If I were to summarise the questions I get asked about my photography, “Where do you get your ideas from?” would probably be top of the list. It’s also the most difficult one to answer. The easiest explanation would probably be to describe the way I work to achieve inspiration and sustain the resultant ideas.
I don’t have any illusions about ideas being the result of divine inspiration, or that they represent a carefully thought out plan. Quite the opposite. Everything I create is fragmented. Some of the fragments are thought through and coherent – many others are not.
My stock photo production can be split into two categories. One category covers relatively banal everyday images which represent life as it happens – in the kitchen, at school, in a room, in the woods or in a playground. The second consists of conceptual images which illustrate more abstract topics and themes – madness, abuse, death, illiteracy, hydrophobia, growing up, the feeling of exclusion. Both are fun to produce, but my passion is definitely the latter. Both categories have large chunks of images that are related. In the first category it is quite obvious which. In the second it could be considered somewhat more subjective, and this is undoubtedly the result of the way in which I work.
When I set off on a photoshoot, there’s always a series of images that have been planned. Some very meticulously, right down to the minutest detail, such as what colour shirt to use, the hairstyles, the angle of the light, which flower and/or lamp to have in the background. Others are planned in outline only, where intuition during shooting must decide the rest. Although I always try to set aside some of the photo session for improvisation. At least one hour out of four is usually set aside. And when I look back at the hundreds of model hours I have used, I must admit that a large number of my personal favourites, and some of the bestsellers, are the ones that were created when things weren’t planned. I have pictures that cost the equivalent of 10 seconds of a model’s salary, just because I suddenly had an idea. I also have pictures that have cost a fortune to create but which are not particularly good. There is absolutely no direct relationship between cost and result.
But where do these ideas come from?
I naturally look at pictures. Every day. Hundreds of pictures from magazines, books and various photo communities like 1x, Flickr and Tumblr, and of course I often browse through the various stock photo archives in search of good ideas. Not to plagiarise – which is actually almost impossible when you’re talking about people. A new face or expression always gives a different twist to the picture, making it unique. Often it can merely be the fragment of an image that provides a good idea – the atmosphere, a certain light, something in the background, make-up or an interesting chair. The same is true with movies. I am pretty sure that many photographers will agree that they watch movies from a different angle. Again, you consider the use of light and shadows to create atmosphere – the dim light of a single lamppost, light and shadows in a railway tunnel, water running down a face, the effect of blurred focus and many other visual effects.
Important sources of inspiration. And at all times, one of my most important tools is always to hand: My notepad.
As soon as I get an idea, I write it down. No matter how abbreviated it may be. It needs to get out of your head and onto paper, so that the effort to remember it doesn’t block access to the brain for the next idea or modification of the one you have just had. And as soon as the next one comes – down on paper. And then you start the brainstorming. Don’t sort or argue for or against your ideas at this stage. Write them down – you can always sort them later and the process itself will provide the basis for even more ideas and refinement for those you’ve already had.
I always have a notepad in my inside pocket or my briefcase. And I always have a notepad beside my bed, in case I forget some of the ideas that come before falling asleep, or just when I wake up – or simply so that they don’t keep me awake. Not only photo ideas that end up on the pad – there are also notes about my programmes, articles and websites. It’s not important. They are all parts of the same scattered train of thought
Particularly when I am doing concept work I consciously brainstorm with myself. It could be a subject such as hydrophobia for example. I deliberately seat myself in front of the computer – often using Excel – and write down everything that comes to mind about the subject. All aspects which come to mind, such as lifebelts, bubbles, waves washing in, a hand on a pane of glass, revival, fishing and diving bell. Not in any order. After this, I can continue working with these elements and slowly ideas begin to crystallise as to what pictures would best illustrate the topic.
I really enjoy setting myself some goals – define some projects that need to be covered to a particular extent. Preferably projects which are very precise and difficult to illustrate. One of my current projects is to illustrate the 25 most common mental ailments, behavioural disorders and phobias with 20 photos each. This gives me the opportunity to brainstorm about psychoses, ADHD and hydrophobia, as mentioned above, and some fun challenges that I find interesting and inspiring to grapple with. Like for a long, long time.
Sometimes I turn the brainstorming around. This can be very conducive to the generation of ideas. I pluck some completely random item from the wardrobe and begin to consider what images could be produced with it and what those images could illustrate. I am a notorious collector. My props room and basement are filled to bursting. Obviously many of the props were originally acquired for a specific purpose and are waiting for me to find the next one. But there is also a lot of paraphernalia that was accumulated without any particular reason other than that I found them amusing and interesting, or perhaps had a vague idea of what they could be used for. It could be stuff from flea markets or supermarket bargain boxes, or bits I have left over from a raffle or some old junk I found in a second-hand shop, which I also regularly visit for the same reason. They have everything from antique books, old telephones, candleholders, toys and teddy bears to small arms and knight’s armour, skulls, rubber toys, tools, decorations, huge, rustic chests, dumbbells and worn-out skateboards. To fish an old picture frame or a little coloured bouncy ball from the wardrobe, and then consider how it can be used to produce images provides a lot of ideas which are then noted in the notepad.
Exactly the same applies to locations. I make a number of agreements for different locations for shooting, whether it be a totally unique room, a totally gloomy basement, a long naked corridor or an ultra-modern school. Again, it is inspiring to sit yourself down and brainstorm about what can be expressed with the available locale. Later this summer, for example, I will be shooting in a local supermarket, and I have obviously been doing the same exercise. Here, the setting will be used to illustrate things as diverse as shoplifting and robbery, binge shopping and little Louise, who has lost her mom and dad in the supermarket.
Last but not least, I should also mention the old chestnuts – the topics and situations that we can continue to cover over and again and each time get something new out of them. Here it is especially fun to work with people, and perhaps particularly children. You give different people the same props or ask them to pull a particular face. This produces widely different results which can all be useful in different ways. I have a number of pictures of practical situations with banal everyday events, produced with different variations, made with different models and which undoubtedly will often be repeated.
In the same way, there are situations and materials that, just by virtue of their unpredictable nature, are an eternal source of innovation. Bubbles are a prime example. You cannot control bubbles, and whether you make pictures with them in the studio or outside, you get so many variances of reflections, sizes, wind and sunshine, that you inevitably get very different pictures that can be used to tell many different histories. Combined with different lenses, light sources and environment, the variations from just this little prop are almost infinite.
Water is one of my favourite mediums – I find it totally fascinating. Water runs down a face, a back or a foot, drops hanging from a nose or eyelashes, or beads of water on the skin. Fully lit or in subdued lighting inside the studio or outside in nature. Water splashing in a puddle or dark water, or in a lake which conceals the mystery. Water from a hose, a shower, a bucket or simply water from above in great cascades or a light drizzle. And water sprayed out of a mouth, a water gun or the splash on impact in the pool. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of water and I am always inspired to create new images with water just by looking at some of my past work.
And then it’s out with the notepad again :-)