Exploring the Unknown with a Polar Bear Charmer

On October 24, 2012, Posted by , In Creativity,Facilitators,San Francisco, With No Comments

I recently found myself hosing water on my friend Robert while he played a kazoo to a toy polar bear. As I chuckled and took photos, I thought about how I had gotten there.

You see, my friend Robert is an improv actor and a fellow Springboard facilitator. He asked me to take some headshots of him. But when I arrived at his home he told me that his vision had changed – he had decided he didn’t need headshots anymore. Turns out he had been to see the Cindy Sherman photography show at SFMOMA and it had made him interested in issues of identity and representation in photography. He still wanted to create images, but didn’t know what the end use for them would be, or even what type of images they should be. He had laid out dozens of props and costumes on his bed and invited me to use my input and ideas to co-create some photos.

As a photographer that has often worked for clients, I wanted to know what our goal was. How would we know when we had succeeded? But it became clear that Robert didn’t know how we would measure success. He just knew that a standard headshot would no longer be enough; plus he had all these wonderful accessories lying around!

We started off playing it safe – get a headshot anyway, just to have it. And then Robert changed into something, well, outrageous. We grabbed some props and headed on to the street outside his Mission apartment. The first images we shot were throwaway, not useful. But as we started playing with an umbrella, a toy polar bear, and a hose, we created a character that came to be called “Polar Bear Charmer.” Once we had that, the photos seemed to flow. And from that first experiment we created another character “Whale Charmer” – in another ridiculous outfit. We sauntered over to a nearby park to continue the shoot and when the kids asked me why I was taking pictures of him, I was sure to mess with them a little and say that Whale Charmer was an up and coming hip-hop act.

In the end, we had a lot of fun with the shoot. We established a path to take for future shoots and a way to link them. Perhaps most importantly we started working on the level Robert was interested in – identity and representation. And neither of us had any idea what would come of it when we started.

In this case, creativity involved putting one foot in front of the other and being surprised by what emerged. It involved trusting that I had the skills and vision, in the moment, to confront the challenges that are embedded in creating. And it necessitated a leap into the unknown and sitting with a certain level of discomfort. As is so often the case, I had to move into the void, the “un,” for something new to emerge.

I can’t wait to find out how this series ends! Can we do aardvark charmer? Is snake charmer too obvious? And how will all this play into Robert’s exploration of representation and identity? I can’t answer these questions now, but I’m excited to keep creating.

-Alexander Warnow, Springboard Founder & Facilitator

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