The Editor and the Creative Process


One of the things that I share with my students about the practice of photography is the role of “the editor”. And by that I don’t mean the software that one uses to massage a digital photograph or even the person sitting at the computer working the mouse or the stylus. Rather, I am referring to the voice in the head that makes the decision of what’s good or bad, what works or doesn’t work. It’s the voice that’s meant to guide me as to whether I’m walking the right creative path or that I’ve lost my direction and have become tangled in the burrs and weeds.

The editor is an important part of my creative process whether I am raising my camera to my eye or attempting to put words on a virtual blank sheet of paper. It’s my innate power of discernment that helps me to evaluate the work that I’ve produced and which allows me to effectively separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s a skill that I’ve been able to develop especially well because of the many opportunities I’ve had to serve in the role of editor for other people’s work, be it photography, videos or fiction. It’s something that I know that I’m pretty good at.

However, that editor can also be my worst enemy, especially when it comes to moments of creativity.


Ignoring to the Voices

Many times, I’ve used the example of finding something that I think is interesting to photograph, raising a camera to my eye and then deciding not to make the image, because something is telling me that it’s really not worth expending the energy of depressing the shutter release button. It’s the moment when the editor steps in and makes a judgment call, but it’s a decision that I’ve come to find that it has no business making.

I’ve discovered that if something has piqued my interest, that there is likely something there that has the potential to make a good photograph. It may not be a great photograph, but that’s not important. There is something that is triggering my response to stop and observe it. And though it may not be immediately obvious to me, even when I frame the scene with my camera, it doesn’t mean that I should listen to the editor and not make the image at all.

Sometimes, I am only able to discover what I’m responding to by the act of actually making the photographs. It often doesn’t happen with a single photograph. It frequently requires me to take a variety of images using different camera angles, focal lengths and perspectives. It demands that I move around and think about the juxtaposition of the foreground and the background, or maybe even adjustments of exposure and white balance. It’s about me exhausting all the possibilities of the subject and the scene as I make the attempt to assess what it was that was calling me in the first place.

When I let the editor dissuade me from even making that first photograph, I’m allowing it to put a stranglehold on my creativity. Like a child that’s given a camera, I need to be free to see, react and create. See. React. Create. It’s a mantra that I have to repeat as I am out there exploring through the viewfinder of my camera. It’s that kind of openness, free of the critic that opens opportunities for discovery and surprises that can become interesting or even great images.

When the Critic is Welcome

The role of the editor comes into play later when I am sitting at the computer sorting through the hundreds or thousands of images that I’ve created. It’s then and only then that I should welcome the editor’s voice to the process. It’s then that the dozen or more images that I’ve made of the single subject provides the material the editor needs to make comparisons and ultimately make the decision as to what works and what doesn’t work.

If I don’t make the image or worse yet, only make one shot and walk away, I leave the editor with nothing to work with. Instead, it begins to speak up when it shouldn’t and makes my time of creativity, my “play time” a period of frustration and anxiety. Being out with my camera is about having fun, but if that joynis stripped away as a result of hyper-criticalness, I am just giving my index finger exercise with little hope of producing anything that will prove satisfying.

I am sensitive to this dynamic because I experience the same thing when I am writing. Whether it’s a non-fiction piece or a short story, I face that same voice of the editor trying to step in to make a judgment call on the words that I’m putting on the page. It can dog me even when trying to work out a simple outline. When I do that, I struggle. I stare at the blank screen with an increasing feeling of anxiety and frustration. I begin to think that I’m foolish for even trying; because obviously I don’t have sufficient talent or skill to be able to do this as well as I think I should, even though I have done this a thousand times before.

That’s the peril of listening to the editor during the process of creating. It’s a critical voice by nature, which is important when refining a body of work. However, it’s a crippling voice when you are supposed to be in the midst of creating the raw material from which you will work. Invite the critic into the moment when I’m meant to be most creative and it’s most often less than fruitful.

Being in the Moment

When it comes to photography, I just start shooting. I don’t just make a snap and go off chasing the next best photograph that may be waiting for me around the corner. Rather, I linger, stay present with the subject and the scene and really try to discern frame by frame how I can capture the thing that caught my attention. I work on making the image that can express that moment of discovery for the viewer who sees the images later.

And though there may be moments that don’t provide me the opportunity for such exhaustive exploration, it’s getting my mind into a state of being completely present, free of judgment, which readies me for those images that can only be captured in a fraction of a second and a single frame.

Though I sometimes struggle with achieving such a state of mind, I nevertheless know that regardless of the art that I’m attempting to create, it’s ultimately about me getting out of my own way. It’s about tapping my editor on the shoulder, asking him to step aside and allowing myself to experience the joy and freedom that comes from making something from nothing.

I can’t think myself out of such a state of mind. The only remedy is to just begin the work, be it tapping on the keyboard or pressing the shutter release button. The physical act of creation can be all that’s needed to silence the editor, the critic, and find myself once again in that wonderful world of creativity.

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