Finding inspiration, redux

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Following on from the earlier thoughts on making ‘good enough’ images getting ever harder with increased productivity – the flip side of the coin becomes a question of how we find sufficient inspiration to get over that activation energy threshold*. How do we firstly get inspired enough to get out the camera and attempt to produce something at all, and furthermore – produce something that will satisfy us. In reality, what needs to happen is we must find sufficient motivation to make us want to answer the question of ‘how will the finished image look?’ There are several ways of doing this, I think. And hopefully – if you’ve been on hiatus or feeling photographically jaded, this might help get the camera out again.

*I promise one day I’ll write that long-delayed article on physics and photography.

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Finding inspiration, or the lack of it

We’re all familiar with the feeling: sometimes you go to a place or an event and there’s just no end to the photographic opportunities you see. At other times, life is an artistic desert: there’s just nothing inspiring you to shoot at all, and all subjects are too familiar, too uninteresting, or just plain flat and boring.

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Shadow crossing. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

I thought of the idea for this article on a recent business trip to Bangkok (last month). Ostensibly, I was there for a conference but did have some down time between sessions, some of which was spent socializing with my group, some of which was spent trying to shoot.

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Untitled. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

Bangkok is familiar ground for me. I worked there (in something non-photographic) for just over a year in 2006, right up until the first round of protests against the government. The photojournalist in me wishes I’d been stationed there during the action, but the rest of me is happy that I didn’t have to do my day job with everything severely disrupted. During that year, I did find things to shoot, but looking back I realize that most of it was social – there was very little documentary photography or travel photojournalism going on.

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More traffic. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

I put that down to two things: it really isn’t a city made for walking; it’s too big, for one; the climate is too hot to spend much time outdoors, for two; and the public spaces are predominantly malls and shopping complexes, with the exception of the 500 various temples and shrines that dot the city. It’s also a concrete jungle, with overpasses and highways and monorail lines arcing high overhead even downtown. Unlike Tokyo, where there’s plenty of money left over for beautification, there is nothing of the sort in Bangkok – anything new becomes grey and grimy and coated with a layer of urban dust after not much time at all.

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Concrete jungle. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

The upshot of all this is that when walking, you feel like you’re in some sort of canyon – everybody who can afford to, drives. And there’s not really a lot of things you can do with people in cars, or trying to shoot from cars – except perhaps traffic.

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Interesting light, and yet more traffic. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

There is of course the adult entertainment industry, which does advertise on the streets (even if the transactions take place behind closed doors) – but that’s not something advisable to shoot casually, or without a local guide. I was told by a reliable source that there are a lot of underworld figures involved, and they don’t take too kindly to the seedier aspects of their business being documented. It is not something that interests me, in any case.

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The relentless pace of progress. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

So we return to the initial point of this article: there will be times when you’re stuck in a photographic or inspirational desert; it happens. But what can you do to get out of it?

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The monk. I was in Chinatown for this one; off my normal circuit but good enough to get something different. 2006. Nikon D2H, 80-200/2.8

1. The obvious thing to do would be to change location.

2. If you can’t do that, look specifically for things within your location that do interest you – I landed up doing a lot of abstract geometry and architecture – Bangkok does really have some nice buildings.

3. Change something in the mechanics of how you shoot: in other words, run an experiment. Reality is that something different will increase your chances of wanting to get out and shoot – it could be forcing yourself to work with maximal or minimal depth of field; getting a new piece of equipment, or using one that’s been neglected for a while; or simply trying to replicate a different style or trying a new idea. It’s because it forces you to change the way you perceive the world (or the world through the viewfinder) – which in turn makes you have to consciously focus on looking for shots or adjusting your composition to make it work; you can’t just run on autopilot anymore.

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Zap. Through the office windows, long exposure. 2006. Nikon D80, 17-55/2.8

And this is where a modicum of self-reflection and assessment is useful: I didn’t change anything, but in hindsight I realized I should have, which is the genesis of this article. I did initially go with only one lens in an unfamiliar and un-intuitive – to me, anyway – focal length of 35mm; but I don’t think it was different enough to force the creativity out. I should have tried shooting with only my iPhone or something. Or perhaps painting the camera pink, just to disarm the public to provoke some interesting reactions from street photography subjects.

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The embarrassment of gluttony. 2006. Nikon D50, Sigma 30/1.4

By the opposite logic, it’s also worth making conscious observation of what does inspire you – what do your favorite subjects or images have in common? It might be one simple thing – I’m drawn to the mechanical intricacy of watches, for instance – or something much more complex; like the juxtaposition between man and environment; dramatic lighting; harmonious geometry – or a mix of all three.

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Seafood seller. 2006. Nikon D2H, Sigma 30/1.4

The underlying moral of the story is action: don’t wait until afterwards to change things, it might be too late. I’ll never know what shots I’ll have missed, but you can bet next time I won’t wait to find out. MT

Bonus points to those who noticed the difference between the first set of images in this series – shot this year with an M9-P – and the second set, from my first long stint in Bangkok, shot with various other equipment? Why is this? Many things have changed: location (different parts of the city), equipment, most of all, experience, and the benefit of a lot more experimentation in the intervening years.