A Certain Uncertainty - On Staying Curious

Leaving Lewiston – Maine, USA


I guess that most of us are curious about something. What makes you curious?

What gets into you enough that you want to know more about it until it’s almost obsessive?

Curiosity is one of my main motivators. Actually it’s the main one if I think about.

I’m curious about a ridiculous amount of things: London’s Oxford Street, Iceland (the country not the shop…although who knows!), smartphones, the comics of the Luna brothers, making the ultimate smoothie, visual composition (I get a bit obsessive about this one), videography, New Mexico, blogging, Caravaggio … the list goes on and on actually.

As a photographer curiosity is part of my everyday process. My internal dialogue when I’m shooting goes something like this: ‘Who’s that? What are they doing? What’s their story? What’s that place over there? What’s happening? How can I get under the skin of this? Have I understood as much as I can right now?’

Our lives are in many ways vehicles for finding ways to answer those kinds of questions. I happen to use a camera to do it; for you it might be something completely different. I don’t always succeed. But even being willing to be on the journey is part of being curious.

There are many demands on us these days, demands that often keep us locked into our habits. Habits that can be hard to break. As a result being curious is often quite a battle. Curiosity means remaining open to the unknown: the stranger, the new journey, experiencing a different culture, or a change to our routine.

So curiosity is something that is necessary to growth (witness the eternal children’s question: WHY?) and scary at the same time (isn’t that just always the way with growth?!!).

I’m not a ‘trained’ photographer in any academic sense of the word. I’ve developed any practice (such as it is) through simply shooting, making mistakes (a lot of those!), re-shooting, reading reading reading, and listening to the advice of those who’ve been there before me. As a consequence nearly everything I do is a form of learning driven by curiosity: to understand more of what I am seeing and how I see it. That never ceases.

And yeah it’s a blessing and a curse. Staying curious is like developing an internal restlessness, it provides energy and forward motion certainly; but on the other hand it’s a case of learning to be comfortable in the centre of the unknown. Not always easy but perhaps creatively worthwhile.

That in turn takes time. And patience – something that our Western culture no longer seems to hold very highly. I mean to really achieve the full fruition of one’s curiosity takes a lifetime and, as we know, we are all becoming prone to the need for hyper-fast results that are often short-lived. And I’m just as prone to that as anyone so don’t let me give the impression of any superiority here. I’m just as fond of my social media feed fix as the next person!

But curiosity (married with patience) is a good thing. They manifest themselves as resisting the temptations to leave something too soon or to stop asking the important questions. Its another one of those small acts of rebellion I’ve talked about before (you can find another one here).

After all isn’t our natural curiosity a desire to journey deeper into our selves? To understand our motivations for living?

Woah! Got a bit philosophical there but I think it’s true. In my case it is anyway.

The more curious (and patient) I am the more I see that ALL of life is there to be engaged with. The ‘ugly’, the beautiful, all manner of ideas, truths, relationships, collaborations, the new and the decayed etc. So, by extension, photography becomes not just about taking pictures but about attempting to hear the dialogue the world is having with us. The unique conversation.

At the same time it is an opportunity to stretch the self technically and creatively. And always to ‘fail better’ as the great Samuel Beckett once wrote. Always, and with permission to do so.

There’s a few things that I think are fun to explore when it comes to remaining curious. In no particular order:

  • Make-believe/temporary re-invention. This comes from my background working in the theatre and performing arts, but viewing the world through different eyes, pretending to be someone or something else is a fun way to see and feel differently. For example, my favourite is to pretend to be a Martian visiting earth for the first time – what do I see that I find interesting? What am I drawn to today that yesterday I would not have noticed because it seemed so commonplace and yet today, well, it looks…..? 
  • Daily dispatch. This is something that I learnt from reading the wise and playful Austin Kleon whose books Show Your Work and Steal Like An Artist are invaluable mini credos for the creatively curious. Put simply a daily dispatch is exactly what it says on the tin: something about your work or process that you put out somewhere every day. 
  • Notebook. Digital or pen and paper. The Google Keep app is an absolute gem for digital thinking. But whatever you use, our thoughts and the process of writing about them remind us what we’re curious about or what we might become curious about without influence. And that limit of influence is important because it’s easy to get sucked into what others (media, fashion, peers etc) deem as important. If we get beyond that we find out what we are truly curious about i.e. what our hearts are curious about which leads to all sorts of good stuff.
  • Working imagery/videos (or recognising that everything is work-in-progress). So perfectionism is a creativity killer – we all know that right? You can be awash with curiosity and that will motivate the journey, the need for answers, but (take it from me, I’ve been there) perfectionism can quash that feeling dead. Re-framing everything as work-in-progress is a great way to free that up and keep it alive. I now do this by approaching my work in this way as much as I can (admittedly that’s harder with client work but it’s about finding some balance). This goes back to the Samuel Beckett quote above: permission to ‘fail better’ which I take as meaning that there is no such thing as failure where creativity is concerned.
  • Scrapbook. I wrote about this recently here. But scrapbooks to me are an essential part of the curiosity tool-kit. Similarly to the previous point, they maintain a sense of work-in-progress and flexibility – for example, putting unrelated cuttings next to each other without any particular agenda is an indelibly curiosity driven thing to do. Maybe curiosity is something akin to knowing there are rules but breaking them any way? Which leads me on to the next point:
  • Throwing out the normsThat’s the personal norms, and even the social ones too perhaps. Not in any way that damages others, but the ones that might hold you back. Our comfort zones again and again. And believe me there are times when I wish I could go back a decade or so and retake certain paths in my life so that I wasn’t quite so stuck in certain places. It doesn’t get easier as you get older but harder to break those comfort zones. So take the chances when they come. Or be prepared to fight harder to stay curious as you ‘mature’.
  • Knowing the self in connection to communityIsolation is a sure-fire way to dim curiosity. And it’s very easy to become isolated especially if, like me, you’re a freelancer working on your own. Being part of a community/communities, or seeking out ones that you might connect with is a great way to feed and inspire curiosity. They are places for questions to be asked, for ideas to be thrown around, and for new ones to arise. If you find you’re spending too much time alone in front of the computer or in your work-space then find a like-minded community and go talk. 
  • Listen to music. I don’t need to say much about this do I? Music feeds our brains in ways we are only just beginning to understand and for that reason alone it has to have some impact on our natural curiosity. Something about music for me feeds that curiosity energy.

Please tell me what you’re curious about – I bet there are some real curiosities out there.

Image © James Bellorini

James is a commercial, editorial and documentary photographer. He started shooting professionally in 2013 and has since worked with advertising agencies, design agencies, entrepreneurs, performers, musicians, DJ’s, singers, models, and culture and entertainment organizations/brands. Recent clients include: Siren Design, Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, Sonisphere UK, Stone Nest, The Old Vic etc. In September 2015 he joined the Redeye Network’s Lightbox programme for emerging photographers.