How to Nurture Your Creative Self as a Conservation Photographer: An Interview with Melyssa St. Michael
Learn the four phases of self-care that visual storytellers navigate through to get from creatively frustrated and stifled to joyfully productive and fulfilled.
There is very little about conservation photography that's easy. Yes, it's full of joy, inspiration, reward, motivation… but that comes as a result of a lot of hard work.
Part of that struggle is navigating our inner monologue, what goes on inside of our heads around creativity, around supposed-tos and shoulds, the self-doubt and self-criticism.
The dialogue that sometimes we tell ourselves is not necessarily something that cares for our creative self. And if we're not caring for our creative self, then it's pretty tough to make really incredible visuals that make a positive impact for conservation.
In today's episode, we have an amazing guest, Melyssa St. Michael, who shares what she's learned through her own creative journey.
Melyssa came into conservation photography as so many of us do – from a different profession. When she discovered conservation photography, she got super fired up. And like so many of us, inside all of that excitement to learn and to become, she stumbled. She wasn't sure exactly how or if she would get back up.
Well, luckily, she is indeed finding her way back to her creative self, and the way that she is coming through this is incredible. Not only is her story amazing to listen to, but she's also developed a strategy and a set of tools that can guide any one of us who also stumbles, who also has all of that negative self-talk around creativity going on in our heads.
- common negative self-talk that all creatives hear in their heads (nope, it's not just you!)
- the four stages of self-care for your creative self
- how to recognize when you're inside each of these stages
- how to move through them so that you can come out the other side owning your creative style and approach
This episode is sponsored by:
Our episode sponsor is Wild Idea Lab, my membership community where conservation visual storytellers find creativity, community and support for their wildest work. Wild Idea Lab is designed specifically for emerging and established photographers and filmmakers working in conservation and science communication.
With monthly masterclasses, live events, community engagement and so much more, members from around the world accelerate their growth as creatives and find their place in a network of colleagues and friends. Whether just starting out or you’ve been a pro for years, Wild Idea Lab has the resources you need to do more, and go farther with your work.
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Episode 069: How to Nurture Your Creative Self as a Conservation Photographer - An Interview with Melyssa St. Michael
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
You know, if we're gonna be totally honest, there is very little about conservation photography that's easy. Yes, it's full of joy and inspiration and reward and motivation and all of these highs, but a lot of times that comes out of or it comes through despite a lot of struggle, a lot of hard work. And part of that struggle that I think that we don't talk about enough is what goes on in our inner monologue, what goes on inside of our heads around creativity, around supposed-tos and shoulds. We often are looking out at this grand world of really incredible visual storytellers, photographers or film-makers, and we're like, "Oh, they do this so much better than me. Look, they're getting published in this famous publication. That's how I'm supposed to shoot if I want to be famous, if I wanna make a difference, if I wanna get in front of audiences. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know how to create. I don't feel driven to create visuals in that certain way, and therefore I must not be a real conservation photographer because my style, my intuition about myself is pulling me in a different direction, so I'm doing this wrong. I'm not cut out for this. I'm terrible at this." It can go on and on and on.
0:01:25.3 Jaymi: The dialogue that sometimes we tell ourselves, that we have rolling through our head is not necessarily something that cares for our creative self. And if we're not caring for our creative self, then it's pretty tough to make really incredible visuals that make a positive impact for conservation. It can be really tough to keep going. It can be really tough to find your stride. Well, in today's episode, we have a pretty amazing guest. Her name is Melyssa St. Michael. And Melyssa came into conservation photography as so many of us do, from a different profession, different background, figured out she loved photography, figured out that she absolutely wants to use it to make a positive impact for nature, really just discovered this thing that is conservation photography and got super fired up. And inside all of that excitement and energy and that drive to learn and to really start producing, she stumbled. And like so many of us, she stumbled and wasn't really sure exactly how or if she would get back up. Well, luckily, she is indeed finding her way back to her creative self, and the way that she is coming through this is pretty incredible. Not only is her story just really amazing to listen to, but she's also developed basically a path, a strategy and a set of tools that can guide any one of us who also stumbles, who also has all of that negative self-talk around creativity going on in our heads.
0:03:00.9 Jaymi: These tools and strategies are something that we each can implement, that we can be thinking about using leaning upon and growing from. So in this episode, you're gonna learn from Melissa the four stages of self-care for your creative self and how to recognize when you're inside each of these stages and how to move through them so that you can come out the other side, really, owning your sense of style, your approach, the way you wanna create something, the way that you want to tackle visual storytelling so that you, in your unique creative self, can really make forward progress for conservation issues because you're doing it in a way that really rings true for you as a visual storyteller, as well as the issue that you so deeply want to support through your visual storytelling. So without further ado, let's dive in.
0:04:02.7 Jaymi: Welcome to Impact, the conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
0:04:33.9 Jaymi: Melyssa. Welcome, welcome, welcome to the podcast. I'm really excited to have you here today and really excited about what we plan to dive into, so thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
0:04:46.3 Melyssa St. Michael: Thank you so much for having me Jaymi. I am so pumped to be here.
0:04:50.5 Jaymi: Well, one of the things that we're tackling today that makes me so excited to have you here is a recurring theme. It's something that I've heard come up again and again and again, especially during 2020, which is the shared difficulty sometimes in maintaining creativity, in pursuing creativity, in keeping that fire stoked. And in fact, I've had more than one person tell me that they thought about giving up photography, thought about leaving conservation photography for good during 2020 because it was so hard to stay fired up, to stay feeling creative. It was so hard to pick up a camera. And so this is something that is really familiar for a lot of us, especially when we get into tough times, difficult situations. We put the camera down, and we can't seem to ever find the motivation to pick it back up again. And you've been through this in a way that I think will resonate with so many people, and you've found a path forward through it that is beautiful. And you've even broken it down for us in ways that we can start to... We, being anyone who's struggling with creativity, we can start to build our own path forward, thanks to the work that you've put into finding your path. And I kinda wanna start out with, can you tell us a little bit about who you are in your conservation photography career, where you focus and sort of where you began your path before you got to the point of feeling stuck?
0:06:28.1 MM: Oh, absolutely. So a long time ago in a galaxy far away, in 2015, I fell in love with the work of a photographer, named Melissa Groo. I didn't know who she was, but her images kept popping up over and over again for me. Every time I saw... There's three very distinct images that I kept coming across. One was a piping, two piping chicks, two piping plover chicks under the wings with their egg tooth still attached under the wings of their mom. And this impact, this energy resonance that I got from this image whenever I viewed it, I've never felt my body be on fire before in this way, and something in me just connected. And so I reached out, I found her, I googled her, I found her website. And I sent her this very long email and said, "I don't know what's exploded inside of me, but your image has changed my perspective. And I want to take pictures that make people care about these amazing creatures." And she responded back to me, and I hired her to do a private lesson. I had never... I had picked up a camera before 'cause we had cameras on our phones, but I had never used a professional camera. And she took me out, we went to Utah, and I spent five days with her side by side, laying in mud and water and marshes and dirt.
0:08:03.9 MM: And she just walked me through the entire process of being a very conscientious ethical photographer. And I was a complete newbie, but that was my nirvana point. And I had decided early on that I had wanted to make a difference in the Earth. So my day job is helping companies sell more stuff. And so very deeply, I feel like I need to atone for some of my sins because I didn't realize the impact that moving single-use plastic and all of these bottles and containers that we have in our homes and just the impacts of that on a environment. And so I went through a period right before I saw Melissa's image where I was feeling very guilty about some of the actions that I felt like I was contributing to just the overall state of our environment and also the education of our people when I was using my skills as a digital anthropologist to help people buy stuff that they may or may not have really needed. And so my conscientious started pulling on me in that respect. So the combination, that intersection of time where I was having this moral conundrum around my contribution to society as a whole, and this need for me to express healing in a way, atonement for myself in a way, and then seeing Melissa's picture over and over again, I felt like it was a sign.
0:09:38.3 MM: And so I took advantage of that. So that's honestly where I started, and that was in 2015. And I was elated. I had so much joy around being in the environment, being outside, learning about these incredible species that just fascinated me and honestly kept me ignited and then capturing their life in these moments that, well, now can be preserved but also used to educate. It's been, again, complete newbie, made a lot of mistakes. But really decided at that point in 2015 that I wanted to make people feel something. I wanted to make them feel something so powerful like the experience that I had, that they would start understanding how to change their behavior to protect these species. So most of my work focuses around common birds and the impact that the birds have on the environment and the impact that we have on the bird's environment. And over the course of the last... Well, over the course of 2016, I was doing, really, really involved and I was in it, and I was in the flow, and I was in the work, and I was learning. I was starting as this beginner photographer who didn't even understand what menu was or how to know what f-stop was or what ISO was or how to use a long lens.
0:11:08.7 MM: And I was going through that incredible growth curve that you have when you're hungry and you're passionate and you're feeling fulfilled by your work. And I felt so strongly about this that I was devoting all of my money to traveling and to learning. I believe very strongly in mentors. Bless that Melissa took me on. I was devoting all of my time. So every waking moment was spent thinking about that next image and I'm thinking about how I could be better, and then I was researching and learning. So I was investing my heart and soul into this thing that I didn't understand at the time, but that was my art. And I was in the curve of being engulfed by it when it takes you over and then you just start becoming... You're becoming more and more involved to the point where you're so deep in it that there's certain things that you just don't recognize about what you're doing, and it was... For me, it was very successful. I had gotten momentum. I was published by Outdoor Photographer twice. I was published by Autobahn. I picked up two conservation long-term projects that I thought I'd never would have the opportunity to photograph. I started making connections in the world and getting to meet photographers that I had only thought that I would never be able to talk to, but they actually became friends and mentors.
0:12:29.4 MM: And so over those two years between 2015 and 2017, I had wonderful, incredible momentum. And then everything for me kind of stopped because I have this pivotal moment where, to be honest with you and we'll talk about this later, but I came home one night after photographing owls. I came home at 2:00 AM, and I came home to find my husband on the phone with another woman. And I walked in in full camo and my bagful of gear, and he didn't hear me coming 'cause he was talking with her and completely distracted that I heard their conversation, and more importantly, I saw their conversation 'cause they were on FaceTime together. And I just walked up to him, and he looked at me. And I said, "What are you doing?" And he said, "Well, you're always out photographing. You're always out photographing. You're never here." And for me, that was such a hard reality slap in the face, whether it was right or wrong. It was not the whole reason why. It's never one thing when it comes to relationships that are broken, and I think that's a story for another day. But it was a pivotal point that knocked me on the ground, and I put down and I could not pick up my camera for life with me after that day, and I tried for three years.
0:13:55.7 MM: And most recently I, this year, started getting my wind back, starting my legs back underneath of me, and I came to the ideal lab. And it was really healing for me, and I was able to watch a few editors talk about the type of work that they want to see when they're pitched. And it sparked something in me that I hadn't had in a while. And so I put together a pitch, and I'm like, "Alright, I've got this, got my legs back underneath me. I'm gonna go do this." And I got that pitch out, and the feedback that I got, honestly, the feedback that I got frustrated me. And it caused me to have an anger knee-jerk reaction, and so I had to stop myself and I had to say, "Okay, what is really going on here?" And what I realized is that because of a lot of the things that have happened what I was doing was I was phoning my work in. I stopped being creative. I stopped being creative because of this pivotal moment that shattered me into many pieces, seemingly unrelated to photography, but it was impacting my creative self. And then I was acting out of anger and acting out of phoning in my work.
0:15:23.0 MM: I also applied to her raw visual initiative, and the feedback I got was, "Sorry." It was very nice feedback, it was great feedback. It was, "sorry, but you actually don't look like you've even shown up for the job." And so I just kept getting all these reminders and call-outs and signals and saying, "Hey, Melyssa, you haven't shown up the way we need you need to show up." So I had to step back, and I had to ask myself, "Why am I not showing up?" And this is the journey that it's taken me through, this next part of the process of stepping back and actually peeling away the why.
0:16:03.7 Jaymi: I wanna ask you... So first of all, I wanna say thank you so much for being as incredibly honest with your story as you have been. I think that this is something that a lot of us get into where we are fired up, we're feeling really creative, we're feeling really productive and then a really major life issue happens. We have a divorce. We have a family member die. We have a major move that happens. We lose a job. There are so many things that it could be, but something really significant in life that seemingly is outside of photography happens, and we put our camera down and can't seem to figure out how to pick it back up again. I personally, I got a divorce in 2017. And when that happened, I put down my camera and started to move on with life. And I met someone new, and he's this really amazing man who now is still my boyfriend. And I remember he kept thinking, "Well, you're a photographer, but you never shoot. You're never picking up a camera and shooting."
0:17:11.6 Jaymi: It was months later after we had met. So post-divorce, we'd gotten together, months later, I was finally going to my first shoot. And he was coming with me as my assistant, and he's driving me and I just break down crying in the car. And he's like, "What is going on?" And I'm like, "I'm so scared to photograph this shoot because I haven't picked up my camera. I haven't practiced." And there was so much self-doubt in my ability to be a photographer in that moment because that creativity was just not there and not really healed yet. And so I kinda wanna ask you to rewind a little bit. You talked about how you put down your camera and didn't pick it up for a long time. And then you started to get re-fired up again and you started to try and put yourself out there. What was the thing that helped you to at least pick up the camera again? Even if you weren't fully back in it, even if you still had a lot more unpacking and exploring to do, what helped you pick up that camera again and start to get out there?
0:18:14.5 MM: Great question. I actually didn't pick up the camera. I just picked up my images that I hadn't processed yet to put together to pitch. So truly, it was me taking every ounce of effort and energy. I can't tell you how hard it was for me to sit in front of a computer and go through images that were connected to a time that was really, really rough at that point. But I pulled everything out and I put together that pitch. I have since shot. So that was my first step into my healing process as I started to recognize what I need to do to self-care of my inner creative and what I need to do for that, that inter-creative part of me. But I didn't actually pick up. It was what got me to pick up the camera after the pitch was the fact that loud and clear, everyone was saying, "Why aren't you showing up the way that we know that you can?"
0:19:15.0 Jaymi: So, what was that catalyst moment, I think, in helping you... I mean, we've kind of understood how you've built to that moment in realizing that you are not taking care of your creative self, but what was the mental moment where you really realized that, and how did you move forward with that realization?
0:19:38.5 MM: I got angry from the response that I got from a few different editors. So I took this body of work, it was all that I had, still is pretty much all that I have, and it's the thing that I've hung just about everything on. And I pitched editors, and the responses I got back were pretty much silent, and a few of the other responses had to do with the type of species it was and that it wasn't endangered, and so therefore, it's not something... And it's common, and they were just kind of the same response from a few of these editors, they were very similar. And so, I was like, okay, alright, now I'm angry. [chuckle] I don't know why I'm angry, but I'm angry. [chuckle] And out of that anger, I put that work in front of some very highly respected photographers in the wild life in conservation photography, as portfolio review sessions, I paid to sit down with them and to get their take. And then I said to myself, You know, am I really truly doing myself a service by swimming in the same sea? What if I put this in front of a conceptual artist, and what if I pay for a portfolio review to put this in front of a fine art artist, and a modern artist.
0:21:03.4 MM: And so, I took some more of my money and paid for a few more sessions, I reached out to artists that I really liked their work, but we didn't have anything to do with wildlife or conservation photography, and didn't understand the mechanics of how to shoot a conservation story. So, if you don't know how to shoot a conservation story, then my theory was that you are reacting solely from your gut, solely from the visual response of the image in front of you, what your body sees in senses. And that's truly what I became to understand is that there's an art and science to conservation storytelling from a visual perspective, but what I learned from sitting through these other portfolio reviews is that the people that I wanna reach, the people that I think we all wanna reach, may respond with their hearts, not always their eyes. And I learned a very valuable lesson that led me to a very big epiphany, which is, I have to stop boxing myself in to say to believing that I can only shoot a certain way for a shooting reason with a certain style. And that was my ball and chain.
0:22:26.6 Jaymi: I am so emphatically agreeing with you right now. This is something that's coming up so much inside of... Especially with my students in conservation photography 101, because I've been feeling really strongly about it, but... I'm feeling strongly about it in part because I'm hearing over and over and over again, so many people feeling like they don't fit in to conservation photography because they don't feel drawn to shoot in the way that is normally recognized in publications and the ones that... The type of shooting that lands the stories, but that is such a very scary thing, because it means that we have so many artists, so many visionaries, so many creatives, so many storytellers who are not necessarily telling conservation stories, they feel like they don't fit into this realm, and we need so many voices, we need everyone's voice in conservation to really make progress in that direction. So the idea that the way that you are a creative, the artist in you, not being nurtured because you think you have to be shoved in some sort of pigeon hole in order to move forward in the field, it's such a dangerous thing.
0:23:39.3 Jaymi: So for you to be smart enough, for you to be, I think both wise enough and vulnerable enough to go put your work in front of someone who has nothing to do with this field, to get some different feedback is such a smart, wonderful move. What did you learn? How did that help you continue to move forward in this process? Because I know that you've given us and you're gonna go through this with us, stages that help you delve into that creative self-care. And so, anyone who's going through a similar struggle, there's these stages of creative self-care that you've recognized and identified and worked through that you're also going to walk us through. But from your portfolio reviews with artists and from really tackling that reframing of yourself as an artist, what did you learn and how did you move forward from that?
0:24:37.7 MM: It was an interesting exercise in compare, contrast and context. The contextual response to how that person saw the work. So when I was with our industry greats, our iconic photographers, they're very... The feedback was what I expected. It was technical. It was, "You can crop here. You need to dodge over here. Your line's lead here. You should use the rule of thirds here." It was very mechanical, those types of... Those portfolio reviews. That was a stark contrast to when I put my work in front of a conceptual artist who responded with emotion, like, "Oh my goodness, that eyes, I can feel the pain." And when I put my work in front of the modern artist who couldn't get their head wrapped around the chaos of a destruction site with an animal inside of it, that was overwhelming to them. So, what truly happened there for me was to understand that we've been through an entrainment as conservation photographers. We've been trained by all of the things that we look at every day, 'cause we are most often looking at other conservation photographers work, conservation storytellers work, conservation...
0:26:09.4 MM: You know, there's this style of what is considered good, and that is permanently imprinted eventually in our subconscious. It is the thing that we hold ourselves up to, and that's what I was holding myself up to. And so, that's where kind of I started to identify like, "Okay, I need to break out of the entrainment. I need to teach myself how to think differently." And then when I started asking myself, Well, why do I need to think differently? If I wanna be accepted by the editors, why do I need to think differently if I want to place my work in an area that's gonna have an impact, and why do I wanna think differently if the norm for conservation photography is over here? Why do I need to change the formula? Everyone else has figured it out. And the answer came back to me that I was not feeling fulfilled, that norm was not my norm, and I had yet to discover my norm, and that was my big awakening, kinda aha moment, then I really got angry. [laughter] Man, I was pissed. [laughter] I was like, okay.
0:27:21.0 Jaymi: Well, I love that you recognized anger and sank into it in a way that allowed you to use the anger as a tool. And you've created sort of this concept of emotion as a platform. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
0:27:39.5 MM: Absolutely. So when I got angry, I found myself not angry with myself, but myself raging against the norm, like, why is this a norm? Why should I have to fit into a box? Why do I have to be this to be accepted? Why do I feel this way? All of the stupid questions that we start scripting inside our head that we're... It's the endless loop of, when we're not successful we... Why we're not successful? And then as I started peeling that back, I'm like, Okay, why am I angry? And it's because I realized that I personally was stifling what I felt about why I was creating to fit into someone else's perspective of what was good. And there's this meta layer of allowing someone else to define your art, which we do every day when we post stuff on Instagram and we go for the likes. We get this serotonin release, this neurotransmitter, dopamine release when we see those likes coming in, and so that starts entraining us to have a reward mechanism that stifles our emotions and instead trains us on a diet of social likability, social, how many people follow us?
0:29:00.8 MM: And that in and of itself, for me became paralysing, and once I understood that I was comparing myself to the work of everyone else that I had seen and was using likes on Instagram and Facebook as an indicator of worth, if you will, a value of what that image meant, I had... It was a false facade, and that's what I was getting angry around was the fact that I was letting an external influences stifle my creative vision, because I had bought into other people's definition and I had not taken the time or had the strength to be honest with you to be brave, be bold and define my own vision of beauty.
0:29:49.7 Jaymi: What are some of the questions that you can ask yourself inside of that thought process that can help you get at the answers of each individual person's kind of why they're feeling this way, why they're stifled in this area? What are some of those questions that you recommend asking?
0:30:10.5 MM: I started asking myself with very simple questions around why do I create some images, why do I actually create those images versus other images that I visualize and fantasize in my head. Why don't I create those images? I wanted to know because there were times where I was like, Oh my gosh, I have this incredible, amazing vision, and I would never create it, I would just simply pick up my camera, go out into the field, show up, see what was there, take a picture, documenting, recording of it, feel like, okay, didn't work and go home. And so, I started there with asking myself, why do I create some images, but not others? It was really important for me to know. And then I needed to ask myself also is, why am I creating these images? What is the true reason that this image appeals to me, or I'm out in the field doing this one thing? And that led to really truly what was fuelling my desire. And then under desire, there is something greater, I think that for all of us, there is a core element of emotion that we tap into, whether we do it consciously or subconsciously, that allows us to fuel kind of our whole creative practice.
0:31:29.7 MM: And it's the thing that physically energizes us right? And that's the thing I need to uncover, because I needed to know what laid beneath the act of creating at its most primal level for myself.
0:31:44.5 Jaymi: I definitely think that there's so many people that can recognize that distinction when you go out and you photograph, but you don't even feel inspired enough by what you photograph to want to post process those images or sort through them, they sit on a memory card for months before you get to them versus when you go out and you photograph and you are so excited about what you just photographed that you're terrified something's gonna happen to your memory card between where you are and where your computer is and you can't wait to show people and you wanna talk about it. There's a very strong distinction between being fired up for the act of creating versus going through the motions.
0:32:24.0 Jaymi: Now, I am gonna say something right now, and I hope that I don't embarrass you, but you were working on a project that when we first met, you were working on this project and you started to go through this incredible learning curve and your photography skillset just sky rocketed, because you were so into the learning process. And then everything kind of happened and you needed to reset yourself, and there was a pretty strong stagnation and I watched you actually go through a lot of frustration and trying to get back out there to work on this project, but just not feeling it and not moving forward.
0:33:01.2 Jaymi: Well, since you've been through this creative recognition and self-nurturing and you've gotten back out there, you have sought some input from a mutual friend of ours, and I didn't know this for a while until she turned to me one day and she was like, Hey, by the way, Melyssa showed me some images that she's been working on that she's gotten back out into the field for, you would be so proud of her for where she's taking this and the creativity behind her images and really following her own style on this. And she showed me some of those images and they are absolutely stunning. So going through all of this difficult work is indeed paying off and you've gone through some stages of that creative self-care, and you've... Not only have you gone through the fire and done the work for yourself, but you've done the work kind of for the rest of us too, because you've been able to recognize these stages and name them and have words around talking about them. Will you guide us through the stages of creative self-care as you've discovered them?
0:34:08.8 MM: Absolutely, it's almost like the maturation of how do we come into existence to first acknowledge our creative inner self, and then what do we do for the care and feeding of our creative self? In these stages, there's four of them. For me, it's looking back, I'm not through all of them, I'm still working on some of them, because I think it's an everyday practice at this point, but I'm still very young in it, so anyone who's listening, you know me on Social... Let's have a conversation, I'd love to talk with anyone who's going through this too, and we can compare notes. The first stage is the stage that I was in after I had had the blow up with my ex and everything just kind of fell apart for me, and I call this The Resist stage.
0:35:00.5 MM: And this is the stage where we have built a very strong inner censor, an approval moderator, if you will, that resists or doesn't listen to our natural intuitive creative urges, that approval, "approval moderator" also gives reasons in our head, like, we just hear these little voices of why we shouldn't create a certain way or try something, So for instance, if you wanna shoot something slow pan, start shooting blurs that critic in your head might be like, Oh no, you know what, that's not gonna get a lot of likes on Instagram, or you know what, you're not gonna be able to sell this print, or an editor would never put this in a magazine. That's what our inner critic or sensor does, it takes what you're wanting to do and it squashes it before you even get out of the ground or off the ground because there's reasons behind that... Why that inner critic says, or that inner critic does all the time. Our inner critic always default to the negative, and our inner critic thrives on disbelief.
0:36:12.0 MM: So the inner critic inside of us thrives on fear of failure, it feeds off that, so we're feeding our inner critic, because we're afraid to feel, we're afraid of not getting approval from the people that are important to us. We have these ideas in our head that have been entrained and informed by social actions, I mentioned that reward mechanism, that social feeds inside our brain, this is absolutely comes out here. We also go through this constant comparison to others work, or at least I did, and we ask ourselves, why would I wanna create this image? So many other people have been here and have photographed this place or photographed this topic. So that inner critic, that constant, always on "approval moderator" is normally the strongest point of our resist state. It is our constant self-talk that comes up, and it didn't just come up overnight, you just didn't know what was happening when it was forming.
0:37:15.5 MM: There's these bits and pieces along the way of our experience in life where we've had incidences that have shaped our inner critic, and given our critic power to that voice, and then that voice becomes a script that we just hit the play button on, because it becomes safe for us. It becomes safe for us to believe and to buy in to just what we've entrained that inner critic to say. I believed, right? So, the inner critic is like, "people aren't gonna like this." and then you go, "Oh, I believe that." Our subconscious is going along with that, because it's what we've entrained ourselves to do. Also, that inner critic in that resist stage, it's that constant feedback loop of us repeating, even though we're not necessarily conscious of it, we have this constant feedback, we're going in that, it truly mocks us into this box of what we believe is right, and what we believe is wrong for our work, our art, and that ultimately represses our inner artist. Because our inner artist is a creative, and that creative needs to be fed in lots and lots of different ways, but the inner critic doesn't allow the feeding of our artists, the inner critic puts our artist on a diet and starves our artists down.
0:38:31.0 MM: And our artist, our inner artist should be healthy and happy and jolly and full and big, and it should take up, give lots of energy out that when we put our artist on a diet, because our inner critic has been so repressive with what can and cannot happen in our subconscious, then our artist gets weak and small and tired and doesn't have the energy to produce big thoughts and produce big what if dreams, and then we don't get a visual in our head, and that's where we struggle and we become stagnated.
0:39:06.7 Jaymi: Inside of this resist stage for you, what was some of the emotion that was kind of a driving force for that inner critic for you?
0:39:17.9 MM: This was really tough for me because I am a very strong, always positive, always... I'm always going to do whatever it takes to get it done, no matter what. That is my whole approach to life, just keep driving. And so for me to actually peel apart, to peel back why my inner critic was telling me these things, and why my inner critic was repressing my inner artist, it took a lot of reflection.
0:39:56.6 MM: But what I got to is that there were two primary emotions driving this, and the surface emotion, which I think is really interesting was shame. And so this caught me by surprise, I'm not a shameful person, actually I'm never ashamed of what I am or what I do, I am proud of everything that I've done.
0:40:13.9 MM: But shame is really this interesting feeling of... It's really hard to explain, and I don't think that I've done a good enough job with it, but I will try, but I was shameful. I was ashamed... I was shameful that I was not a professional doing this work, that I didn't have the authority to do the work. I was actually shameful that I had nice gear and I was very, very inexperienced with an expensive camera rig.
0:40:53.3 MM: And ultimately all that came down to is just shame for not being good enough, feeling like I should show up as perfect. So perfectionism oftentimes is actually just to cover for shame, and that's how it showed up for me. And then I had to say, "Well, why, Melyssa, why do you feel shameful because this is so unlike you. This is so unlike you to feel this way." And I had to sit with that over many months, honestly.
0:41:29.3 MM: And the thing that if I finally was able to get to is that the deeper emotion was just straight up fear, and it's a very base fear, it's almost like Maslow's hierarchy of needs. But it was ultimately a fear that I was not talented. I did not want to discover that I was not talented, so therefore I would not go out and do the work.
0:41:52.8 MM: I did not want to discover that I was not capable, I was fearful that I was not capable, I was fearful that my work would not be wanted, I was fearful that my work would be laughed at, and all of that worked inside of me to shut me down.
0:42:09.5 Jaymi: So inside of this resist stage, really it's your inner critic that's telling you all of the things that stifle this inner artist, but really it's trying to act as a protector because it is acting in a way that would protect you from ever being "discovered" that you didn't have talent, or there's so much inside of this shame that I think resonates with so many artists, and I think that no matter how recognized and proficient and experienced you become, I think so many artists always have to battle the shame and the fear that it's impostor syndrome, it's the fear that one day someone's gonna figure out that you don't know what the hell you're doing and you do not deserve to be here recognized, right?
0:43:01.9 Jaymi: So there's this Resist stage where your inner critic is really defaulting to negative language, you are scripting this loop inside of your head of constantly telling yourself that you're incapable, and then once you recognize what is the driving force of that, once you are forced to recognize that really it's just shame and thus fear ultimately at the heart of it, that's driving that, then what stage do you start to move into?
0:43:31.0 MM: So for me, it was once I recognized that I went into a reveal, so recognizing and revealing why and how my beliefs became my biases. So beliefs are the thing that we hold true, and biases are how our truths are inflected upon the situations that we look at, right, so it gives context in a way to... How we move about in our days and make decisions.
0:44:00.9 MM: And so once I understood why... Let me take that back. Once I understood what my beliefs were, my true beliefs, my honest beliefs, the inner critic beliefs, once I was aware of those, and I recognized them, then I worked on starting to understand how and why those beliefs came to be. It is a very interesting journey if we sit back and we ask ourselves, "At what point did I start believing that I wasn't good enough? At what point in my journey and in my life did I start believing that people would not find value in what I have to contribute?"
0:44:50.9 MM: I have many instances throughout my life, where well-meaning adults and people who were just caught up in their own world and aren't sensitive to other people, have made statements or have taken actions where it has impacted my evaluation of my worth inside of a creative endeavour. The most recent and the largest, kind of the creme de la creme icing on the cake being my ex saying, "Oh, I'm leaving you by the way, because you spend too much time photographing and you're neglecting me."
0:45:26.6 Jaymi: So what kind of... Inside of this stage, the recognize and reveal stage, so just as a refresher, we've talked about the Resist stage where you are resisting your creativity, you have an inner critic that is drilling into you that this is not something that you wanna do, you're not good at it, why would you bother? But once you recognize what's underlying that, then you can move into the recognize and reveal stage where you start to understand how these beliefs become the biases, the way that you see yourself, what are some of the self-care exercises that we can do to stop that negative autopilot?
0:46:04.6 MM: This is absolutely... This is the work, this is the work of the work, this is the personal inner work that you need to do before you can do the outer work, this helps you to break down those barriers around it. So these exercises there's quite a few of them that I do, but it's iterative. It's every day. And the very first thing inside of this is stopping yourself. So we have to actively practice stopping the muscle memory, knee-jerk reaction that happens in split seconds from our inner critic, that inner critic script that judges and drives everything we do.
0:46:48.1 MM: So the whole premise of this exercise is just get off auto pilot, start paying attention to your... Both your conscious response, your physical response, and your subconscious response. So what does that mean? Well, number one, are you even aware or conscious of visual images that come into your head or however you see inspiration? What do you do in the moment that you're inspired? And this is something that I did not recognize I was doing, but I was just glossing by those moments. I was like, "Oh yeah, you know, that would be cool." Or, "Yeah, that would be amazing if I could do that," but I'm not doing that anymore.
0:47:32.3 MM: So the first way that we stop the knee-jerk reaction is to acknowledge that moment, whether it's writing it at that moment down, so I carry a book with me now, and everything that comes into my head visually that I see that I get a response from, I write it down. The next stage is release. So if we're to think about release as actively physically working the personal work, whereas recognize and reveal as actively thinking through why I feel this way, we're gonna take that and we're gonna translate it into making your work.
0:48:09.1 MM: And personal work is really interesting. I had not understood the concept of personal work until I started this journey, and I reached out to an amazing conceptual photographer, and her name is Jennifer Thorsen, and I reached out to her right after everything imploded for me, and she became... There was like a lifeline reach out, and it's like, "I don't know where to start or how to do this, and I know that there's gotta be a way, but I'm lost and I'm drowning in my own anger around my lack of ability to pull myself out of this paralyzed state that I'm in."
0:48:50.2 MM: And so with Jennifer's help... She's been through this process in terms of her own art journey, her own creator journey, but there's definitely some things that we need to do on a regular basis as creatives in nurturing that inner creative that helps us practice these muscles that we have not had before, so these are all new muscles, we wanna develop new muscle memory around this, and understanding that the release, the act of releasing is... Actually the only way that we can do it is to physically make the work.
0:49:32.1 MM: And so because we have such a very hard time with this very emotional, personal inner stripping away of all of the things that have congested our creative vision and our ability to own our creativity, and we have to work emotionally to uncover those barriers, the physical act of doing exercises just to make work is the rehab for the new creative muscles that we're building.
0:50:03.2 MM: So while we are peeling away each of our bias layers, we look at what goes into them, and then we actively work to know that it is not our truth. So for instance, my self-care exercises during my release stage, which I am deep in right now, and I don't know how long it's gonna be, but that's okay, because the process of it in general is very very healing and it feels... The start, I'm starting to understand the concept of making work for the practice of making work, versus making work for the sole goal to be published.
0:50:44.2 MM: This is a very, very different pathway, and in order to protect this myself in this phase, I've done a few different things. So number one, I have stopped all the habits that feed my negative self inner critic, so I'm cocooning, which means that I am now protecting my very newly vulnerable, raw and exposed creative self from the things that make me unstable in the first place.
0:51:13.9 MM: So I'm not actively posting on social, I'm limiting my time on social, social for me is my Achilles heel. I have gone to other forms of inspiration, the library, art books, different artists that aren't in conservation, and wildlife photography, and I have placed myself back into a learner inside the journey versus a professional who's looking to get a job. So I've taken some of the stigma around my end goal and I've just allowed myself to come back to that place where I was with Melyssa Brew out in the field in Utah in 2015, where I was so full of joy.
0:51:58.0 MM: I hold that moment as my golden moment to emulate where I can get back into the flow. And so to do that, I've put my blinders on and have cut out a lot of things that were feeding my negative self inner critic. Another thing that I've done is I have started sitting with myself, and what I mean by that is when I have a phone in my hand, or when I am on a social stream, or when I'm looking at others work, I am reacting to their work, but I am not reacting to how I feel.
0:52:37.7 MM: And so I've needed to sit with myself so that I can tap into all of these emotions that I've uncovered during my reveal phase of why my beliefs are that way and how I got there, because there's... I hold a lot of anger, I hold a lot of sadness just from other areas in my life, I hold a lot of joy, and I'm starting to understand the more that I sit with my personal feelings, that those are sources of energy for me, and I can translate, I'm starting to be able to translate that into work that feeds me.
0:53:16.2 MM: And so now the practice is so rather than picking up my camera and going out to the field, I'm sitting quietly versus in the field versus looking... Absolutely looking for something to shoot. I'm sitting quietly and I'm waiting for that visual moment to come with me, and if I don't get it, then I'm just sitting and I'm feeling, and I believe that that is going to be my path to a lot of healing as well as being able to creatively tap into this hidden source that I need to uncover that will power and fuel my next round of work.
0:53:56.6 MM: I've also found a very trusted guide, and I mentioned her earlier, her name is Jennifer Thorsen, she is a conceptual photographer, and she offers small workshops to a very limited amount of people that takes people through the art and the practice of how to make conceptual art, which in and of itself is a whole art form, and the process is really uncomfortable, I have to be honest. It is very uncomfortable because you have to dig.
0:54:28.4 MM: But the thing that I've learned most from her is that you make work to make your art because you are a creator, and when we've tried to force ourselves into other people's definition of art, then that's when we become stifled and paralyzed.
0:54:43.4 MM: Also, Jennifer, turned me on to this amazing book that's been around for 25 years, it just celebrated its 25th anniversary, but it's called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and I swear, this is the self-help book for all creatives. It is like get your own therapeutic counselor in a book that you can work on by yourself anywhere. It's really cool and it's been a critical tool in my process. So part of her, Julia Cameron's approach is something called morning pages.
0:55:18.3 MM: And morning pages is where you sit down every morning, right when you wake up, you get up 30 minutes earlier if you have to, and you just write... You start writing, and you write three pages no matter what, every day, and even if you don't have anything to say, you write, "I don't have anything to say," over and over and over again.
0:55:39.2 MM: And what this does is eventually it starts clearing your brain and your subconscious is allowed to breathe, and you find yourself writing about things that you never knew that you were going to write, it's self-discovery through journaling. And once I started that practice, what that allowed me to do is I felt like I had this shroud that had been wrapped around my brain for so long, and as I started writing that shroud went away. I became less foggy and those inspiring visuals that when I feel something, I get a hit of what I want to create, that started happening for me throughout the day more and more frequently.
0:56:12.5 MM: So it's like it's a... It's a subconscious cleanser that is very tactile and you put pen to paper or pencil to paper, or Apple Pencil to iPad, and you just do this motion, this exercise every day. And it's been truly helpful for me.
0:56:29.4 Jaymi: You know years ago, I interviewed Krista Schlyer about her book Almost Anywhere, which is this... You know we always think of Krista Schlyer as a conservation photographer and this really amazing kind of activist with her photography work, but she is a brilliant writer, and she mentioned that The Artist's Way was something that she recommended for creatives. And so the idea that it's a book where you're writing morning pages or you're delving into that, even from Krista who is an author and a photographer, she found this really powerful as well.
0:57:03.5 Jaymi: So it definitely seems to be an amazing tool, one that I wanna pick up and try as well.
0:57:09.8 MM: I recommend it to... I sent a copy to my mom, I'm like, "Mom, you need to read this." Just like I'll send it to my sister. I'm like, no matter who you are, it helps you to... And a lot of what I'm talking about here is reinforced through those pages, but we all have... We all have things that we carry with us that get in the way of our creativity, and sometimes we just need a method to get them out. And then once they're out and we can see them and we put them in the light of day, then we can address them and move them on their way and say goodbye, and start fresh, and it's truly part of that process.
0:57:43.3 Jaymi: You know, something that you said earlier too, where you were talking about sitting with yourself and having your reaction kind of come more slowly, more carefully, when you're out in nature. So you're not picking up a camera in order to go shoot, you're picking up a camera and maybe you're going out in nature, and you're letting something sort of happen inside of existing in that space. And I remember, last summer, being in a very creatively stifled place and talking to a friend about it, and he's this ridiculously talented underwater photographer, who works in fresh water, and he was like, "Do you ever take time to just play?" And [chuckle] I was like, "What's that? I'm too... No, I'm too busy for that. I wanna go out, I wanna kind of be there and think about it, and figure out how I'm gonna photograph it, and then photograph it, and then move forward with the project."
0:58:36.4 Jaymi: And I realized with, sitting with that for a long... A long time after I had that moment with him, sitting with that and thinking, oh, that's one of the reasons why I feel really creatively stifled inside of what I'm trying to do, is because I'm entering an area in order to produce. I'm entering an area in order to take, in the form of creation and production, rather than entering into an area and just existing inside of it, until it reveals itself and I'm allowed to document it, in a way that feels natural and creative to me. And I think that that's a really big part of allowing yourself this release phase, and sitting with yourself and allowing that creativity to just kind of marinate, and percolate, and come up of its own accord, and it's because your purpose behind it has completely shifted. You are not creating for the purpose of showing or producing, you're creating for the purpose of creating.
0:59:34.7 MM: Yes, it's so beautifully stated, Jaymi. I think what you hit upon is also very, very true, in that I think 'play' is the perfect word, that we no longer play, and there's part of us, as creatives, we need to play, and experiment, and not judge what we play with, or how do we play, we need to fail. There's so many things inside of the play space that we often, we get so focused, 'cause we're all very driven people, we're all assignment-driven, deadline-driven, that we forget to build time into our schedules to allow ourselves to stretch our boundaries of what our definition means, and allow ourselves to work with things that are uncomfortable, or we've never tried before, to get to that next level.
1:00:18.9 Jaymi: Now, there's one more thing that you mentioned doing in the release phase, that I think is really important to delve into, if you're willing, which is that you formed a very small intimate circle of safe friends that are helping you to incubate your creative process.
1:00:33.0 MM: Yes.
1:00:33.1 Jaymi: Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
1:00:36.4 MM: You know, it was really difficult for me to kind of stop... To let people back in, to stop not trusting that people would have their best intentions. However, what I recognized is that in this phase of me reforming my creative self, and now that I've pulled my creative self, my inner self to my outside, and I'm talking about it, and I'm working the work and I'm physically doing these things, and I'm being present, and conscious, and I'm mindful, and I'm aware, I'm really raw, literally, I'm very raw, and I'm very informed, and I need to be with people that will treat me with care, that will not judge, that will hold me in their hearts, hold my work in their hearts, and can give me honest, honest feedback, not mechanical feedback like, "Oh, you should dodge over here, wrong focal length," but feedback as to... I can put something in front of them and say, "How does this make you feel?"
1:01:45.6 MM: And not every person is vulnerable enough to talk from their heart or not talk from their ego, and so I've only been working with a few people because I still need that, I still need that human interaction of creative feeding a creative. And I believe that all creatives, that we need to hold each other up and that we need to nurture each other, because that is part of our mission with one another. This is tough field, and we need to support one another so we can keep going for the greater good. So I have whittled down my friend group with the people that I chat with about my work, I've stopped posting on social, as I mentioned, and I'm just in an incubation phase right now, and I'm teaching myself to be okay with that, to be okay with the process of incubating, to love the process of incubating and gestating.
1:02:40.6 MM: So that I know that when I'm ready to come out, I'll be fully formed and I'll have my armor. And it will be okay if people don't approve of my work because I won't care to be honest with you, I will have done it for me. I'll have had love and nurturing along the way from this really intimate group of friends, and I will have built the strength and the resiliency that I need to own myself and own my art and be able to call myself an artist.
1:03:08.1 Jaymi: And when that happens, you'll have moved into that fourth and final stage of this creative self-care, which is the revere stage. What is the revere stage all about?
1:03:22.6 MM: I believe that when we are there, we revere our work, we revere and prioritize and respect the space that it needs to happen in. It becomes its own living, breathing entity that we acknowledge needs to be treated differently than the rest of our life because it is a sacred space. And right now, I'm working on getting there, I'm working on making a sacred emotional space, and a sacred physical space to be in that energy flow, that state of mind, but it takes this practice of everyday work to build the strength, to be able to put that aside and say, "This is my sacred space, and this is how I revere my inner artist."
1:04:16.4 Jaymi: I wanna reiterate how important it is to acknowledge and to move through these stages, I think for anyone, especially working inside of conservation photography and conservation visual storytelling, and the reason why I say it's especially important, I think after listening to everything that you said, 'cause I haven't heard any of this before. We talked about the concept of it, but not the details of it before this conversation, so talking with you about these stages and what you've delved into and what you've moved through and what you've identified other people are really struggling with and can use these stages with...
1:04:57.8 Jaymi: And why it's so important inside of conservation visual storytelling is because the stories that we tell are about something more profound than something that we're simply interested in or something that we're curious about, that goes into play, but typically we have a much larger goal, and that is to move the needle on a healthier planet, on healthier ecosystems, on healthier communities, on the ability for all living things on the planet to be able to have as healthy as possible life to undo damage that we as humans do to this planet. And with those goals in mind, I think that we bring an extra weight, an extra pressure, an extra drive to our work, not only to have it succeed, but to have it accepted, to have it put in front of audiences, to have it received well, to have people act on it.
1:05:50.9 Jaymi: And that can actually be to the detriment of telling stories that resonate, it can be to the detriment of telling stories that can actually cause creative action because it's done in such a way that can feel forced or sterile or uninspired. And the more that we can move into the inspired state of creating and telling stories the way that we see them, that we envision them, that we craft them, that we come up with a creative way that, as you said, makes people feel something, then we can do our best work as conservationists.
1:06:26.6 Jaymi: And so I think that when we're listening to this conversation, when I say 'we,' I mean all of us, all the listeners of this podcast, when we're listening to this conversation, we're thinking, "Oh yeah, that's great for the creative. That's more artsy than I'm thinking or that I wanna get into," actually it's at the crux of being a conservation photographer because we do such weighty work, and there's so many elements of visual storytelling that is very, very weighty; war photography and getting into the domestic realms can be very, very weighty, of course.
1:06:58.3 Jaymi: But with conservation photography, we also have that weight, we have that emotional weight and that sense of urgency that can really cause us to stay inside of that resist phase for way too long, and it takes forever to get to that revere phase. So anyway, I just wanted to point that out as we go through these stages, how critical they are to us.
1:07:19.3 MM: Absolutely. Self-care, just in general, is... I think the whole point of this journey for me was to understand what do I need to do to take care of myself emotionally, that's really what it's boiled down to, and my emotional health is completely intrinsically, inextricably tied to my creative work, and that was something that I had never realized before this journey, I am not happy unless I'm creating, and I think all of us are that way. And so if we can take care of our inner creative then we can take care of ourselves emotionally, the two can work hand-in-hand to produce that amazingly impactful, beautiful soul fulfilling for the creator and soul fulfilling for the viewer, it's a gift, but it's also a give and a take.
1:08:14.0 Jaymi: Well said. Well said. Will you please walk us back through the stages of creative self-care one more time?
1:08:20.1 MM: Absolutely. So our resist stage; here we resist our natural intuitive creative voices, because our inner critic, our approval moderator is constantly overriding very intuitive urges for us to create. And so inside the resist stage, we start listening for that critic, to hear that critic, and once we do hear that critic, we move into the recognized phase, which is where we do the personal work to break down barriers and biases. Once we understand how those barriers have come to be through exercises that we can ask ourselves to stop our negative auto-pilot, we move into the release phase where we start actively working on a daily basis, it's our daily practice around our creative work and the nurturing and self-care of our creative being.
1:09:19.4 MM: Where we start releasing those bad thoughts, those bad entrainments, those knee-jerk reactions, so that we can make space and make that space sacred where we can perform our best work and be free of our biases and move into our absolute and most of all, to creative self inside that revere stage.
1:09:42.6 Jaymi: Oh my goodness Melyssa, I think that you have done a whole lot of hard work, not just for yourself, but also for the benefit of everyone else who kind of recognizes that they're going through something like this, but doesn't necessarily know how to move through it, and you've done the leg work for us to bring about such clarity around this, and I really, really appreciate you for that.
1:10:07.7 MM: Thank you Jaymi, so much for allowing me to come on and talk and share. I've gotten so much from our creative art conservation community, both from a creative perspective. I've been inspired by so many people in this audience, and I've been inspired by the fearlessness and the bad-assness of what everyone has gone out and done. And this is my small way of saying, if this helps somebody else, I went through it, but I know that if it can help someone else, that will make my heart very happy.
1:10:41.9 Jaymi: Well, goodness, thank you. I would never wish this upon anyone. And yet, I know it happens, and so for you to give us tools through that, that journey that you've been through, that's really amazing, and you're also... I happen to know, even though you're not showing it publicly, I happen to know that you're producing some pretty exceptional creative work now, and so you are proof that moving through these stages really works wonders on your creativity and your ability to go into new realms of thinking, with your art, and moving forward with art and not just production.
1:11:20.1 MM: Well said. Thank you.
1:11:26.3 Jaymi: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing, subscribe to this podcast. As a subscriber, you'll not only know when each week's episode goes live, but you'll also get insider goodies like bonus episodes. You might miss them unless you're subscribed and I don't want you to miss out on a thing. So please tap that subscribe button and I will talk to you next week.
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