I was perusing through my Flickr account and notice that all of my photos from the past two years fit on one page. I have some excuses for this. During 2016 and 2017, I have been feverishly finishing my PhD dissertation, and my photography unfortunately had to take a back seat. But in reality, that excuse can only go so far. I think i’ve been in a bit of a creative slump recently, and the broader trend of my photographic output shows that.
The figure above shows my photography productivity as measured by the number of images uploaded to Flickr from 2006 until 2017. The current year is omitted because I haven’t actually uploaded any images. My camera hasn’t been totally devoid of action. There have been a few photo sessions of Adam. But even then, not as many as I did with Clara during her first year. This metric that I’m using is just a proxy. I don’t upload photos of my kids or family, and in general, I don’t put portraits on my Flickr page except for the odd image of Erin or myself. The point still stands. My photography has been steadily decreasing since about 2013. That year I did have an excuse. That was the year I had my ski accident and spent three months in a wheel chair with a broken leg and arm. That didn’t stop me from getting out, but it did slow down the number of adventures I was able to take. But after that, my productivity just didn’t recover.
There are a number of confounding factors that might explain this drop-off in image making. To begin, in 2010, I had just moved across the country to Idaho, and during those first few years, everything in the area was new to me. I didn’t have to travel very far to find adventure. Moving to a new place is a dream, because I get to be a tourist, and then I get to really explore the local sights in detail and get to know the place. But then, the novelty wears off, and finding new exciting places means traveling farther away. As a graduate student, it’s not always easy to do that. Travel takes time, and more importantly, it costs money. So from 2013 onward, my enthusiasm for exploring close places waned, and my ability to take extended trips diminished. That’s especially true when you have a baby. It’s not that we didn’t travel, but we traveled less. The baby also added financial strains on us, so we had to travel less. Add to that the pressure to finish my PhD and time for travel dwindled too.
Prior to 2013, I seemed to maintain a posting rate of about 350 images annually, give or take. What’s interesting is that I expected my switch from film to digital in 2008 to have a significant impact, but it only appears to be marginal. Well, except for 2009. I apparently took my camera everywhere and shot everything that year. I think it was still the novelty of owning a digital camera and not having to worry about the cost of film, developing, and the time it takes to scan those slides into the computer. But then, from 2004 after college until my move to Idaho, I had been working seasonal jobs in various locations, so I constantly had the thrill of exploring new places. Even my three years in Luray never really exceeded that honeymoon period.
Finally, I think my PhD has taken a mental toll on me. It’s not just that the novelty of the Palouse has worn off. Any time I go out, I seem uninspired. Sometimes I’m even uninspired to go out in the first place. Spring has finally arrived and the wildflowers are abound. I should be like a kid in a candy shop. Instead, it’s more like “I’ve already photographed those flowers,” or “I can’t come up with any new ideas.” “My equipment doesn’t work as well as I’d like and I can’t afford to replace it.” The camera stays in the bag. It gets left at home. I make fewer trips out. I just feel… blah.
If that seems like a mental health problem, it wouldn’t be far off. Studies have shown that anywhere from a third to half of all PhD graduate students develop mental health issues as a result of the stress of doing a PhD. Now that I’m done, the stress of being unemployed and searching for a job isn’t any better. And being in a mental rut doesn’t help with creativity. Unemployment has left me with even less of a financial cushion for travel and play, let alone replacing aging equipment. That contributes to my mental state. But spring has arrived. The sun is shining and it’s warm enough to enjoy the fresh air. I’ve been getting out locally. I’ve started birding again. I bring the GoPro along to grow my budding video hobby, but my still photography has, well, come to a standstill. It’s the little things that are getting me though this period of hard time.
I’m not done with it. I’m not giving up. I’m not quitting. But I do think I’ll be putting the adventures and photography on hold for a while. I’m taking a break so I can recoup, find my enthusiasm, and hopefully find some employment. It’s not goodbye, but see you later. Because as soon as I land a job, I’ll have to move. And I’ll want to capture as much of this area as I can before I leave. And then there will be a new place to explore.
Although, I might have to drive up to Steptoe Butte soon if the lupine is good.