The Creativity Trap

If I had to choose one photographic buzzword that rang the loudest it would be “creative.” Just look on the Internet and a flood of “creatives, creative, create” and so on hit you. In other words, if you want to be a cool kid you just have to be creative. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept and everything that lurks behind it but let’s examine it further.

Unfortunately, even though we are all marching around proudly with the banner on our backs “I am creative,” I have the feeling that at the end of the day, what’s really left is just a piece of scratched out, empty paper. Don’t get anxious, I am not going to go negative here. I will try to explain my thinking with my own examples.

The first proviso is that my piece is related to photography – that’s what I do and it’s the area I feel comfortable talking about. Here are some definitions I found on the Dictionary website:

Creativity: relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

Creative: a person who is creative, typically in a professional context.

When I went to Wikipedia, things got even more interesting.  

Creativity: a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created.

Creative: a person who is paid to use their imaginative capital or creative craft skills to produce work in an advertising marketing communications or ancillary marketing services agency. Usually an art director, conceptualiser, copywriter or designer. 

In other words, Wikipedia is telling us that if you call yourself creative, you are most likely paid to sell other people’s products. Okay, Olaf, this is not funny! Let’s take a pleasanter variation and view creativity as “a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created.” I guess most of us would agree on this definition.

Let’s go back to photography. There is no question that we all want to be creative in our seeing. However, between labelling ourselves creative and being creative lies a long, treacherous, risky, twisty road which we don’t usually have the guts to take. Of course, it sounds great if I said to myself: Olaf you are going to go out on the streets of Vancouver and be creative in your photography. That’s the first trap.

I don’t consider just going out and taking photos as being creative. In fact, most of the time when I am walking around and shooting I am not being creative at all. It is not that I don’t want to be – quite the opposite! In fact, I am trying really, really hard!  

Stop right now, Olaf – it’s impossible to follow you. Let’s go back then to a definition of creativity: “a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created.”

One of the first things I do when I am back from my photography session (street or not) I look at my work and try to be honest about it. I ask myself: “Did I create something NEW, WELL-CRAFTED or/and SIMPLE?” Most of the time the answer is NO! Sure, I have some nice images. There is one photo of a hippie passer-by caught at the right moment in beautiful light. Then, sometimes it is street action, beautifully composed and delivered. On other occasion, it is a really cool, deep portrait of old man looking into the camera – strong capture for sure.

If I want to feel good about myself I could say: “Olaf you are so creative, you have done very well!” However, it would be a lie! I have seen thousands of iterations of such imagery, which in itself is not criticism. They are indeed very strong photos but this is not what creativity is all about. The problem is that you view the process of taking photos as already being creative, a mind-set which prevents you from trying new things.

This gets me to my second point. It is almost impossible to plan your trip, go and work on the project, have goals and be creative.

Again, what have you been smoking, Olaf?

In photography being creative means seeing something that no one has seen before, crafting a vision in a way no one has crafted it before and executing the image in a way no one has executed it before! However, in order to get THERE, you have to drop “project” “goal” “creative” or any other label and step into the unknown, risky, uncomfortable and different, which is something that cannot be planned or recognized right away.

”Conditions for creativity are to be puzzled; to concentrate; to accept conflict and tension; to be born every day; to feel a sense of self.” — Erich Fromm

Here is my point. The starting point of all the images that are creative, or in other words innovative, and at the same time well-crafted is FREEDOM AND CHAOS. It is a space, opening or mind-set FREE of everything you have known so far. This is why the most creative work I encounter comes from newcomers, young people who operate in one big white space as if they start seeing from zero (will feature some of them soon!).

The problem is that for photographers who have been doing this for a while, our internal space is so plush, balanced and sheltered that it prevents us from seeing anew. To paraphrase Iain McGilchrist: “The nature of creative seeing is to make space for things to see.”

A few weeks ago, someone left me a comment on my social media that went along these lines (don’t remember exactly): “your last few photos are so perfect, polished, simply stunning but…there is something in them that you have done before. You used to take more risks, turn everything upside down; it looks to me as though you are getting comfortable.” This was one of the most valuable comments I have received for a while. The sad part was that this person was right. He hit me just at the right time in the right spot!

Why am I sharing this with you? Here is how I try to think about creativity. If I look at everything I do as creative, I will not be able to see a NEW way of seeing, a NEW way of approaching things. This phenomenon happens very rarely and you usually realize after it happens, not before. It is so easy to miss this moment of roguery, this one opening when you do unusual things and call it creativity.

What’s your point, Olaf? Just taking photos doesn’t equate to being creative. It is a rare phenomenon that needs the right habitat – the less you label everything you do as creative, the more easily you will recognize that you did indeed pull off NEW, DIFFERENT and WELL-CRAFTED.

Erich Fromm said, “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties”this is exactly what I wish you, my friends, and myself.




2017 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved.



15 thoughts on “The Creativity Trap

  1. Dear Olaf, Thank you for your words. I “feel” when I make images. They are not your average photograph, and most people don’t know how to react to them. I was starting to think that there was something really wrong with the vision I have, but now, I don’t care. I have never fitted into a mould and I like it that way. For me the two words “What if” brings out my imagination more than “I’m going to be creative today”, ever will.
    Kindest regards

    1. Tracy,

      I always enjoy your perspective – so fresh and different. Thank you for sharing.

      Warm Regards,


  2. Hello Olaf,

    you wrote a strong article- a bit confusing however. I think that Tomash’s idea of dropping the whole idea of being creative is great. I think that sometimes, photographers think too much about everything.
    It all comes down to -as Tomash says- your instincts. As long as you feel comfortable with yourself and your photography, than you’re good. This needs no labling/branding.

    In my opinion, I am not an artist, photographer, street photographer or an alleged intellectual with a camera, I am just me. This is all that counts. This makes me unique without any labelling.

    Warmest regards,

    1. Kevin,

      You are right – this is one of the most confusing pieces I have ever written. I was even debating with myself if I should publish it or not. However, I found the subject very important and worth exploring. I guess the key idea I tried to convey in the article was the following; producing an unique body of work is very hard and it doesn’t happen often. There are certain conditions required to do just that and keep calling every moment “creative” could backfire. Some photographers sometimes have hard time recognizing what is REALLY “creative” what’s not. I see it all the time with my students. Of course, some people, Tomash included, have very strong ‘instinct’ and sense of design – therefore they can skip the entire idea all together. Others cannot produce great results relying only on their “instincts.”

      One thing for sure – this is a very stimulating and interesting conversation and I really appreciate that you shared your thoughts. Such a pleasure to have you here.

      Warm Regards,


  3. Olaf, again a lot of poetry in these images. Love them. Some of them make me think about Kandinsky.

    A question: for you, now, more visual creativity, implies going more into abstraction?

    Best regards

    1. Not necessary. I kind of anticipated such a question while choosing imagery for this post. The problem with creativity is that it has no boundaries. The key takeaway from this article is that we shouldn’t overuse the concept of creativity. If we call everything around ‘creative’ then what if we really get there?

      Thank yo so much Robert for your support.

  4. How about we drop the whole idea of “being creative” in its entirety? I tend to simply rely on my instincts, on my gut feeling. I don’t even think about if what I am doing is creative or not. I trust my eye and my instincts. That’s all. I let other people (only if they want to do it) to put any kinds of labels on my work.

    1. Tomash,

      I like your bold idea! I used to cherish the concept of creativity but now it has been so devaluated. Your “I trust my eye and my instincts” approach is the way to go, however, keep in mind that you are well established and self-reliant photographer – someone who follows his seeing. Unfortunately, some students I am working with are far from reaching this point. For them the idea of being creative is very appealing. The most daring challenge for them is to sort their work before they present it to the world. Such a great conversation. Thanks!!!



  5. Absolutely great article! Thank you so much Olaf. I have been pushing back again and again, telling my fellow photographers to stop calling themselves artists and to stop throwing around the word “creative” so much, as if we are all artists and we are all constantly being creative. This article nails it. Again, thank you!

Leave a Reply