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4 Lessons in Creativity for Photographers


Creativity in any discipline is about finding new and original ideas. When they strike, creative thoughts seem to appear out of nowhere — light bulb moments. Sometimes it seems like creativity is something intangible that we can’t control. But are there ways you can nurture your own creativity? How can we better create the conditions for those moments of inspiration to strike?

In her 17-minute TED talk above, radio host Julie Burstein, an expert in creative thought, offers insight into how creativity grows out of everyday experiences. Her stories revolve around various creative disciplines, but her key four ‘lessons’ are ones that we can embrace as photographers.

Her full TED talk is worth watching, but in this post, we wanted to explore in-depth some of her key points and discuss how these may be applicable for photographers.

Photo by Riccardo Annandale

#1. Embrace everyday experience.

Modern life is full of distractions designed to take us away from the reality in front of us. Viewing images or reading articles of distant countries allow us to detach from our own reality. We become desensitized to our lives and what is right in front of us. Burstein strongly believes that creativity can come out of a break in the everyday.

Instead of looking for a means of escape from the mundane, sometimes it’s important to embrace our reality. Our experiences can change us if we take the time and pay attention to the world around us. It seems simple, but in fact, it is something we often overlook. Creative ideas are around us, but they are only revealed by looking in a different way.

Spanish photographer Ricardo Cases’ ‘El Porque La Naranjas’ (loosely translated as ‘The Reason of Oranges’) is a perfect example of how something so simple can be the catalyst for a dynamic creative photo project. Having moved to Levante to recover from a tragedy, he wanted to build a visual narrative about his new home. He used the region’s symbol of the orange as a starting point.

With that open brief in mind, he set about capturing obscure and almost absurd images of his new hometown. His playful use of color and light help create a unique visual narrative about a place. This required him to look in a different way at the ‘mundane’ objects he observed on his walks. Through re-framing, juxtaposition and color, the mundane comes to life in his photographs.

#2. Challenges, conditions, and restrictions can foster the most creative solutions

We always see challenges as something to be overcome. Yet, there is room to find creativity in situations like this. The trick, according to Burstein, is to embrace the challenge rather than fight it. Sometimes, what we perceive as difficulties or restrictions can become a unique way of seeing a situation. They prevent us from taking the well-trodden-path. Through embracing these restrictions, we have to adapt and learn from the situation. This challenge can act as a catalyst for more creative results. Working within certain parameters, be they geographical, thematic or technical, can lead you to discover different subject matter and new ways of working.

Doug Dubois’ photo project ‘My Last Day at 17’ is a perfect example of embracing challenges and restrictions for a more creative end result. Invited for a five-month residency at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Dubois admits that at the start, he had no idea how to make a photography project out of the small Irish town. A lack of progress led him to ask a group of kids to show him around their council estate, Russell Heights. This estate eventually became the focus of his photo series.

Still, at the beginning, he faced hostility from the community. This resulted in him returning each summer for five years until he gained acceptance. A compelling and complex set of photographs, the dialogue he built with this tight knit community shows through as a key part of the project. The title of the book itself ‘My last day at 17’ is a quote direct from Erin, one of the girls whose life he photographed.

The book ends with a transcription of an argument over the meaning of the image he shot with her. The integration of dialogue, along with comic illustrations from the teenager’s stories, results is a unique photo book. The honest portrayal of the tensions and emotions of coming of age shows the nuanced understanding he gained from the people whose lives he depicted. This would not have been possible without the initial challenges and the geographic restriction.

#3. We have to embrace our limits and make mistakes to find our true creative voice

Sometimes to find the areas in which we succeed, we also need to fail and embrace our mistakes. The best photographers will try everything and be willing to fail. Only through exploring all avenues, including the blind ones, can we find out more about our strengths and our weaknesses. It is in the moments where we push up against our own limits that we embrace our creative potential. Sometimes we surpass our own limits, and sometimes they are what we expect – limits. Mistakes are key on the journey to finding out what you’re good at. Mistakes help you to step out of your comfort zone and explore different results – both good and bad.

A photographer who embraces this lesson is Keith Carter, whose ethereal style is the result of experimenting with the imperfections of the process. At the start, Carter was working with a traditional documentary style of photography. It was a ‘mistake’ which he attributes to opening a whole new world for his photography practice. He muses that all the elements that made his image ‘fireflies’ an imperfect photograph (such as the lack of focus) were what gave it a poetic ambiguity, and which drew people to it time and time again. This image, along with life-saving melanoma operation which deteriorated his vision, sparked a more experimental approach to creating prints.

Through the use of silver gelatin, Carter experiments with adding manual textures to his documentary images. In his own words “most of these were not successful, but every now and then one good thing came out”. In this way, through embracing his own weakness and imperfections he started a process which resulted in the emotive body of work he is now known for.

#4. Embrace loss

Embracing loss means standing in that space between what we see in the world and what we hope for. This void in between is something educator Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap”. He labels it tragic not because it’s sad, but because it’s inevitable. This can come in the form of loss, rejection, heartache, disaster among many things. We have all experienced loss and grief. But sometimes in the darkest hour, this tension can lead to something beautiful. Creative pursuits can be a way of understanding, processing and responding to loss.

Within her talk, Burstein highlights the work of influential street photographer Joel Meyerowitz. One of the revolutionizing forces in New York street photography, Meyerowitz embraced this ‘tragic gap’. Visible from his studio, the World Trade Centre was the subject of many of his photographs. In the devastating events of 9/11, he captured some of the most powerful images of the aftermath. The loss he felt not only for the building itself as a subject but the grief for America, drove him to create his now iconic images.

In an interview, he discusses how the chaos, brutality, and tragedy of the site made him feel compelled to capture it in photos. It was a tragic sense of urgency and the need for a record which inspired ‘Aftermath’. The loss fuelled him to create images that were powerful, true, and yet still beautiful.


While not only intended for photographers, it’s clear that Burstein’s messages of creativity are themes that also underpin the work of many great photographers. Sometimes letting go of the process and responding to what’s around you can reignite your creativity. Through embracing these four lessons as we deal with day to day life, we lay the groundwork to let our creativity flourish.

About the author: Isabel Lea is a writer for Intrepid Exposures, a company that specializes in photography tours and training. This article was also published here.