A wonderful theory was recently brought to my attention and I share it with you because I believe the ideas presented set the foundation for a creative and fulfilling lifetime in photography. During a good discussion in one of my photography circles about personal work and finding your own vision in photography, someone referenced Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s Helsinki Bus Station Theory. The Helsinki what? I was intrigued.
Finnish-American photographer, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, gave a commencement speech at the New England School of
Photography in June 2004 and in that speech he introduced the graduating students to a bus station in Helsinki and his theory of how to be the caretakers of their vision. The bus station, according to Minkkinen, can be seen as a metaphor for creative continuity in a life-long journey in photography. The following is an excerpt from Minkkinen’s speech. Your bus is ready for boarding…
“Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Each bus takes the same route out of the city for a least a kilometer stopping at bus stop intervals along the way where the same numbers are again repeated: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Now let’s say, metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer, meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity.
Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21.
You take those three years of work on the nude to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on.
Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.
So you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.
This time you are going to make 8×10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane.
You spend three years at it and produce a series of works that illicit the same comment: haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8×10 camera view of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?
So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.
What to do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus.”1
It is simple. Stay on the bus! That’s great advice. It’s great advice if you are a graduate about to embark on a career in photography. It’s equally great advice if you are a hobbyist who simply finds joy in creative expression with a camera. Stay on the bus.
Cameras are everywhere these days. The sheer volume of images being made and shared daily is mind boggling. Social media and photography sharing sites can be great ways to connect with people who share a passion but they can also cause photographers to ring the bell, get off their bus and take a cab back to the station. If exposure to the photographs created and shared on a daily basis results in copying the work of other photographers and telling their stories instead of your own, you fall into a trap and never give yourself the chance to find your own voice. If you are to have a creative and fulfilling lifetime in photography I truly believe you must stay on your bus. In the early stages of our journey in photography we are greatly influenced (let’s be honest – most of us copy) the work of photographers we admire. As we gain experience and confidence and find our own creative voice we eventually leave the city center and end up on our own bus routes. That’s when we produce work which is different not because we are trying to be but because we actually are all different. We have different backgrounds and different personalities. When we invest ourselves into our work we create our most interesting photographs. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your work to that of other photographers. They are on their journey. You are on yours. A journey requires personal investment and it takes time. According to Malcolm Gladwell, getting good at something takes 10,000 hours. 2 Minkkinen’s message to the graduating students back in 2004 was not that putting in the time and staying on the bus guarantees you success. His message was that getting off repeatedly and taking a cab back to the station ensures you never get anywhere.
A friend of mine who is a wonderful portrait photographer once gave me this great advice – “Everybody has a story. The first thing we should do as photographers is listen.” He was talking about making a connection with the person you are photographing. His advice also applies to making personal work, work with vision. If you are to have a creative and fulfilling lifetime in photography, it’s important to listen to yourself. Trust your gut. Create from within. Yes it’s important to learn various aspects of the craft from those who are more experienced but what we say and how we choose to say it needs to come from within. You have a story to tell. Tell the world your story, not someone else’s.
I’ll end this article with these words by Arno Rafael Minkkinen, “We don’t have to be number one in this world. We only have to be number one to ourselves. There is a special peace that comes with such humility.” Stay on your bus folks and enjoy the ride.
If you are interested in working on the storytelling qualities in your photography, in a supportive atmosphere, where you will be encouraged to create personal work, then consider joining Royce Howland and myself for our photography workshop in the Cypress Hills, September 5-10, 2014. The purpose of the workshop is to help participants set creative goals, and provide frameworks for improving their photography with a specific focus on visual storytelling. We’ll use seminars, field exercises and image portfolio review sessions to achieve these goals. With a small group, two instructors who work well together, and an intensive event plan, the group will be able to put a concentrated focus on creative development. Click here for the workshop details.
Royce Howland and I will also be giving a presentation on July 19th from 1:00–4:00 pm titled “Telling Storied with Your Travel Photography” at The Camera Store presentation facility, Unit 210, 3060 9th Street SE Calgary. Come on out for a talk about visual storytelling on your travels.
1 Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s commencement speech delivered at the New England School of Photography in June 2004
2 Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008