Beating the Block: Douglas Beasly’s Vision Quest Cards

I came across Vision Quest Cards when I was browsing projects on Kickstarter. The concept seemed promising: a deck of cards that would act as prompts for photographers (either alone or in groups) who might find themselves stuck from time to time. I was sufficiently intrigued to plunk down the money for a deck, and now that I’ve had the chance to look them over, I’m glad that I did.

The deck consists of 36 cards, each of which represents a short project. These range from the simple (like the first card, with the simple instruction to “Photograph the color red.”) to the more abstract or challenging (“Walk an area you would normally drive past. Bring your camera and make photos of what you might normally overlook.” Sound familiar?) The card format makes sense, partly because the assignments aren’t numerous enough to sustain a book, and partly because they’re not meant to be used in quite the same way you’d use a book. You don’t plow through this deck start to finish, in other words. It’s something more like a well from which you can draw when the inspiration’s run a bit dry.

This deck might not be for everybody. There’s a simplicity here that a certain breed of photographers (the ones, generally speaking, who pride themselves on how advanced they are and aren’t afraid to remind you of that fact) might find beneath them. That same simplicity allows the project to be as little as you’d like (if you’re pressed for time, it’s not as though it’s that hard to find something red) or as complex as you’re willing to make it, as well. The option for simplicity is a good thing, though, since if you’re stuck, the last thing you need is more complications. Besides which, someone who’s dug themselves a nice, deep hole probably ought not to complain about the color of the rope that’s thrown to them.

Which, of course, is another way of saying that if you’re willing to approach the cards with an open mind, they have the potential to be quite effective. In fact, perhaps the best thing about Beasly’s cards is that you could, if you had a mind to, very easily expand the deck yourself using nothing more than a stack of index cards and a ballpoint pen. They won’t be as elegant looking as the original pack of 36, but as I’ve mentioned before, it can be very useful to keep a stock (or a stack) of ideas in reserve, ’cause you just never know when you might need a shot of inspiration. The Vision Quest deck will easily fit into your camera bag for quick reference.

Postscript: You can find out more at

Rule 39: Beat the Block

Lend me your -- Wait a Minute, Get Back Here!

As a writer and as a photographer, I’ve experienced dry spells (the dreaded writer’s/artist’s block). I don’t mean a few minutes spent staring at a blank (or sometimes even partially-filled) page or into a viewfinder waiting for the right subject. In fact, maybe “block” is a bit too coy. That makes it sound like a speed bump or a DUI checkpoint, instead of a friggin’ wall in your path, something that seems too high to go over, too low to get under, and too big to get around. I’m talking anywhere from a couple of weeks to even a couple of years at a time of having any and all creative sense feel like it’s left you. And that, let’s be blunt, is one shitty feeling when who you are is tied up in or even just informed by what you create. It’s like a part of you has gone missing and left no forwarding address. Your Muse, that fickle and capricious being, has headed for parts unknown and didn’t even invite you along for the ride. How insulting!

At that point, you’ve got two choices; wait it out, or attack it head-on.  Every so often someone, usually trying their level best to be helpful, will tell you that it will “pass.” Well, yes, it does, and will. But if you’re of a certain frame of mind — impatient, wanting to create but finding yourself frozen in place — waiting may not seem like (or, if you’re on a deadline, may well not be) an option.

What to do, then? Whatever it is that you’d normally do (writing, photography, pottery, balloon animals), keep on doing it. But we’re going to add a little twist: before you begin, you have to do one very important thing. You have to give yourself permission to be mediocre, or even terrible. Switch off your usual critical voice. Forget your technique, screw the rules, say to hell with even your craft. Your only mission, for one day or one hundred or however long it takes, is to “fake it ’til you make it.”

And when I say to ditch all your usual methods of working, I mean it. Put it — all of it — aside. Change up the times at which you work, your usual subject matter, your usual judgments and preferences and gear.* You only shoot landscapes in medium format at sunset? Not now you don’t. Remember, doing your “usual” was what got you into this rut in the first place. Shoot cars at high noon with your camera phone. Shoot cat pictures on your lunch hour with disposable cameras from the drugstore down the street. Take snapshots — yes, snapshots — of clouds or hot dog vendors or that lady at the greeting card store who looks like maybe she does whippets on the store’s helium tank. Take anything you want except landscapes with your medium format at your appointed time, until you have a very clear idea in your head of what you want — maybe even need — to shoot.

So. Wait it out, or attack it head-on? I’ve tried it both ways, and I can tell you from experience, I will not wait again, nor do I suggest that you wait. The facepalm-inducing feeling you get when the block finally lifts (or when you finally figure out how to lift it yourself) and you realize all that you could’ve been doing, could have been creating, in that lost time just ain’t worth it.

From time to time, I’ll be sharing some tips and strategies that have worked for me in getting past my own blocks (in fact, I’ll be sharing a personal favorite tomorrow), and I’d appreciate if you’d share yours too.

*This also applies to any non-photographers/writers who might’ve wandered here accidentally, by the way.