Chapter 3. ASSESSING: We increase our ability to learn
FIRST, HERE ARE TWO QUICK EXERCISES:
1. When you look back at all of the picture you have taken, close your eyes and come up with two words that describe your pictures or how you photograph.
2. Close your eyes and see the picture that you like the best. Bring it forward and try to study the details in your minds eye.
Built into photography is that we get the opportunity to relive moments and reflect upon the pictures we have taken. Details that we didn’t notice at the time become visible. Decisions that we made in a fraction of a second can be brought forward again and analyzed.
We have practiced being more present and more capable at making choices. We have come to the point where we can reflect over the results. What our thought processes and actions have led to are made visible through the picture. Often it is difficult to examine our own choices both in our pictures and in our everyday lives. It can be more constructive for us to get others to study our choices because they haven’t invested that much time and feelings into them. We are so eager to have our choices work and therefore we obstinately try to defend them even when we are off the mark.
Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others can be an ordeal. Never- theless, such a reality check is often useful. The Greeks said, “Know thy- self.” However, to do this we may need the help of the assessment made by others.
In our pictures, our efforts, courage and personality become visible. The photos provide an insight into the photographer’s mind. The best pictures express the unique impressions that we have stored in our brains. One of the biggest joys of holding a photography workshop is to be able to see how the participants’ personalities are mirrored in the pictures they have taken.
What you aim your camera at and which piece of reality you choose to capture sets you apart. As an individual you are probably more unique than you think you are. No one has exactly the same family, upbringing or personality as you do. Where you live, your home, your interests, the objects you surround yourself with and everything you have seen and experienced all make you unique. Let this be reflected in your photos! Ask yourself: ‘Who am I who is taking these photos, at this very location, under these conditions?’ Investigating into and reflecting upon this is possibly the biggest reward that comes from taking photographs. It makes us aware of the fleeting, valuable moments that continually pass by us in our lives. This process is an interactive one – you shape the pictures and the pictures shape you. It is an interplay that can lead you towards ever new insights and realizations. It is an eternal, existential project with a limit- less series of questions, such as Where am I in my life right now? Which choices have I made? What were the right ones? What choices could I have made differently? What do I regret? What am I proud of? What should I change?
What we most often regret are the mistakes that we didn’t learn any- thing from, and the challenges we didn’t dare taking on. The mistakes we have learned from, however, and the times we have taken a risk, are what we can be the proudest of.
Just as important as learing from mistakes, is learning from successes. In my workshops I can see that many people do not repeat the strategy that was successful the day before.
To see one’s own weaknesses and strengths is an art. Often we need the help of other people to be able to do it. Maybe we could occasio- nally summon friends to do a review of our lives and choices, the way that reviewing our pictures on a workshop is so helpful. Who in your circle of friends could give you advice?
We are not so good at dealing with negative criticism. Our mammalian brains become rattled and the stress hormone cortisol is released. We instinctively become defensive and therefore we can easily distance ours- elves from what the criticism is. That is too bad because criticism can often be useful even if it is painful. If you are extra vulnerable to criticism, then you should practice receiving it. I have learnt that those who needs advice the most are the same ones that fiercely resists it. On the other hand, what people who often succeed have in common is that they willingly seek criticism and are grateful for it. They use it to make corrections and progress in their lives. As photographers we become accustomed to exposing ourselves and our pictures to criticism. It is a little uncomfortable at times, but we develop a tolerance and appreciation for critical input that weaves into our lives. Therefore, use the opportunities that present themselves to show your pictures to other people. But at the same time remember that the formula for what is a good picture, or a good and meaningful life, is one that no one is in possession of.
We should seek to find a balance between encouraging ourselves and adjusting from critical feedback. When we give advice, we should look for what works rather than what fails. What we focus on tend to multiply, even if it is the outcome we try to avoid. When you ask for advice, find friendly, encouraging people, those who have your best interest in mind. Ask them what you should do more of to become better. In my opinion, encouragement beats negative criticism nine times out of ten.
Being critical to yourself and your choices can also be healthy, so long as it leads to improvement and not only discouragement. The reality-check can be tough, and the camera is merciless. It sees everything including what our eyes try to overlook.
However, as important it is to take a hard look at ourselves, it is equally important to have self-compassion despite discovering ”possibilities for improvement”. Those who are too hard on themselves tend to lose moti- vation and produce less work. So let us cheer ourselves on, accepting our flaws but still working to become better: Building confidence is the best way to improve your photographs and your life.
Finally, take a moment to reflect on what kind of a person you want to be in the future. Also think about what kind of positive impact you want to have on the people around you and society in general.
BOOK SUGGESTION: You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt
In 2004, my friend Sigurd Mikal and I went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. We walked 30 kilometers every day for a month. Our bodies got into better shape and our thoughts deepened. In 2010, we went on a pilgrimage again, this time from our front doors in Oslo and in the direction towards Nidaros. Both walks ended up being popular documentaries shown on TV by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). Many people were inspired to go on one themselves. This is perhaps my most important contribution to public health.
We as people are born to walk. One of the things I remember the best from a photo workshop in Ethiopia was all of the walking, smiling Ethiopians. They trotted effortlessly and easily over great distances. Our brains seem to be adapted to the amount of blood circulation that comes from walking. In our smallest blood vessels, the capillaries, red blood cells can pass only one at a time and these cells need a certain amount of pres- sure so as to be pushed through. Nutrients are delivered to the cells and waste materials collected. The head and body work better and the effects of it last long after we have taken off our shoes. At my office, I have lear- ned from my active, older patients how the will to walk can keep diseases at bay.
Thinking as a creative process has been used for centuries by many thinkers and creative souls, from Beethoven to Springsteen and Charles Dickens to Steve Jobs. Walking promotes well-being and growth. The rhythmic movement and increased blood circulation improve our thinking.
You don’t have to go far in order to shift into pilgrimage mode. The most important thing is to walk alone at a consistent speed. Give yourself a problem to think about during the journey and let thoughts related to it flow. If you have a notebook, then you can write them down.
Each time you have a small problem, go on a short walk! If the problem is a big one, go for a weekend. If you are caught up in a crisis in your life, go on a long-distance walk, such as to Santiago or Nidaros. Then, you will get to walk with many other people who have the same mission. When you go on a pilgrimage, you can solve the most difficult and complicated problems by doing the simplest act – going from one place to the next. You just have to walk long enough.
Try to walk at least half an hour a day; whether it is on the way to work or to an activity you do in your free time, it will be a good investment. Every single step adds an improvement to your health. Occasionally, try to go quickly, as if you were late in catching a flight or going to a meeting. Hit the ground and go! Walk quickly while still being able to talk but not sing.
Walking calmly is good for our thinking and walking quickly strengt- hens our hearts. If you pick up plastic trash along the way, then you are also helping the environment while at the same time bending over makes your more flexible.
BOOK SUGGESTION: In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara