Inspiration and creativity in times of crisis

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There is a cliched saying “necessity is the mother of invention” – I’ve always felt this to be only partially true. Reality is probably closer to being that solutions are found in times of desperation when there is no other choice, but this is only possible if some latent seed of imagination exists in the first place. Without that, no amount of need is going to force an intelligent answer or inspiration to materialise. This is true whether it’s something as vital as escaping from captivity or saving a business in time of crisis or finding something to cook for the evening with the ingredients to hand or even just staving off the boredom of being confined under COVID lockdown. I think it’s probably both easier and harder to survive this period for those of us wired to be creative – on one hand, we have a surfeit of time to sit down and get on with it without the usual interruptions or social expectations, but on the other we also have not just limited resources but limited inspiration. As we’ve discussed previously – creativity isn’t something that can be switched on and off at will, nor is it something that operates in a vacuum. At one end, you have the inclination, resources and inspiration and something gets produced, or you are missing any one of those elements and you feel frustrated. Or – lack inclination entirely. The bit that concerns us most in the current global situation is probably the inspiration part. But maybe it isn’t entirely hopeless…

Much has already been written about what the lockdowns and travel restrictions mean for photographers: it ranges from business effectively being 100% dead and people filing for bankruptcy* as you can’t photograph if you can’t leave the house, to news gathering via drone**, to a lot of equipment businesses having massive sales just to keep the turnover and cashflow going. In short: there’s no denying it’s bad. Even the education business is getting hit as camera companies finally realise they’ll have to educate their customers as to why upgrades are needed and start putting out (often, poor) learning materials – but hey, it’s branded, and free. Amazon and co have started cutting commissions drastically as they get to critical mass and realise ‘reviewers’ and ‘influencers’ are of limited value – I’m surprised it took this long. Hell, even the watch news sites are attempting to ‘teach’ watch photography remotely – good luck, given how much of a role lighting plays and how sensitive the results are. Ironically, despite the massive diversification of the roles of the photographer in the last ten years, the fundamental core thing that holds consistent value is still the physical image making part: there is no shortcut to having a person there photographing your event/object to your specifications.

*In Malaysia, if you file for bankruptcy, you can’t get personal finance or even credit cards; you can’t be a company officer; and many companies will refuse to hire you outright. In short: you’re screwed. Little wonder that not many want to take the risk of entrepreneurship knowing the potential risks.

**Lots of this in the press recently, down to how conflicts in regulation both leave loopholes and allow for suppression of information; most notably photojournalist George Steinmetz’s recent run in with the police in NYC

I believe this means a couple of things for the image makers (I’m being specific here, as opposed to those peripherally involved in the photography ecosystem but not actually shooting): since the usual commercial content is not really being made now, we’ll likely see a resurgence in demand once all of this is over, balanced off by limitations introduced by the wider state of the global economy. Hard to say if this will result in net growth or not as on one hand businesses will need more promotion to get back on track, but they’ll also have less money to do so. It means that we’ve to do what we have to do to stay in business and keep ourselves sharp for the time being. It means focusing on the one thing that differentiates your service from everybody else: your ability to see.

Just because you can’t leave the house doesn’t mean you can’t work on your vision, though.

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Personally, I find myself gravitating towards three things in the last month. Firstly, and most quickly exhausted, there’s photographing what’s immediately around you in your home and whatever other areas are legally and immediately accessible. There’s also the photojournalist’s desire to document what’s going on in the wider context, but unless this is your job – please stay home. We don’t need to drag this out. You could document what’s going on in your immediate personal sphere, but I suspect that will have some limitations. A suggestion might be to take this one step further and try to find images that document one’s mental state every day – this is not so easy, but then problem solving, challenges, creativity and all that. As far as the mental state part goes – I wouldn’t be surprised if most creative people are also feeling a bit depressed, too. I know I am. (We’ve had some of the best weather in recent memory but no ability to go out and make the most of it.)

Secondly, there’s also the ability to look for inspiration beyond one’s usual circle – I discovered Google Culture that not only has virtual tours of a huge number of museums and galleries, but the ability to cross reference the digital collections and make your own, or say see all of the Monets available rather than the one or two that happen to be in the gallery you visit. This is interesting both because it’s not something physically possible, but also because you can see the creative evolution of the artist. I’ve also discovered movements and artists that I didn’t know existed, and whose work speaks to me at a level that I think might merit some experimentation once I can get out again. I’ve even been using some of these ideas in my recent virtual photography experiments with Gran Turismo Sport.

I suppose in this camp is also the temptation of cinema and Netflix – though to be honest I’ve only watched Netflix once during the last month, and found that for the most part it was a bit too passive for my liking. Watching a film for enjoyment or entertainment is very different to watching one for erudition and dissection; you generally don’t enjoy the latter as much because you’re not following the plot, or pausing and rewinding a lot to figure out how something was shot. With the former, your brain has a sort of suspension of disbelief to allow you to enjoy the entertainment.

But by far the biggest thing has been the uninterrupted time to work on creativity in other disciplines. For me at the moment that’s design; I’ve probably had the most productive period in a long time on the horological front. I’ve learned a lot of new CAD techniques and been able to try rendering things previously limited by computing power (a Mac Pro might also have shown up recently). My production director is a bit worried at the number of things on the board, and I actually need an additional board (though have no means to get one now). Realistically, there’s five years’ worth of product ready to go, and even though we were supposed to launch Design Language 2 this year – that’s now been revised given the cancellation of the industry shows we were supposed to debut at – I’m already finalising the next evolution beyond that. So, perhaps not everything is all bleak…boredom only exists if we allow it. Creativity is a solution around constraints. Those constraints may be a little different now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work around them. MT


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  1. Nicholas says:

    Appreciate your thoughts. Thank you Ming.

  2. Nicholas says:

    Hi Ming,

    Really love your insight “There is no shortcut to having a person there photographing your event/object to your specifications.”
    Thank you for that.

    With the competition high and the supply of freelance photographers ever increasing, coupled with a decreasing demand for “quality” commercial work, (especially after Covid-19 where clients are forced to create “passable” imagery themselves on their iPhones), I was wondering where you see the future of freelancers in professional photography.

    While customer service and style is key, already most clients in South East Asia will happily abuse agreements or push their luck. E.g Asking for urgent delivery in two days time or on-site renegotiation by adding more shots without offering to increase the quoted price.

    I think this abuse will worsen as most freelancers will have their backs against the wall. With dwindling marketing budgets after Covid-19, I also fear having a unique “style” may not be enough to justify the client hiring us.

    I’m sure some will have tried to pivot to other skill sets like videography, or cut-price content creation. But short of changing careers into Tech or other fields, it seems like a pessimistic future for service based professions like photography. Was wondering if you see much hope left.

    Or will it be an all out survival of the fittest mode for all freelancers, established photo studios and the like.

    • Could go one of two ways. There’ll be a lot of attrition in the immediate future, and perhaps enough demand left to sustain those that survive; whether it ever reaches the peak of content creation (much less balance between creation-economic value/sustainability) is another question entirely. The inability to travel is going to render a lot of things impossible, for starters. There is no question I can’t do what I used to – 95% of my photographic clients outside the country – pre-COVID. But I think there’s no question the industry was already changing beforehand, between oversupply on the creative side, increasing disposability on the client side and general technical stagnation affecting the consumer side; it’s one of the reasons I diversified across the industry and subsequently out of photography. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want it to be my only form of income right now.

  3. Great reading I appreciate your tip for google culture

  4. “necessity is the mother of invention” may have been more adapt maybe a hundred years ago…..

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