creative manifesto: cultivate boredom

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As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity.  I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me the other night – I couldn’t sleep – to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one. This week I’m going to look at the idea of cultivating boredom.

It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned this approach, but my recent trip to the New Forest really brought it home to me – visiting a new and lovely place rarely produces anything with which I’m particularly satisfied.  When I stopped and thought about it, my most interesting and original work (at least in my own eyes) has all been done in places that are so familiar to me that I’ve become quite bored with them.  Now intuitively this doesn’t seem right.  Surely it’s much easier to be inspired by beautiful or unusual places and things?  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  And certainly, places like that feel so much more inspiring and exciting.  But here’s the thing: you get so blinded by how lovely/interesting/exotic everything is that you’re no longer able to properly see it.

When every view is a ready-made picture postcard, it’s hard to see beyond that, and it actually becomes much more difficult to develop an individual ‘take’ on it.  But when you’ve been somewhere more than once, and you’ve seen all the obvious things to see there, you’re likely to become bored and a bit blasé about it no matter how lovely it all is.  At this point a little bit of magic can happen.

The ‘monkey mind’ (to borrow a Buddhist phrase) has a short attention span, doesn’t like being bored, and will do what it can to avoid it.  In terms of photography that means it will try to get you to go somewhere else that’s more immediately entertaining, or it will make you give up because ‘there’s nothing here’ – however it goes about things, it will do whatever it can to get you to present it with something that contains more novelty and excitement, or at the very least, it will get you to stop subjecting it to what’s in front of it at the moment.  Mostly we don’t persevere beyond this point, and so we never see what can happen when we do.

If we don’t give in to our monkey mind’s demands for novelty and stimulation, it metaphorically goes off in a sulk and shuts down.  There will then be an interlude where we feel a kind of blankness, or boredom.  If we stick with it, at this point another part of our mind kicks in and it’s this part that holds our real creative power.  I can vouch for this, and I’ll give you some examples of what happens when you allow the boredom to happen.  I’ve often found myself in situations where, for various reasons, I’m pretty much stuck with what’s in front of me, and so I’ve been forced to persevere when I might not otherwise have done so.  I’ll give you some examples.

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The image at the top of the post, and the one immediately above, are part of a series I took of oily water in ditches.  I was out walking in a wet, grey day, in the vast, empty space of the Dee Estuary, feeling flat and bored (of course).  When I stopped fighting the boredom and allowed myself to feel it and accept it, I suddenly noticed the wonderful colours in the oil that polluted some of the drainage ditches.  I ended up taking many walks after that, specifically to photograph these, and developed a bit of an obsession with the whole thing.  Initially I saw small abstract landscapes in the oil pollution, like the one at the beginning of the post; subsequently I concentrated more on simple colour and shape – as in the image above.

Another grey day, drizzling, and I didn’t have time to go far from the house.  After taking some very dull shots of nothing very much and feeling fed up again, something made me look down and I saw some pretty blue flowers lying in the gutter.  This was the start of a whole series I called ‘Fallen’.  I started with blossom and then extended my range to include anything natural lying on a man-made surface, and even to this day I still take the occasional ‘Fallen’ shot if I see something I can’t resist.

Feather with red leaf

More recently, after taking so many walks round a small local lake that I was thoroughly bored with the whole thing, I started noticing patterns in water, and became quite fascinated with them. This is my obsession at the moment, and I’m not over it yet – it still seems to have plenty of mileage left in it.

Blue water, black lines

While one-off trips to lovely places have given me some nice ‘one-shot wonders’, getting bored has rewarded me with cohesive bodies of work that I feel have far more depth and personal meaning in them.  And as a little side note, if I can be said to have developed an individual voice at all, it has almost entirely come through these things that began with boredom.

‘But wait’, I hear you say – ‘are you saying that I shouldn’t go photographing anywhere appealing if I want to get creative?’  No, of course I’m not, and we all want to spend time in those lovely, visually stimulating places.  What you’ll find, however, is that if you’re in the habit of being able to discover something interesting in what seem like boring things, you’ll have developed a creative edge that will stand you in good stead when you find yourself somewhere lovely.  You’ll probably still have to get all the obvious, picture postcard shots out of the way first, but you’ll have trained yourself to come up with something far more individual eventually.  You do have to stay long enough in one place for this to happen, though – taking a couple of quick shots and moving on to the next great thing will rarely produce much that’s worthwhile.  And if you can come back again – the more times the better – you’ll see more and more each time.

So how can you apply this idea to your own photography?  Here are some suggestions, many of which you probably won’t like the sound of at all but which are guaranteed to get you seeing differently.

  • Photograph tarmac.  Yes, you heard right – start looking at tarmac (or whatever the ground is made of round your way – mud will do).  If you really don’t like tarmac, you can choose bricks, or perhaps paintwork or walls, although the latter two are beginning to get dangerously interesting.  Because tarmac is so intrinsically boring, you can fast track your creative mind to the surface by concentrating on it.  I’m not going to tell you what to look for, because that would defeat the object, but think in terms of things like lines, textures, colours, shapes.  Also what else can you see there? – is there a miniature landscape, or a face?  Remember times when, as a child, you saw pictures in the clouds – well, you can still do that thing.
  • Photograph something you find ugly, repellent, or dull.  If you don’t trust yourself to pick something you genuinely feel this way about, ask a friend/spouse/child to choose something for you.  Now work at finding something interesting about it.  This won’t be easy, and don’t expect to fall in love with your subject in the end – just try to come up with a few shots that you find interesting.  You might want to ask yourself what it is about this thing that you dislike so much?  How does it differ from the things you do like?  If nothing else, you’ll learn something about yourself.
  • Lock yourself and your camera in the bathroom for an hour.  I’ve actually used this technique with a group I once ran, and people were very surprised to find that their bathrooms were such interesting places.  Compared to tarmac, they’re absolutely fascinating.  You have to stay in there well beyond the point at which you think you’ve exhausted all the possibilities – believe me, you won’t have.  I was amazed what people managed to come up with.
  • Walk twenty steps and stop.  Leave your house, walk twenty steps in any direction, stop right there and find an interesting image.  Remember you can swivel round, crouch down, look up, zoom in, swing your camera around, or anything else you can think of, but you must stay in that spot till you’ve got something you like.  Now take another twenty steps and repeat, and another twenty, and so on.
  • Go to sleep with your camera by your bedside.  When you wake up, pick it up and see what you can do.  This is quite a good one, because first thing in the morning when you’re still half asleep your mind’s in a naturally more creative state.  You also have the advantage of taking your shots from quite a different perspective from usual – the world looks a lot different when you’re lying down in it.

Finally, these are actually a whole lot more fun than they sound!  If you can persevere through the initial boredom and frustration, you’re quite likely to find yourself in ‘flow’, really absorbed in what you’re doing, and actually quite excited about it.

There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.  G K Chesterton

Other resources

In a similar vein to my oilscapes above, William Miller made a whole series of lovely images from what was actually toxic waste in the Gowanus Canal.

How Boredom Benefits Creative Thought — article from FastCompany.com

Boredom Can be Good For You – article from Lifehack.org