You often hear about writers block affecting someone’s creative abilities. It can last a day or sometimes years, causing anxiety and even affecting careers. People try various strategies to get creative juices flowing. Sometimes they work and sometimes not.

I have a similar creative block that affects me from time to time with photography. This situation probably does not occur with professional editorial photographers because they work to a brief. If you are doing independent creative photography either professionally or as a non-professional it could have an impact. So what to do when this happens?

My answer is to keep actively pursuing photography by exercising my creative visual thinking. I am a strongly visual learner. That’s what brought me to photography in the first place. Visualizing a scene in my mind is something I’ve always been able to do. For me becoming a photographer is about learning to capture the image in my mind’s eye.

When the block comes and the creative juices start to ebb I turn to my archive. When I started doing photography around the turn of the millennium I decided to archive my images. This was so I could chart progress and analyze past efforts to continuously improve my work. The concept is common business practice and effective in creative endeavors in a more subjective context. Art is difficult to quantify.

I begin by reviewing work starting with early images moving forward to the present. I’m looking for patterns and anti-patterns. What practices contribute to a successful photograph and what mistakes or tendencies contribute to unsuccessful outcomes? This can be tricky because it is easy to substitute the judgment of others for your own. Once you get past basic technique it is very important to see your work through your own eyes. That is assuming you intend is to produce a body of work that reflects your unique ideas.

Since I’m familiar with my images it’s easy to always see the same patterns. That reinforces past outcomes but it isn’t the point of the exercise. Looking beneath the obvious tendencies in my work there are more subtle thoughts. Often the difference between good work and excellence is in the small details. They are reflected in patterns beneath the surface aspects of my images. I try to understand those thoughts.

I generally process interesting raw images while sifting the archives. There are at least two reasons to do this. First, skills and attitudes change over time and hopefully develop into personal style at some point. Second, it is an opportunity to explore new ideas uncovered along the way. My goal is not to produce finished work for publication but to exercise creative freedom. Occasionally good images do emerge.

This exercise often breaks my creative block. Even while I’m struggling to produce new work I’m able to be productive by seeing my existing work with fresh eyes.