In a recent interview, comedian Ricky Gervais talks about how the brain of a comedian is constantly whispering two opposite things:
Why’d you say THAT?!
And: I want to see what happens!
Needless to say, good comedy has the sharp bite of the uncensored thought - which carries with it the risk of offending someone or crashing in the desert of the un-funny.
This nugget describes a central struggle of all artists: how does one make fresh, exciting work that thrills and interests the audience (and yourself)? Working against our desire to do this is our innate, proven neurological predisposition towards weighing pain more heavily than reward. This phenomenon is known as “loss aversion,” the overwhelming desire to avoid anything that smacks of loss.And since anyone who has dared to make creative work has experienced reactions of indifference, scorn or unduly harsh criticism, we are forever battling our own desire to avoid the repetition of such painful critique. And that very self-preservation instinct is the enemy of real creativity.
My antidote to this risk-avoiding tendency is twofold: first, to create a safe, supportive environment in the classroom where risk tasking is encouraged, where effort is more important than the final outcome. Secondly, I ask students to do some digging and discover what thrills and terrifies them. If you can identify something that scares you or makes you uneasy, that’s as good a place as any to start exploring and taking photographs.
My Studio Practice 1 assignment this week is for students to identify and photograph something that is exotic to them. This needn’t be a trip to the circus; one person’s commonplace is the next person’s wildly exotic. It’s surprisingly easy to find subcultures and worlds lurking right under the surface of the familiar world, especially in New York City: a ballet school, a junkyard, a 5th Avenue nail salon, a mortician’s office, a West Village chess club, the chop shops of Willets Point, fresh frogs for sale in Chinatown - any place you would never go, half the produce section of your grocery store, people you would normally never meet or dare talk to. A camera is your gateway to a larger world!