The Art of Overcoming a Creative Block as a Photographer

The Art of Overcoming a Creative Block as a Photographer

What if you woke up one morning and found yourself unable to come up with any good ideas on what to shoot next? You spend the entire day scouring the web, reading books, or talking to people and yet you still can’t come up with anything good? You’re so desperate, in the end, you just grab the camera and start shooting, but nothing good comes from it. Everything you shoot feels like it's only halfway there and doesn’t quite meet the standards of your photography or that of your peers. This happens to all of us, and before you think this is just another guide to getting you out of this rut — it isn’t.  

Years ago when I still studied photography, I discovered the surrealist paintings of Dali and ventured down the rabbit hole to discover photographers that came up with similar surrealistic images. These images were all created in the darkroom, or in later years, in Photoshop. 

This discovery eventually led me to come up with a concept of replacing hands with faces in a series of images. I loved the surrealistic look the images had. Hands can be quite expressive, but what if you really messed with the viewer’s mind and turned his/her world upside down. By leading the viewer into your dream world, you force them to ask questions or perhaps answer a few? 

So after a night of binge-watching old movies such as "The Cell," "Se7en," and "Fight Club" amongst others, I finally found a concept I wanted to pursue. By loosely basing the concept on the Seven Deadly Sins I went about creating my series of images. My lecturers were stunned. My parents shocked and my friends suddenly became increasingly distant... Probably due to my poor Photoshop skills at the time. Bad Photoshop skills aside, this made me realize back then, ten years ago, that photography could carry across a message and meaning. Why not utilize it? 

To this day, those are some of my personal favorite images, not because of how they look, but because of what I went through to achieve the look, feel, and the thought I wanted to carry across. It also made me feel a little victorious for getting myself unstuck again. Each image took me about two days to create from concept to birth. We all have those images we look back on and think, “Wow, I wish I could recreate them, or create something like them — but better.” We are all a tiny bit narcissistic when it comes to our craft. 

However, this has been the formation of my creative block over ten years. I often look back at those images, thinking I’m sure if I just pick up my camera again and shoot, I could achieve something similar, if not better. But no matter how much you try, you never achieve in creating the same impactful images again. I’ve gone through my normal ritual of listening to some of my favorite music after watching a really terrifying thriller while having a glass of wine. We all have our methods, but somehow mine stopped working. So I decided to take a break. 

The break afforded me the clarity of mind I was looking for. After doing a lot of paid work, which didn’t offer a lot of creativity and spending some much needed time catching up with family and friends, I suddenly realized what I wanted to do again. I woke up with a rejuvenated lust for the photography life.

I wanted to shoot again. For myself. By removing myself completely from the realm of creating personal work that I loved, I focused on work that would bring bread to the table and while doing that, my mind became awash with thoughts and ideas. It lead to actively pursuing a concept for my next photo, and when I finally found the idea that I felt most comfortable with, the floodgates opened and ideas came pouring in. I guess sometimes we just need to remove ourselves from certain situations we find ourselves in order to achieve some level of clarity and thus, find our passion for creating again. 

So, I went ahead and poured myself a glass of wine, switched on the TV, and proceeded to binge-watch a few movies. After the movies ended, I felt ideas flowing. I saw pictures in my mind I liked and wanted to recreate. I knew I was halfway there, but not close enough to picking up the camera and shooting. No, I needed to do some research first. So I pressed play on a playlist I created years ago and listened to some of my favorite songs while I read up on the new concept I wanted to pursue. Hours later, I was ready. 

One of the things I found handy, was to carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. While watching the movie, I jotted down lines of dialogue that I liked, as well as ideas related to the movie I wanted to pursue. I did some research on the movie itself and found it leading down to a few more rabbit holes and eventually I had the whole image in my head. Finally, I was ready to pick up the camera and bring this concept to life. 

The great thing of finally overcoming that creative block is that once it’s gone, ideas are flowing freely and you’re no longer hampered to create. A whole new world seems to open up. You’re in your element. It all starts with letting go in the first place. 

I hate articles that always claim you can get rid of your creative block in ten easy steps. They never seem to work. In the end, what I found to work best was to distract myself from the problem up to the point where I completely forgot about it and then start over from scratch. Rediscovering old techniques and methods is probably one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. 

As I said in the beginning, this article is not meant to guide you out of your creative block. This article merely provides you some insight into someone else’s struggle and hopefully, you find some way out by reading this. 

How did you manage to overcome your creative block?

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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Dude, so good!

Thanks Paul!

Amazing work with that last image. I made an account just to post this message.

Wow thank you so much!