Scenes from an Existential Crisis

In Film, Inspiration
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Slumps. If you’ve been photographing for a while, you’ve probably experienced at least one.

scene from an existential crisis-2There’s the seasonal slump that usually comes on for me in February when the sky has been gray forever, weeks more of winter stretch out in front of me, and nothing looks interesting or feels photo-worthy. Seasonal slumps don’t require much more than patience. Eventually the sun returns, the slush melts, things bloom, and you and your camera get outside again into a brand new world.

Some slumps have nothing to do with photography. Life hits you hard and you. just. can’t. The camera is what you pick up to celebrate beauty and joy, and you’re not feeling either, so for a time, till you’re able to see those good things again, your camera gathers dust.

Then there’s the mother of all slumps. When this one hits you start asking yourself, why am I doing this photography thing? Where am I going with it, and why the heck am I sharing my pictures? What is the point? For me, this one is the toughest to move through, and I’ve kept company with them all.

scene from an existential crisis-3

Whatever the cause, when a slump sets in, I know if left to my own devices I could go without wanting to make a picture for a long while. And, here’s the irony. What I need most when I’m in a slump is to get myself out into the world, no matter the weather, or my mood and make some damned pictures. It’s the fastest cure for my slump, and the best way for me to shift perspective – both literally and figuratively.

scene from an existential crisis-5

I’ve got a bag of tricks I go to when I realize I’m knee-deep in a slump: shoot a roll of black and white to see differently; pop on a lensbaby or plastic lens to distort reality a bit; if I’ve been favoring a camera or lens, switch to my most opposite lens/camera combo; I usually shoot in the f2.8-8 range, so I’ll force myself to shoot at f22 for a day, or at least for a roll’s worth of images. What all of these tricks have in common is that they force my hand, and make me do something a bit uncomfortable and different with my camera, which, in turn, forces me to look and think differently. Usually these techniques are enough to help me slough off my slump, but this winter when a big kahuna of a killer slump descended upon me, I felt my usual methods weren’t going to be sufficient to shake it off.

scene from an existential crisis

One cold bright day I decided I needed to try something completely different. I went into the city with my favorite camera and film, and the willingness to sacrifice a roll’s worth of photos just to get shooting again. No pressure, no forced discomfort, instead the goal was to shut off my brain and quiet my inner critic. I walked through a neighborhood that I know inside and out, and let my intuition guide me around corners, and down alleys in search of light and shadow.

scene from an existential crisis-6

When the roll was finished, I had no idea what I had made, but when I saw my scans I realized that I’d allowed my subconscious to tell the story of my internal confusion. And that this story, just a messy tangle in my brain, became kind of visually interesting and coherent once I let it free. I cautiously shared a few images from the series, and to my great surprise others responded to the images as well. But even more surprisingly, by letting that confusion out of my brain and onto film, I released it.
Slump sorted.
scene from an existential crisis-4

How do you get through a slump? Please share your tried and true methods in the comments. It never hurts to have a few new tricks.

Keep your eyes wide open,
Debbie

19 Comments

  1. I am in love with these images, especially the line of newspaper containers. These are great suggestions. I usually force myself to shoot a roll, but I love the idea of adding a twist to that.

  2. Great post, Debbie! I love your images. I’ve grown to enjoy street photography more and more, and your remind me of the richness of subjects that can be found in the city.

  3. Love this! And that image with the newspaper containers is one of my all time favorites! I’ve switched lenses before, but I’ve never thought about mixing up my apertures. Off to adventure with that one!

  4. Oh such a wonderful post and fantastic words of wisdom too. I do so love these images and to get so many good ones in a roll is truly a great thing! Brava for getting through that slump!

    • I think it’s a conspiracy, Kirstin. Just when you’re at your lowest you get the best yield from a roll of film to keep you going. No promises about the rolls that follow.

  5. I think it’s pretty amazing how you managed to illustrate what goes on in one’s brain during a slump. These do exactly that.

    • I have come to see slumps as part of the process, Kim. Usually I end up better off on the far side of them, the slogging through, though, that is the tough part.

  6. I loved all of these. That last one, oy! so good. Words of wisdom I’ve needed to hear since I’ve been in a huge slump since I moved last October. I’ve picked up the camera a few times but not nearly enough.

    • The world misses your pictures, Sarah. Try something – anything – to get yourself shooting again, especially if you miss it!

  7. WOW !!! this Quote of yours really hits home for me:

    (Some slumps have nothing to do with photography. Life hits you hard and you. just. can’t. The camera is what you pick up to celebrate beauty and joy, and you’re not feeling either, so for a time, till you’re able to see those good things again, your camera gathers dust.)
    It brings tears to my eyes….. Thanks for writing this article Debbie:)

    • Thank you so much for letting me know that what I wrote effected you, Mony. I do hope that if you are sitting in darkness now, the light finds you soon.

  8. I needed to read this right now.
    I too love that line…. Some slumps have nothing to do with photography. Life hits you hard and you. just. can’t. The camera is what you pick up to celebrate beauty and joy, and you’re not feeling either, so for a time, till you’re able to see those good things again, your camera gathers dust.
    It spoke right to my heart! Thank you for this post!

  9. Wonderful Debbie! and that last photo is stunning! Yes, slumps totally do me in. I almost quit my daily photo project after last winter and then somehow I persevered and here I am over a year later. But I find that the more I shoot for a living, the more of a slump I descend into with my big camera. In fact, in early spring, when I had a big decision to make, I forced myself to give the news, then take Maj for a walk without the iphone. only the DSLR and to go for it and shoot images of Spring. It was the best walk in a long time! Thanks for sharing these words. I know I’ll be coming back to them when I need them most. xo

  10. I just might be in a creative slump at the moment. Granted, I’m still processing pictures and posting them, but I haven’t been TAKING pictures that spark the creative part of my brain. I’m sort-of on auto-pilot at the moment. I think it’s the 2nd flavor of slump you referred to, getting walloped by life and I’m still standing still waiting for the head-ringing to subside. I think I will take a few cues from your play book to see if I can un-slump myself soon. Thanks for sharing your tricks of the trade.

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