I remember the day the world stopped. It was on March 13th.
I was visiting my father at his riverside farm in Sparta, Tennessee. There, surrounded by the natural beauty of the Caney Fork River and farm-country Tennessee, the news broke. Safer at Home guidelines were issued by state and federal governments in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, and what began as a weekend visit to see my dad and do some hiking turned into a two-month-long quarantine in close quarters with family.
Suddenly, in the midst of a tsunami of troubling news and conflicting reports about the dangers of the SARS-CoV-2, I was given the strange gift of unstructured free time with no knowledge of how long it would last. Around the globe, society suddenly transformed. And a new normal was thrust upon us as suddenly as a wave breaking over a beach. Travel plans were canceled, photography tours postponed, and I found myself feeling as though my life’s trajectory had just run off a cliff.
As days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, I found myself struggling to make productive use of my time. Binge-watching baking shows, going fishing, and cooking elaborate dinners filled my day. Surely, there were a dozen more productive ways to fill my time, but I struggled to find the motivation. I’d sit down at my computer to work on my backlog of images, write an article, or just update my website, and I’d instead find myself clicking through news articles for hours. What I began to understand was that it wasn’t my motivation that was at fault; it was a creative block. My mind was completely preoccupied with coronavirus.
As I acclimated to the new normal of only leaving the house when absolutely necessary, to wearing a face mask and gloves at the grocery, to sanitizing everything and washing my hands like I was praying to the sink fifteen times a day, my desire to write about anything other than coronavirus was absent. Everything else just seemed irrelevant.
Initially, I was very hard on myself about my lack of productivity. Anxiety over the disease was replaced with anxiety over my own life and what I was doing to move forward during a pandemic! Such personal expectations proved unfruitful, even destructive. Recently, I’ve come to find a new perspective on creativity in the time of crisis, which is what this article is all about. I’ve always been a creative person, whether through photography, filmmaking, or writing. And, as fellow wildlife and landscape photographers, I know that you are creatives as well, which is why I am writing this article to you.
Firstly, this is not another article saying you should be writing your masterpiece novel or composing a symphony with your new-found free time. This is an acknowledgment that this crisis is not just a global issue; it is a personal one. We are all dealing with trauma in a myriad of ways, and putting pressure on yourself to reinvent yourself at this moment is not only unfair to yourself, but it is also possibly damaging to your psyche. Whether you are dealing with this disease on a personal level or adapting to the ripple effects being felt everywhere, we are all dealing with the fact that our society is undergoing a radical change that will continue to be felt for years to come.
Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer at The Huffington Post and a journalist reporting on psychology and mental health said in an article entitled Creativity in Times of Crisis, “What we know from history and psychology is that creativity and innovation arise in times of crisis. When our lives and our world undergo drastic changes, our minds change, too—often opening up to a new level of our own creative potential.”
But this happens at a different pace for everyone. For some, creative expression can provide a much-needed source of relief during a phase of crisis or great change. But for others, it can come later, even years later. Gregoire said in the same article, “This natural process happens over time. While overworking and productivity obsession is a sign of avoidance and denial, authentic creativity is just the opposite: an act of confronting and embracing our internal experience in whatever timing is natural and appropriate to us, whether it’s in the very moment of crisis or many years afterward.”
So, if you are like me, and finding yourself feeling creatively blocked, be patient with yourself. You are not alone. Creatives around the world are experiencing the same feelings of stress and lack of creative motivation.
Catherine Reitman, producer, writer, and actor from the hit series Workin’ Moms said in an interview with The Oprah Magazine, “There’s so much pressure right now to learn how to play an instrument, or write the next novel! Not only am I not capable of all those things, but it’s a stressful climate. I don’t find it creatively stimulating.”
Feeling blocked or uninspired right now is normal. But, no one wants to stay that way, and expression through art is one of the best tools we have for dealing with trauma. In Gregoire’s article, she says, “What explains this inner drive to create in the wake of loss? While there are many complex and highly individual factors, what it really comes down to is the meaning-making function of art. Art seeks to make sense of everything from our smallest sad moments to the most earth-shattering tragedies. It helps us to process and come to terms with the things in life that we can’t control and can’t really explain.”
But, enticing your creative spirit can take some work, especially in the midst of a crisis or a long period of dormancy. So, I’ve put together a few tools for you to consider when you’re ready to get those creative juices flowing again, but perhaps need a little boost to get going.
When many of us try to problem-solve, we get fixated on the big problem, or perhaps that big project. This can be detrimental during times of crisis or when dealing with great unknowns (like when will this pandemic end?!). Instead, pick a small project that is easier to wrap your head around. Fix that squeaky door. Finish editing that one pic. Write an email to a friend. For photographers, writers, or video makers, social media can be a great avenue to start making small creative accomplishments. Post those pics! Don’t be afraid. The payoff is not the number of likes, but the accomplishment of completing a photograph or post. It can be a great way to motivate creativity in a small format.
One of the strangest aspects of being under quarantine is the unstructured nature of our days. Many of us are used to schedules, meeting expectations of others, and generally have things to do. The lack of structure can be detrimental to creativity. You can provide yourself some structure by making a schedule for yourself to follow throughout the day. When making your schedule be sure to include some exercise and quiet time. Don’t feel the need to fill every minute of your day, and don’t give yourself deadlines. This isn’t a tool to make yourself feel more stressed, but just a general guideline for how to spend your day.
Take an Online Class or Workshop
For photographers, filmmakers, and writers, there is always something new to learn. And there are so many opportunities for learning new skills through online learning. Want to master Lightroom or Photoshop? Backcountry Journeys offers several online courses as well as free webinars for learning these skills. In addition to learning a new skill, an online class will use both of the first two tools as well, by introducing some structure and also requiring you to work on some small projects to learn new tools.
Talk to Other Creatives
This is a great time to reach out to other photographers and creatives and talk about the process. Whether it is through email, text message, or video call, talking to other creatives can be very helpful to inspire and motivate you. It is also a great time to talk to other photographers about great destinations so you can begin thinking about what that next great trip will be once it is safe to travel again.
Patience and Acceptance
Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. This pandemic will pass, and our lives will begin to resume some level of normalcy someday soon enough. If inspiration doesn’t come until much later, that is ok. That is your process and there’s nothing wrong with that.
For now, know that we are all in this together and that we all have our own ways of dealing with crisis and trauma. I cannot wait for this pandemic to be over someday and get back out in the field photographing our amazing world with other equally inspired photographers from around the world. Until then, hold fast and be good to yourself. I’ll see you in the field soon!
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com