The power of quests and themes

by Steve Brock on April 25, 2012

This image was taken after a day when the theme was "creativity." I'll leave it to you to determine what this has to do with creativity...

We’ve explored the first five and the second five ways in which making photos and making a trip meaningful are similar. But now, let’s blur those two ideas even further.

Here’s an exercise you can try at home or on a trip. I recommend starting at home because it isn’t as easy as you might think and it will take some practice. Practicing new photo techniques on your big trip is like practicing etiquette how-to’s on a first date: not good timing.

Start by determining a theme for your photos, a motif you want to pursue. (See the point on finding a theme in the guide, How to Photograph Machu Picchu). Think of your theme as a quest.

A theme or quest can be anything: bookstores, funny pets, graffiti, interesting car ornaments or bumper stickers, redheads, where people go after work, items related to a hobby, waterfalls or other forms of water, signs from your childhood neighborhood (if you are still around there), etc. The sky’s both literally and figuratively the limit.

But if you’re really interested in testing your creativity, move beyond tangible subjects. Focus on an abstract subject/theme such as a concept or emotion. What does love look like? Happiness? Longing? Anticipation? Maybe it’s a theme like “Behind the music” or “Different tastes around the world (demonstrated without driving more than 20 minutes from your house)” Again, no right or wrong way to do it. But consider these points using “Hope” as an example:

  • What does hope look like?
  • What does hope mean to you?
  • Where will you go to find/photograph it? A hospital? A playground? A line of people buying lottery tickets? A rescue mission?
  • What objects might represent hope that you could photograph? A beam of sunlight? Babies faces or maybe a baby toy? A sprout? A wedding ring? A warm looking doorway on a cold night? Start with these more stereotypical items but move beyond. Be inventive. Be personal. For example, a fresh new pocket sketchbook whispers to me of hope. What works for you?

The beauty of this exercise – one of many – is that the more you consider a subject or theme, the more you also realize new ways of seeing it all around you.

Exploring a theme like this on a day trip at home helps you learn how to plan longer trips/quests around a theme. You begin to appreciate that a theme can determine both where you’ll go and what you’ll pursue.

I once read, for example, of a woman who loved weaving and planned her whole trip around visiting local weavers in multiple countries, buying their products and photographing them at work. She combined her love of weaving with her love of travel for one of the most meaningful trips of her life.

For me, I usually choose the destination and then look for what I’ll find there, though as we saw with moss and will see again in future entries, pursuing “collections” gives you mini-quests to follow wherever you go.

Having a theme provides you with a different way to think about both photography and travel, one that can be fun, surprising and highly meaningful. And if you’re traveling with others, invite them into your quest so that everyone is engaged and on the lookout.

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