professional photographer magazine – column 7 – finding the space to be a photographer

First published in July 2014

I’m writing from our hotel room in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. Kristen is sitting in the next room reading and I can hear the sounds of men yelling downstairs, trying to sell fruit and vegetables to people walking past. The noisy traffic is rolling by at nearly an idle and the city is covered in a haze of smog. We haven’t got air conditioning in our room and the sweat and grime lingers on me from being outside a little earlier. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to be anywhere else right now.

finding space to be creative

We left Australia for our European adventure a little over a week ago. With around 120000 frames and 43 weddings all over Australia in the preceding 8 months, I felt utterly exhausted. In the weeks before our departure, I was still excited to photograph and to spend time with some great people but everything else on the business side (editing, blogging, admin, emails) were things that I just needed to get away from. Basically, the weekends were fine but the weekdays were difficult. I realised that I was slowly reaching my threshold, I had worked myself into the ground.

It’s actually kinda funny, Kristen is always telling me that I’m the kind of person that can never shut down. I’m so motivated by and enthusiastic about what I do that I find it hard to step away from my computer so this feeling of wanting to avoid it is somewhat foreign – but it’s the warning I needed. I assume most of you have heard the idiom about pain being a warning that your body is doing something it doesn’t want to do. What I was experiencing is pain in a different way so I needed to listen to the messages that were coming from my body. It’s important to trust the instincts that we have; they’re our automatic self-protection mechanisms.

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In order to be truly successful at something, you need to make sacrifices – you need to make time, find energy and to push yourself out of your comfort zone. And as wedding photographers, we do that every week. I know that I miss out on every single dinner, party or picnic I get invited to on a Saturday (and some Sundays) and the risk of injuring myself means I can no longer play football competitively. I’m away from Kristen weekend after weekend and she is sometimes stuck doing things by herself when we should be doing them together. After a while, I think it’s natural to start questioning whether all of the sacrifices are worth it. I am still learning about the work/life balance myself and I am pretty sure that I have gotten it a bit wrong in the last two years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining at all, I’m just saying that at some point, I needed to look after myself a little and I’m glad that I have this time away – it’s good for me, it’s good for my relationship and it’s also good for me as an artist. I also appreciate that I’m fortunate that I don’t need to work for 4 months a year and understand that not everyone is able to do that. But perhaps we can consider this being like the whole “put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help other people” thing. If you want to have the energy to run a successful business to support yourself and your family, you need to create good work and looking after yourself is the only way you can do that.

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The idea of renewal is something that I think that we all need to consider. It doesn’t matter how much you love something, eventually, with enough exposure, the excitement can wear off a little and it can start feeling like work. How many of us have lost the time to photograph for ourselves? It’s just what happens when you saturate your life with the work aspect of photography. And just like with people, distance makes the heart grow fonder – time away from “work” for yourself is essential to ensure long-term sustainability and happiness. You got into photography because you loved it and if you’re feeling frustrated or tired, a break from it will help that excitement come back.

Personal projects like a photo-a-day, or even a weekly self-portrait are great for me too. They challenge me and refresh me by letting me shoot things differently to what I normally do. I remember about 2 years ago, I went out in the evening with some friends and shot monochrome JPEGs at ISO20000 just to give myself some images that looked different to my usual stuff. And I was more excited by these images than I had been with anything else for a long time. Inspiration can come from strange places so don’t be scared to experiment or try something new – put on a different lens to usual, shoot film, restrict yourself to shooting with specific settings or try a different camera. You can even decide to put the camera away entirely and just read books and drink cups of tea for a week! Small things can make big differences but it’s up to you to figure out when you need to act. For Kristen and I, travel nourishes us and renews our excitement for photography and as such, whenever we get a chance to get away, we do so. This obviously doesn’t work for everyone so it’s important to figure out what it is that nurtures your heart and mind and when it’s time to do that nurturing.

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The artistic process of being a photographer isn’t particularly complementary with the regimented ways of running a photography business sometimes. But with a little self-care, the great work that you expect of yourself can keep flowing and you can keep working daily knowing that you’ll wake up tomorrow morning still as excited about photography as you were today. And that in itself is inspiration.