I have to admit that I’d not heard of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory until reading about it in the This column will change your life section of The Guardian newspaper a few weeks ago.
In brief this is a theory put forward by the by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen. The Helsinki bus station, and the routes out of it which to begin with all go in the same direction, is a metaphor for how, when starting out on your creative photographic journey, you tend to create images that will inevitably have been made before by the masters of the genre you specialise in. You, in other words, are following the same route as them. The faint hearted, when realising this, jump off the bus, go back to the station and get a different bus only to have the same thing happen again. The more brave creative souls that stay on the bus however realise that eventually the buses go off in different directions. If they “stay on the f*cking bus” they will eventually see the difference in the route they are taking and start to build their own photographic style. As Minkkinen says:
“It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.”
So how do you have the courage to stay on the bus and wait for the scenery to change around you, finally realising you are actually going in your own unique direction and developing your own style?
Once you’re on that bus, as well as discovering someone else has already taken your idea, there are going to be many reasons for abandoning your creative journey:
You lose inspiration. Trying to create something when you really don’t feel like it and you literally have no ideas, is something we all have to face up to but, don’t worry about it. Just get out there and do some interesting stuff (you’re on a bus for goodness sake), inspiration will come at unexpected moments. When it does come however make sure that wherever you are and whatever time it is you are ready to capture those ideas. For a photographer this most likely means always having a camera with you. Whether it be your mobile phone or a small take anywhere camera there really is no excuse these days for not always carrying the main tool of your trade.
You run out of money. Here’s the thing about money – for nearly all artistic pursuits you don’t actually need much of it to create the art itself. For a photographer, picking up a second hand camera and laptop on eBay and using cheap editing software like Affinity (less than £50) is not going to break the bank. Oh, and by the way, don’t give up your day job. Look at most photographers today and unless they are either well known or practising wedding or commercial work then they have to supplement their income in some other way. Get over it, that’s the nature of the creative field in the 21st century.
You get trodden down by too much criticism. Don’t be – as Hugh MacLeod says in his book on creativity called, appropriately enough Ignore Everybody, when you have immersed yourself in your new world for a long time no one else is going to know that world as well as you do and it’s human nature that if someone doesn’t understand something they resist it by criticising you and your work. That maybe your colleagues, your friends, your family and even you mum! As Hugh says:
“Good ideas alter the power balance in relationships. That is why good ideas are always initially resisted.”
You realise your work sucks. Well if you took the time to read that link you’ll know there is really only one answer to having work that sucks, you need to do more of it and put the hours in. It doesn’t matter if it’s just finding an extra hour a day to go out and make some images as long as you do it often enough you will eventually start to create something that you are proud of and think is differentiating you from everyone else taking your journey.
All of these are certainly factors that if you don’t tackle them mean you will be forever tempted to keep jumping off that bus but here’s another thing…
…it’s not staying on the bus that’s the real problem. The challenge most of us face, when on embarking on a creative journey, or indeed any new venture, is starting it in the first place. As Steven Pressfield says in the opening to his book The War of Art:
“There’s a secret real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”
Once you’re on that f*cking bus, believe me, you’re well on your way to a new world of discovery and adventure and have overcome what Pressfield calls “Resistance” but also goes by the name of procrastination, or the endless ability we all have to not start something today because we can always begin it tomorrow instead. And on that I’ll end with one last quote from the late, great Steve Jobs:
“If you live each day as it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
So what are you waiting for – get on that bus and make sure you f*cking stay on it.
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