64 : Energy Management
Energy management: it's a concept I've thought about a lot in my years as a glider pilot. My gliding instructor, with a newly minted physics degree in hand, viscerally instilled the idea of total energy in a system to the very core of my body in a way that abstract equations couldn't achieve in my grade 12 physics class. Numbers and formulas scribbled in graphite and chalk pale in comparison to sharp turns putting the horizon to 45 degrees off the front of my cockpit and repetitive spin recoveries losing hundreds of feet of altitude. Energy management means calculating the available kinetic energy, the energy from the object's forward motion, and the potential energy, the energy of an object because of its position relative to other objects, to determine the total energy in the system. Suddenly, I had a tangible reason to calculate if I had enough potential energy left to recover at the end of that spin—my very life depended on it.
I've spent the last few weeks recovering from yet another burnout. Abruptly my creative system ran out of energy. Except, it wasn't abrupt. I didn't need a physics degree to understand that the kinetic energy of my projects was consuming so much energy in my creative system that without an immediate replenishment to my potential energy reservoir, the glider that is my body was about to nose dive into the cold, hard ground. If I had taken the time to evaluate the total energy in my creative system, I could have avoided the burnout.
This post explores the idea of topping up the potential energy in our systems with the fuel of self-care. People often picture self-care as floating in a bubble bath or treating yourself to freshly washed sheets, but I've been considering the idea of self-care as it pertains to creatives. Throughout this post, I'll be speaking to my fellow photographers, but I hope the ideas and concepts can be easily applied to the lives of my artist and writer pals in other fields too.
Establish a workflow
It's become standard to complain about Mondays, but I have to admit that it's actually one of my favourite days of the week. I put on some soothing music, pour myself a massive cup of black tea, and spend a decent chunk of time with my agenda, establishing a workflow for the upcoming week. I fill my calendar with photo shoots and meetings, and my to-do list with things I need to get done at some point during the week. Purple is for my photography projects, blue for my organizing work, and orange for fun things in my personal life, the coloured schema helping me to see at a glance if I'm maintaining a balance between the different domains of my life. As I write down each task, I feel motivating energy take the space that was previously stress about forgetting to do the task. I zoom out from the agenda to look at the bigger picture of my week and carefully assess whether I'll have enough energy in my system to execute the projected work. If my to-do list for a given week gets too long, I bump items to a future week.
Establishing a workflow and schedule can help me to set boundaries between my work life and personal life. Setting defined work times can help me set boundaries so that endless edits don't bleed into other areas of my life. Setting healthy boundaries is a radical act of self-care. Taking care of easily done, practical to-do items on my list at the beginning of the week can help me to start the week with a clean mental state. Planning my workflow can also help me to have space planned between editing a project and delivering it to a client, giving me extra time to have a fresh set of eyes before I send out the final work.
Actively seek inspiration
I climb to the third floor and navigate to rows five and six. Here, surrounded by shelves of photography books created by some of the world's most accomplished photographers, I shift into a reflective headspace. I look at today's list of portrait photographers whose work I want to explore. As I pull their books from the shelves, I allow my fingers to linger over other interesting titles and take those ones with me too. Before I know it, I'm staggering under a pile of heavy books filled with portraits and landscapes from around our beautiful world. At first, the images float past my eyes and I just allow myself to soak it all in. Slowly, I shift to a more critical space. I like the composition of this shot. The lighting in this portrait is stunning. How did the photographer elicit that emotion from their subject? In the end, there are a few key images that become glued to the back of my eyeballs. This inspiration fuels energy into my own work and inspires me in the weeks to come as I try to incorporate these new tools into my own photography.
Before a wedding, I'll often do this same exercise digitally, exploring the Instagram feeds and blog posts of wedding photographers who inspire me. Each flick of my finger as I scroll through my Instagram feed gives a new opportunity to critically absorb images. Whenever I can, I make time to go to photo exhibitions. Seeing a collection of work on a theme in large physical prints fills the very core of my body with inspiration. When I leave a good photo exhibition, I'm electric with new ideas I want to explore. It's a huge jolt of potential energy to my creative reservoir. I also make time to dig into the footnotes of the photographers I admire—who inspires those who inspire me? My work as a photographer doesn't exist within a bubble, and the time that I take to actively seek inspiration feeds into my own creative work, increasing the potential energy in my system.
Get a portfolio critique
It may seem counter-intuitive, but I usually do this when I'm at a low in my confidence as a photographer, when I've fallen down that spiral staircase and all I can see are the gaps in my work and areas that I need to improve on. I message a trusted photography friend and ask for a constructive critique of my portfolio or a recent project. I want them to tear my portfolio apart or give me constructive criticism on a recent project. It's an incredibly intimate and potentially soul destroying conversation to have. But in these moments of vulnerability, my trusted friend will reach out a hand and help me to stand back up. Together we'll discuss my existing strengths as a photographer and identify ways I can improve my work, picking out new skills I can focus on to strengthen future projects. I consistently walk away from these conversations feeling re-energized about my existing work and full of ideas for the next project. The constructive critique flows renewed potential energy into my creative system.
Portfolio critique is also an exercise that I sometimes do by myself. I'll blow the dust off my old external hard drives and mine through old archives of photos. When I look at weddings I shot ten years ago or portraits that I took as little as three years ago, I realize how much I've changed and grown as a photographer. Looking at earlier work shows me that my shooting techniques are stronger as I elicit stronger emotions from my subjects and capture tighter compositions each year. I also see how my processing techniques have changed, with my photographic eye much more sharply attuned to light balance and exposure than before. This time of personal introspection is an act of self-care. Looking through old images, maybe I can put together a new series with old photographs that I didn't previously consider because of a new way I have of seeing the world.
Move your body
About a year after diving into freelance photography full time, I started to develop tendonitis in my shooting arm. A year of photographing and editing literally thousands of images, in addition to an obsessive use of my phone characteristic of the millennial generation, brought on this condition. It tooks consecutive days of throbbing pain and occasional numbness for me to finally tune into my body and recognize what was happening. If I was going to continue working as a photographer, I had to find some ways to adapt. I immediately moved my phone to my left pocket and started using my computer mouse with my left hand (which had a sharp learning curve leading to some hilarious facial expressions as I taught the muscles in my left hand how to deftly handle a mouse). But the right-hand centric nature of our society means very few camera models are available with left-hand shooting, and a large amount of my work will always require my right arm. Today I use regular stretches and strengthening exercises, coupled with the occasional professional massage, to mitigate the pain in my arm. It's amazing how much of a renewing effect simple stretches can have on the body.
With a tight deadline on the horizon, it can be hard for me to justify making time to exercise. But self-care means making time for myself even in the midst of a frantic month of projects. Incorporating moments of intense exercise in my life like long runs down city paths, brisk laps at the nearby pool, or midday yoga sessions in my living room can be great ways to clear the mind. I've found that I need to plan this kind of exercise into my weekly schedule or it won't happen. Carving out time for even a short walk between tasks can help me to come back to creative work with more potential energy.
Reconnect with nature
It was naive, but before becoming a full time freelance photographer, I never considered how seasonal the profession is. It now seems obvious that photography happens in summers, the perfect time for outdoor weddings and family photo sessions in the park. Summer sun brings tanned skin and rosy cheeks to my subjects for even basic portrait sessions. It's actually been one of the hardest things for me about this line of work because I live for summers. One of my absolute greatest joys in life is going to the park and lying on the grass on a hot summer day, dappled light coming in through the trees, dancing on my eyelids and warming my bare skin. It's a feeling of pure blissful magic.
Connecting with nature rejuvenates us, so making time to reconnect with nature is an act of self-care. This summer I'm determined to plan more adventures with friends and do those day hikes and bike trips I've been talking about for years. Unless I intentionally carve out this time outside, time in front of a computer editing photos will continue to dominate my summers. Equally, I want to be open to those impromptu moments where an intense change of weather can bring spontaneous connection with nature. Taking out my cross-country skis on that morning I wake up to six inches of fresh powder or going for a walk when a late afternoon storm threatens to soak me from head to toe are the moments that make me feel alive and fuel my energy reservoirs. These are the moments that make those long work days worth it.
Plan a meal schedule
If I put on good music and get into the right flow of edits, hours can pass without me noticing. Literally, hours. Then suddenly, I'll snap out of the creative zone and realize that I'm consumed with an incredible hunger. By this point I've used all of my creative energy for my photography, and I have absolutely zero headspace to consider something delicious and nutritious to feed my body.
I've found two solutions to resolve this now classic situation in my life. The first part involves meal planning. Once a week I'll sit down and sketch out the meals I'll eat in the coming week: breakfast, lunch, and supper. Each minute I spend planning for the week ahead is a minute I spend taking care of my future self. The biggest impact this has is that it means that once a week I put creative energy into my food life, leaving more creative space for my professional work in the rest of my week. It also means that I have the ingredients on hand when I need them, and I don't need to use my time making repeated trips to the grocery store. Part two of meal planning means having tasty and healthy food on hand: some fresh fruit in my fruit bowl, chilli leftovers in the freezer, and my favourite combination of rice crackers, hummus, and extra old cheddar available at all times. Anything to avoid heating up that frozen pizza or ordering another round of take out. Thank you, past Selena.
Explore other ways of being creative
I was at an art exhibit recently with a friend. When we got to a section of linocut prints, I couldn't stop raving about how much I love the art form, admiring the detailed yet abstract lines in the images. My friend made a simple comment, "Why don't you go to an art store and pick up a cheap linocut set? Then you can learn the basics and explore the art form, and see if it's something you might enjoy." This comment quite literally jolted me—I had never even considered it. I'm a photographer. But photography does not have to be my only creative outlet. Planning my balcony garden each spring, a night making zines with pals, or attending a macrame workshop in a local greenhouse are all ways that I can rejuvenate my creative system with added potential energy.
With my camera in hand, I can creatively explore the world in a way that is not professionally commodified. When I connect with the original reason of why I became a photographer—to visually share what I experience in my life with others—it recharges my potential energy for professional projects. It's an act of self-care when I make time to do personal projects and photograph the people around my life. For me a great way to disconnect from my professional work is use my film cameras for my personal projects.
Have a life outside your photography
I love being a photographer. I love that I can spend my days exploring the world through my lens. I love that I have a great deal of control over my daily schedule. And let's be honest, it's a great way to start interesting conversations at parties. But there are other things that are an important part of my identity and bring meaning to my life. I'm a valued member of a community organization that's doing important projects here in Montréal. I enjoy intense intellectual and political debates over beers with friends. Even though my family lives thousands of kilometers from me, I'm still able to provide them with emotional and practical support. If I stopped being a photographer tomorrow, it would be an adjustment, but it wouldn't completely destroy my sense of self because I have other things going on in my life; my entire identity isn't liquidated into the fact that I'm a photographer.
These ideas combine some of my own ideas with suggestions from my creative community. I'd love your feedback! Which new suggestion did you find most valuable? What things have you incorporated into your life to best care for yourself? Comment below or send me a message!
This Life by Selena Photography blog post about self-care for photographers, writers, artists, and other creatives was written by Montreal portrait photographer Selena Phillips-Boyle.