Toronto, 2015. Digital Ricoh GR and VSCO KODAK PORTRA 800 HC PRESET. Shot from a super low angle, which makes it surreal. Which way is up?

How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone in Art and Photography

Toronto, 2015
Toronto, 2015

I think one of the most exciting things about being an artist is following your curiosity, passion, and to pursue a life-long path of learning.

Continuing from my “Akademie x Lessons in Art and Life” series, here are some lessons I learned from the Raqs Media Collective in how you can constantly transform yourself through art, how to step outside of your comfort zone, and thrive in a life-long pursuit of learning:

1. Transforming yourself through art

As an artist, you are continuously re-inventing yourself. If you are diligent with your art, your thinking and worldview will always be changing and evolving.

The Raqs Media Collective shares their thoughts on this continuous state of flux as an artist:

Artists undertake to transform themselves continuously through their practices and throughout their working lives. For an artist, there can be no rigid separation between being someone and learning to become someone.”

Your “self” as an artist is a process— a journey.

But what drives us to continue to live artistic lives? Well, we are trying to fill in the gaps in terms of what we want to express about the world:

The reason for continuing to be an artist lies in an everyday rediscovery of what remains to be said, or done. Being an artist is no different from learning to become an artist. The process of rediscovery of what it is that he/she needs to do, transforms the artist on an everyday basis.”

Not only that, but our horizons are always expanding:

“The horizons of the artist’s self continuously expand to take in the incremental unraveling of what the artist still desires to transcribe upon his/her consciousness and the attention of the world.”

Takeaway point:

There are several points I want to tackle about art as a vehicle for self-transformation:

a) We are continuously transforming ourselves:

You are not the artist or the photographer you were a year ago. You have either consciously (or subconsciously) taken in other inspirations. You might have been influenced by other artists work that you have seen, films you have watched, photography books you have looked at, or museums you have visited.

For me, I also see my photography go through waves. When I first started photography and was deeply influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, I wanted to capture beautiful black-and-white candids of everyday life.

However as time went on, I started to become influenced by the work of Bruce Gilden, whose up-and-close and gritty style suited my social temperament.

When I started to shoot film and discover color, the work of Martin Parr, William Eggleston, and Stephen Shore had a deep influence on how I saw the world. I started to photograph more mundane scenes and objects, and made color the subject of my images.

I think this constant transformation of my worldviews and photography is exciting. And not only that, but I am starting to see all of these influences dove-tailing into one distinct “style” or “look” in my photography.

At the moment, I have tried to combine all three past “selves” into my work: I want to combine candid moments and expressions (Cartier-Bresson) of up-close subjects (Bruce Gilden), while shooting in color (Martin Parr).

So when it comes to constantly changing and transforming, don’t stop or impede the flow. Follow the river, and you will continue to transform yourself creatively and artistically.

b) We attempt to fill in the gaps:

One of the quotes from the Raqs Media Collective was this:

The reason for continuing to be an artist lies in an everyday rediscovery of what remains to be said, or done.”

As artists, we are trying to rediscover what remains to be said, or done. Therefore we look at all of the art and photography others are producing and we are asking ourselves, “What kind of photography or art haven’t I seen— and how can my work fill that gap?”

I do believe in art and photography “everything has been done before”. But there are still so many possibilities for you to fill in those gaps. There perhaps can be some different variations in which you can work on a photography project, or a different angle or approach.

You don’t have to work on a photograph project for the sake of being different. But when you are pursuing a photography project, think of how you can do it subtly differently than from those who have come before you. Think of what you can add to the conversation.

c) We rediscover ourselves through our art:

I do believe that art is a form of self-exploration and gives us the chance to “rediscover” ourselves.

When I am out shooting on the streets, I often don’t know why I am attracted to photographing certain scenes or people. But when I look at my images, I start to rediscover myself.

For example, lately I’ve been shooting a lot of up-close portraits of people on my Ricoh GR, with macro-mode, flash, and 28mm. I think this reminds me why I started street photography in the first place: I love and am fascinated and drawn to people and faces.

So I was able to re-discover this part of me: my love of humanity and human beings.

So how does your photography remind you who you are as a human being, and how you see the world uniquely as an artist?

d) Our horizons are always expanding:

I think one of the worst mentalities a photographer can have is thinking, “their best work is behind them”. Martin Parr sometimes says this about his own work tongue-in-cheek, which I find quite depressing.

Take the opposite approach: think that the best is yet to come in your photography and art.

Your horizons are constantly expanding, and your limits as an artist are limitless.

Continue to experiment, pave new ground, and search for new avenues for your art. Experiment with different cameras, different formats, different projects, and different areas. Travel, collaborate, and explore the world— and know that there are no limits for your creativity and art.

e) We want to transcribe our consciousness to the attention of the world:

As an artist, you ultimately have something unique you want to say. If you are a street photographer, you probably see the world from a unique perspective.

I think as street photographers, we are a unique breed of human beings. We are drawn to the beauty in the mundane, to interesting scenes and people, and connected to the thread of humanity.

So how do you etch your continuousness of what you see in your photography with the rest of the world?

Know that you are a unique individual, with a unique lens of the world, with a unique opinion. Don’t shy away from your subjective view of the world. Be proud of it, and share it openly and freely with others— whether that is through social media, through books, through exhibitions, zines, or prints.

2. Step outside of your comfort zone

I think as artists, it is important to have an “incubation” phase. During this phase, imagine yourself as a larvae in a cocoon. You just were born into the world, and you need that sense of safety to exist. When you begin to grow, then you can hatch from your cocoon, and then explore the world.

To use that analogy in art, you need an “incubation” phase in which you feel safe to experiment and explore in your creative vision. During this time, you don’t necessarily have a “style” or a “voice” yet. You have mentors (either real-life or virtual) in which you try to imitate their work (very much how renaissance painters followed an apprenticeship model).

Then when you feel safe and secure with your work, you can break away from your roots and origins, and try something radically different and new.

The Raqs Media Collective also shares this importance of knowing when to break out of your comfort zone, and to break out of your limits and boundaries:

“There soon comes a time when, as in the case of any boundary, any protective armature, the scaffolding reveals its property of limit, limiting and limitedness. This is the point when the scaffolding stops being a support and starts being an enclosure. At this point, it becomes necessary to separate the work from the emendations and annotations that have gathered around it in the course of its making. This is the time to let the work drop its armor.”

Takeaway point:

Art is about risk-taking. Art is taking a unique standpoint, and making yourself vulnerable. Whenever you make art, you will be judged. Not everyone will agree with your viewpoint or approach or how you see the world.

What you want to avoid as an artist is finding yourself in a comfort zone. Whenever you find yourself in a comfort zone, ask yourself, “Is this comfort zone helping me thrive artistically, or is it holding me back?”

Picasso had a similar practice— that whenever his work became too recognizable and routine, he broke out and tried out something totally radically different. Of course, this pissed off a lot of people — but this is what helped him stay healthy and creative his entire working life.

Don’t let your work and artistic endeavors close you in.

I know it is scary to leave that comfort zone. Personally I like having comfort as well. But I know if I want to take my work to the next level, I need to take more risks, new approaches, and push myself to become the best artist I possibly can be.

3. Dedicate yourself to a life-long pursuit of learning

What is the “best” way to constantly learn and evolve? The secret is to be an “autodidact” (someone who self-learns).

I think that knowledge, information, and education shouldn’t be spoon-fed to you in a school, classroom, or a teacher. Education should be a tool — as a guide for learning. But it shouldn’t be the only source.

Ultimately you want to shape and direct your own learning. This is the only way for you to follow your curiosity, and go down the rabbit hole of creativity.

The Raqs Media Collective shares this concept of being an autodidact below:

“Autodidacts manifest themselves by transforming their own curiosities. They turn themselves into magnets that attract new possibilities of thinking in the world.”

By following your curiosities, you can attract new ways of thinking and interacting with the world.

Not only that, but as an autodidact you push yourself beyond the normal conventions of knowing and thinking. By pursuing this path, your questions lead to more interesting questions:

“Since [autodidacts] are not already formed through a fealty to established knowledge, autodidacts find themselves at liberty to let their questions lead them beyond the boundaries of familiar ways of knowing and doing things. These trajectories inevitably orient themselves towards other queries. Questions may not always find answers, but they always beget more questions.”

Furthermore, constantly asking questions can lead and connect you to other creatives who also seek similar questions. By having collaborations with other communities, you can continue to expand and evolve your own thinking:

“The life of the autodidact’s mind constantly relays encounters between different victors of thought. This can open us up to a new way of imagining communities, as formed by questions and affinities. Communities need not to be seen as static formations constructed from given loyalties or lineages. Rather, following the autodidact’s lead, the gathering of people can be a precursor to a constant festivity of questioning and connecting.”

By constantly questioning and following your questioning, you start to understand your role and place in the world:

“Strangers come together through curiosity, echoing the way in which autodidacts produce clusters of thought from disparate sources. This can be seen as analogous to the way in which strangers form communities. An autodidact is drawn to a new form of thinking in the same way as strangers find people to talk to in a bar. Affinities, desires, curiosities and attractions produce the bonds that tie people together in cascading clusters. People learn the ways of being with each other, just as autodidacts teach themselves to think their place in the world.”

Takeaway point:

So how can you be more of an “autodidact” in your creative life?

Well first of all, never take anything at face value. Whatever you learn from teachers, classrooms, books, lectures — take it with a grain of salt.

Constantly question everything you learn or encounter. Think to yourself, “Can the opposite of this idea be true?

I also challenge you to question everything you read on this blog. Find the holes in my thinking, and rebel against the concepts I share on this blog.

Take and pick what you find interesting, and discard everything that doesn’t resonate with you.

Ultimately you want to curate your own artistic mind with ideas, thoughts, and concepts which resonate with you.

The great joy of being an autodidact is having creative freedom. You only pursue what you personally find interesting. You don’t need to follow a certain course or curriculum. You can jump around, and skip the parts you find boring.

I have another rule for myself: if I find an exhibition, an art book, a lecture, or anything boring at all— I immediately move on. Life is too short to be bored. Follow your natural sense of curiosity. Find and follow what you find truly enjoyable.

Don’t feel obliged to know the history of every single photographer that is famous. Only learn about the photographers you are personally interested in.

For example, in my “Learn from the Masters” series, I only research and write about photographers whose work I am personally interested in. Otherwise, I won’t put energy, emotion, and passion into the articles. And the reader is no fool— they can tell whether I am really passionate about something (or not).

Also when it comes to photography projects, I think the moment you find yourself bored or not enjoying it— you should reconsider your project, and perhaps even make the decision to finish the project, change it, or to simply move on.

Never stop learning. Never stop exploring artistically and creatively. Never settle.

Long live the autodidacts!

Recommended books on creativity & being an artist

In addition to the book: “Akademie x Lessons in Art and Life“, here are also some inspirational books on art and creativity:

  1. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
  2. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
  3. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind
  4. Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered
  5. The Artist’s Way; A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Read more on being an artist and photographer

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

  1. How to Have a Creative and Flexible Mind as an Artist and Photographer
  2. How to Express Yourself as an Artist and Photographer
  3. How to Succeed and Survive as a Photographer and Artist
  4. The Role of the Artist and Photographer