Rules, Limits & Creative Brilliance

by | Process

Jonathan Robert Willis, a photographer friend of mine, sent a link to a personal exploration project he recently released called Wind. While I love (LOVE!) the finished product, what I enjoyed most was hearing his rationale for the highly-directed approach he took in generating it.

My goal this year is to invest in personal exploration work. The wind project was an attempt to isolate an aspect of my typical process and flip it. Creatively, I have a strong ability to completely control and direct a session and capture powerful or interesting portrait. I wanted to force myself to let go of a portion of that control and capture more spontaneous moments of loosening control. So we got a high powered air blower and focused the wind by funneling it down to a very narrow opening. I gave very general direction to the subject mostly to keep cheeks and lips loose and relaxed.”

Regarding the process for the shoots, he said:

“Sessions were brief about 4 or 5 blasts about 90 seconds each. Editing was an also interesting challenge. Many of the shots either looked too…….exaggerated or just awful. I felt the final images should be compelling and not simply opportunistic. It has been fun watching the response. When you contort and freeze the face in this way it often makes people we recognize almost unrecognizable. I think we have certain check points that we register when seeing someone we know. But when we skew those points its amazing how friends can become strangers.”

He continued to explain that he’s discovered that establishing rules and rigidity around his process has helped him find new ways of expressing himself through his photography.

“I realized I thrive on rules and boundaries. I feel like rules make room for truly creative work. I had a friend that once said even tomatoes thrive when they are grown on a rigid structure. Same kind of idea. If you want to see fruit grow from organic and wild vines it needs a support or the fruit rots in the dirt.”

This is the same thing I’ve seen over and over with creatives and teams we’ve worked with. While we often think we want a complete lack of boundaries, that kind of pseudo-freedom is actually paralyzing to our creative process. However, with effective boundaries in place – even self-imposed ones – we can engage more fully and freely in the work because we’ve limited the number of variables we have to negotiate. (That’s what establishing practices in your life and creating is all about!)

See more of Jonathan’s work (including the rest of Wind) at

How about you? Are there examples of limits or boundaries you’ve purposefully placed in your life and work, and how have they impacted your creating?

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.


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