maybe you can see if you can move closer to work (and perhaps pay more in rent) in order to free up an other 30 days (each way) to your day. Better yet, if you take public transportation, think about photographing people on the bus or subway (and do a “public transit” street photography series).

If you drive, perhaps take photos of other people stuck in traffic through your car window (be careful while doing this). Or my favorite if you want to be creative and are stuck in a car, listen to podcasts (I recommend “The Candid Frame”, a photography podcast by Ibarionex Perello).

If you watch TV, eliminate that from your diet. Perhaps use that time to go out and shoot, or look at photography books at home.

If you mindlessly kill time on social media to pass the time at work when you’re bored (I used to do this a lot), maybe use that time to critique & give other photographers feedback, study the magnumphotos.com website, or even take portraits of your co-workers for fun.

Don’t waste a minute of your life. Subtract the unnecessary, and you will add meaning and purpose to your life and photography.

3. Uncensoring

Have you ever been on the streets and you see an interesting scene, and you pause and not take the photograph because you tell yourself, “Oh no, don’t take that photograph. It is boring and cliche.”?

Uncensor yourself when it comes to shooting on the streets. Kill that little inner-critic that will make you fall into “paralysis by analysis”. When we’re out on the streets, let’s photograph what we find even minutely interesting. We can always edit out the photographs when we go home and look at them on the computer.

I think as an artist and a photographer, one of the most difficult things is to make yourself vulnerable. Once you release your art in the world, you are putting yourself in a way which makes you open to criticism, open to being judged, and open to being misinterpreted.

However at the end of the day, your art is your passion. Your art is your life. Your art is who you are as a human being. Don’t self-judge, self-criticize, or self-censor yourself.

Carol Bove shares her personal experiences censoring herself in “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”:

“The worst part about being back in school was making art and having to explain it at the same time. It made it impossible for me to feel safe when experimenting. As a consequence of profound self-doubt and insecurity, I was censoring what I really felt compelled to make, reasoning that since I was stupid, whatever I truly wanted to make would be stupid. I thought I would be better off faking it.”

Safety is important when it comes to creating art. If you feel too much self-doubt and insecurity, you will never find that place where you feel comfortable to make art in order to self-express yourself.

So think to yourself: are there any ways in which you self-censor your art and photography, because you are afraid of looking stupid? What do you really want to shoot in photography, and how do you want to shoot it?

Carol continues by sharing how she tried out an experiment of only creating art for herself, not for anyone else– knowing that she didn’t have the pressure to share it with anyone else:

“As soon as I got out of school, I was very curious to know what exactly it was that I was censoring, because the repression was so assiduous that I had absolutely no idea what it might be. I decided to try an experiment. I would make whatever I wanted for three months with the understanding that I would not show what I dredged up. Not to anyone. But I felt the need to discover my secret.”

I feel in photography with social media, we feel obliged to share everything online. But remember: just because you photographed something, doesn’t mean that you need to share it online. You can easily shoot it for yourself, and even print it out for yourself or publish it in a one-off book for yourself.

By not feeling that you always have to show others your work, you can find a place of comfort to thrive creatively.

Carol expands by sharing the importance of being patient and nonjudgemental with yourself and your art:

“I can tell you now, since a lot of time has passed, that I discovered I wanted to draw portraits of pretty women. It seemed dumb at first, but I was patient and nonjudgemental and just let my desire take me wherever it wanted to go, and that’s been my modus operandi ever since.”

When it comes to working on photography projects, they take a long time and the process is key. Know that as a photographer and artist, you don’t need to rush things. Everything arrives sooner or later. And art is about the journey, not the destination.

And the last piece of advice that Carol has? Have fun:

Creating a nonpurposive, free space in which to play and have fun is essential. You can tell when you’re looking at art that was a drag to make: it’s a drag to look at. On the other hand, it’s thrilling to watch someone work through a problem that’s exciting for him, even if the subject matter wouldn’t normally move you.”

Takeaway point:

Don’t self-censor yourself. Don’t self-doubt yourself.

Create an experiment where you photograph for 3 months, but intentionally not share the photographs with anybody. This will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders, and can help you create the type of art you truly want.

4. Finding yourself

The last lesson I learned from Carol Bove is that art is about finding yourself– who you are as a human being, how you interact with others in the world, and that art is ultimately about self-expression.

When we create art, Carol shares that it comes from our entire being:

Artwork comes from the total personality: ego, self, id, conscious and unconscious, transpersonal, linguistic and nonlinguistic, historically determined, sensual, emotional, physical, mental, ideological and cultural.”

To also make a body of work which is meaningful, we have to find out who we are psychologically:

“I believe that in order to make something that’s meaningful you have to start by figuring yourself out psychologically.”

A lot of photographers don’t know who they are as human beings, and therefore feel lost as artists. They don’t know how their work is unique, or how their work reflects who they are as a human being.

So before we should go soul-searching in our photography and art, perhaps we can first discover who we are as human beings.

Carol leaves us with this last idea on self-expression:

Artwork is self-expression, and clearly I’m talking about a notion of self that radiates far outside of one’s body or even one’s time.”

Takeaway point:

I think the best artists and photographers are the ones who create work that is a reflection of who they are, how they see the world, and the amount of courage they put into their work in making themselves vulnerable.

Remember as photographers, our images are more about ourselves, not about other people. I believe that every image we make is a self-portrait, and it reflects more of who we are, than the people we are photographing.

For example when it comes to street photography, you use your own inner-psychological world-views when looking and perceiving in the streets. If you are prone to anxiety, fear, and depression, you will probably see others in the streets with a similar disposition. If you are positive, optimistic, and friendly– you will also see that reality reflected by the people in the streets.

Everyone in terms of their personality is different, and there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to their worldview.

In order to better get a sense of who you are psychologically, I highly recommend taking the “Myers-Briggs” test, which gives you a blueprint of your personality. Of course this isn’t 100% comprehensive, but I think it does allow us to discover more of our inner-traits.

For example, according to the Myers-Briggs test, I am a “ESFP”. I am “extroverted” (I gain my energy being around other people), “sensory” (I prefer “practical” information), “feeling” (my emotions dictate more of my decision-making processes), and “perceptive” (I prefer a flexible lifestyle).

Based on knowing my personality, I know that when shooting street photography I prefer to interact with strangers and shoot “street portraits” (than merely candid shots), I love learning practical information when it comes to photography, the emotions in an image are the most important to me, and I don’t like structure when it comes to my life or shooting.

So maybe take the test for yourself, and see how your personality reflects your photography. See how you can make both match up, and perhaps even push yourself outside of your comfort zone (and try an approach in photography totally different from what you’re used to).

If you are interested in personality type tests, I also recommend the “Love Language Test”.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, being an artist and a photographer is about following your own path, not letting self-criticism get in the way, treating photography as your passion (not work), knowing who you are as a human being, and sharing your unique viewpoint with the rest of the world.

No matter your job or profession, if you are partaking in any creative act, you are an “artist”. An “artist” isn’t someone who lives a bohemian lifestyle, spends all days at cafe’s drawing sketches in a moleskine, or living in some warehouse artist colony.

Being an artist is a lifestyle– in which you pursue your true passion, and explore self-expression.

Live everyday like an artist, and look for the possibilities in your life, not your restrictions. The world is your oyster. Now go out and create art.

Recommended readings

If you want to learn more about being an artist (and balancing work+leisure), Carol Bove recommends these books:

  1. The Artist’s Way; A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
  2. The 4-Hour Workweek

I also recommend you to pick up a copy of “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”, one of the most interesting art books I have come across.

Read more on being an artist and photographer

Continuing my series “On Being an Artist and Photographer”, I recommend my other two prior posts:

  1. How to Succeed and Survive as a Photographer and Artist
  2. The Role of the Artist and Photographer
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