I’m that person. That girl who takes dozens of pictures of every sunset, every pretty view, just so I can find the perfect one to post on Instagram along with some inspirational quote.
It turns out, a lot of people don’t like that person. News has been trending recently about a camera that supposedly “prevents cliche pictures” dubbed “Camera Restricta.” This camera uses GPS tracking to find out how many pictures have been taken at your location. When it decides that number is too high, it will block the shutter from opening again until you move to a new location. The video describes it as “a disobedient tool for taking unique photographs”—the idea is that it forces you to be original, to photograph places no one has ever gone before.
Sounds like a great idea, right? Considering how viral the video has gone, a lot of people seem to think so. The world doesn’t need any more pictures of Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower, right?
Think about it. Are any two pictures ever exactly the same? They may look similar, but nobody has ever stood in exactly that spot at that precise time, under that exact lighting and with those particular clouds. Even more importantly, the person who takes the picture has never been in those specific circumstances or that state of mind. Sometimes a picture serves to capture an experience more than anything else. Not to mention that you might want to take a picture of a person who has never been there before. When you think about it that way, every picture is unique.
This invention and its popularity illustrate everything that is wrong with the way we think about creativity.
There’s this idea that nothing is worth doing unless it’s completely unlike anything that has ever existed. They say pop music is unoriginal because most songs use the same 4 chords. You know what? Those chords resonate with us for a reason, and they also allow for a huge variety of melodies and harmonies. They say movies that recycle plot lines are ripoffs. Really? Maybe that’s because there are reoccurring themes in the human condition. These ideas set nearly impossible standards for originality, implying that creativity is only accessible to the select few who are able to escape the crowds and be struck by some sort of divine inspiration. It’s enough to discourage anyone from attempting anything new.
Thankfully, that’s not how creativity works. It doesn’t happen without influence. More often than not, the best creations come from normal people making changes to something that already exists. We’re all building with the same materials.
The video series Everything is a Remix demonstrates how so many of the great masterpieces of film, music, and technology are nothing more than novel combinations of preexisting work. Star Wars draws heavily on elements from numerous other films. Led Zeppelin took many of their lyrics and melodies from Blues songs. 74 out of 100 of the highest grossing films have been either sequels or remakes of earlier films or adaptations of stories from other sources. Even the inventions that have changed the world, like the personal computer or the industrial assembly line, were discovered by combining and transforming other ideas. Thus, the three foundational elements of creativity: copy, transform, combine.
Anyone can be creative. When you create things, you’re creative. To be human is to have that potential. There’s no magic to it—it’s simply a matter of making the effort to learn about what has made a difference in the past and then building on that by making connections and putting things into a new context. I believe that creations shouldn’t be judged by some ridiculous standard of “originality,” but rather by their meaningfulness and influence.
That’s why it’s okay to start a blog, even if you feel like all your ideas have been said before by someone else. Maybe you’ll be able to phrase things in a better way or reach someone who would never have been exposed to those ideas otherwise. Or maybe you’ll simply develop the skills and credibility you’ll need in the future when you do come up with a great idea.
So don’t feel guilty about taking the millionth picture of a palm tree with the sun hitting it just right. Just make it meaningful.