Art Will Always Be Inside You No Matter What with Joel Robison

In today’s episode, I’m talking to a photographer who has been a huge inspiration to lots of us for many years. A photographer who is famous for his whimsical, conceptual fine art photography. He has gained massive popularity sharing his personal and branded work, including that for Coca-Cola and Football World Cup Tour. He was one the first to develop the use of miniature worlds in conceptual photography. He instructed over 400 students in 8 countries during his creative photography workshops. But most importantly, he is the person who never stops believing in the endless creativity of every human being. And this is what he is sharing in everything that he puts out there. Please welcome Joel Robison!


Show Notes


What we talked about:


  • Joel’s style and things that inspire him
  • Working with clients as a fine art photographer
  • Pros & cons of shooting self-portraits
  • Is copying others bad and what should you do if your work has been copied?
  • What to do when you hit the creative block



Joel’s Instagram

Joel’s website

Joel’s Flickr

Brooke Shaden, artist, a friend of Joel’s

Joel’s post about synesthesia

Joel’s patreon


Interview script


- When you started, who inspired you? And who inspires you now?


- When I first started I was isolated in the way as I live in a very small town and there weren’t many creative photographers that I was exposed to. I was inspired a lot by other artists, illustrators, painters or Walt Disney and people that created really imaginative things. As i shared my work online, I got inspired by other people that were doing the same thing. Now a lot of them are my friends, like Brooke Shaden, people that put their whole selves into what they do. I think I started when this whole fine art photography hobby movement was growing and we all inspired each other. We all come from different places but we still coming from the same phase, we’re still excited, we’re still doing something new and I’m still inspired by all of the friends I made. It’s an amazing community to be involved in.


- Tell us few words about how you started?


- It’s been 10 years since I seriously started getting into photography and it sort of happened by an accident. As a kid I’ve always wanted to be an animator and as a teenager I realized I’m not really great at drawing, I put aside any dream that I had about being an artist, if I can’t do that there’s nothing else I want to do. 6-7 years later, I was working a regular job, I’ve gone to school, but I felt like important part of my life is missing. Something wasn’t right, so I started different types of arts, drawing, painting, nothing really felt like the thing that I was supposed to do. Then I just randomly happened to find Flickr, I saw some creative photographs that I’ve never seen before and people that are like me, just sharing their work.


I fell in love, I was obsessed with Flickr and realized that I need to buy a camera. I didn’t even know what I was buying, I just looked on eBay for whatever I could afford and I played with it everyday until I realized that if I can’t draw the stories and ideas that I had, maybe my camera could do it. I slowly learned how to use my camera and photoshop.


- Your recent post about synesthesia, could you please tell more about the phenomenon?


- When growing up, I’ve never told anyone, I thought everyone experience it the same way. In college I said “it’s Monday, it’s a red day”, my friend asked me what do I mean by that, he told me I could have synesthesia. I looked it up, it’s so interesting to read about it. When I posted it few days ago I got a lot of responses from other people that either didn't know that they had it but now they realize it, or from the people that already knew that they had it and shared their experiences. I talked to a friend that studied psychology and she told me about people that have synesthesia with smells or taste, it can be intense and frustrating even, you might smell something and it will trigger a reaction in your mind. For me it’s colors, and it can be frustrating too, usually it’s places I visit, I experience certain colors and if I go back to this place and I have unpleasant or different experience it feels like it has to change colors. At times like this it can be really frustrating, I have to figure out in my mind how it looks in my mind now. But for the most parts I don’t even notice this anymore, it’s just there. When I tell people about it for the first time they always want to know what colors I see when I see them, it’s not a magic trick, the person’s name is clear until I have some experience with them and it’s filled with colors it represents.It’s not as rare as people think, people just don’t know about it, if in schools they’d talk more about it as we grow up, we’d find out that lot more people have it, especially artists. I think lot of artists have some form of it, especially with colors, how they choose them and how they relate to different moods.


- You are clearly inspired by fairy tales, books, especially Harry Potter, what are other books that inspire you?


- I've always been into fairy tales and stories, when growing up I read a lot, my place to go was a library. I’d read whatever looked interesting and these stories factored to what I create now. And books that were written by adults but were so imaginative, so creative and had no limits to them, they gave me a permission, now as an adult, to have that same freedom in being creative. I’m inspired by a lot of authors that had no limits to their imaginations. Alice in Wonderland is my favorite story of all time. It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t have any real limit to it, it’s just this crazy story that get crazier, it has no limits to how strange and confusing it gets. That story has always been to me an example that you can be as weird as you want and you can create any world that you want and people don’t necessarily need to understand to appreciate it.


- I’ve noticed that topic “everything is possible” is your theme, why do you find it to be so important?


- That’s actually kind of a summary of my work. I think it’s important because when we are kids we live in this very creative world, we imagine all sorts of things, we have no limits to what we see, we are encouraged to dream. As we grow up it gets turned off, we are told to get into real world, it’s such a shame because we get so much joy and freedom from tapping into that creative side, it gives us a chance to express parts of ourselves that we don’t know how to do otherwise. By believing that everything is possible we give ourselves permission to see the world in a bit of a different way that we do all the time. The world isn’t always a very nice and positive place and every opportunity we have to put a little bit more imagination, creativity, love to the world, we should take it.


- You mostly take photos of yourself but sometimes you also work with models, which one do you prefer?


- I shoot a lot of self portraits and it comes from years ago when I was just starting out, I’m a bit stubborn and a perfectionist and a bit nervous at the same time, I didn’t want others to see me doing something that I didn’t know how to do. I couldn’t ask friends or models to shoot with me, how I could bring someone and not even know what I’m doing, I relied on myself. I realized pretty quickly that the time I spent shooting self portraits was like a meditation, I’d go by myself to the nature, spend there 2-3 hours, it gave me a chance to be in my own space getting to know myself in a different way. I’ve learnt that it was the most powerful way to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, because my work is almost always a reflection of something about myself and what better way there is to show that just use yourself in the work that you’re doing, it’s been really fascinating to see through the years myself change, grow up and age and to see how my taste has change. 

I find it a bit exciting and a bit nerve wracking to do self portraits, it’s not always fun or easy to look at yourself in the mirror and camera, but by the end of my life I’ll have this amazing diary of my life in a way that I wanted it to be to be shown. I do like working with other people as well, I’m not best at pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I’m a little bit nervous around shooting with other people, mostly because I’m worried they won’t understand it or it might not be what they’ve expected, it’s something I have to get better at. I have a lot of plans with shooting with other people, but a lot of times I just wanna go out there and shoot the ideas that I have and I’m always around.


- What are other areas where you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone?


- I’ve always had ideas that are a little bit further or different from what I do now and I talk myself out of them quite easily because I think it might be a lot of work and it might not work out the way I want it to. It’s things like I want to do more videos so I want to learn how to properly incorporate movement into the work that I’m doing, taking the images that I already create and make them more engaging by making them to actually have movements to them. It’s learning new techniques, new skills, new programs, it’s scary. It’s scary to learn something new, especially when you have people watching. Also, living as an artist is really fun and easy to be in the artist mode, to do the creation and imagination, but it’s the organization part of it that makes me sure that everything is getting done in the right way, that part I always struggle with, but I’m learning it as I go. I’ve been doing photography full time for 5 years now and I’m learning every year how to be organized and to be more experienced in the ways that I need to work on and that’s something that’s a lot out of my comfort zone.


- Do you only do this type of photography, surreal fine art, or do you shoot anything else?


- If it’s in my comfort zone I stay in it but I do find it enjoyable to push myself out of it a little. I’ve shot a couple of weddings, engagements, some portraits and a lot of events. They’re not what I feel I’m best at but I think they still help me work on my craft. As an fine art artist you are in control, you can decide when you wanna shoot, how you wanna do it, you can redo it hundreds times, but in those events you really have to know what you’re doing and you gotta do it now. It’s scary and fun at the same time, you really have to know your skills, your camera, you have to know what things are gonna look before it happens. It’s more like a game to me than fine art, fine art is step by step.


- Tell us about your process.


- When I organize the shoot I’m really organized, I’ll usually sit down and do some brainstorming. One of my favourite things to do is mind mapping, I’ve learnt it in school and never used it in anything school related.  I come up with a word and with everything that comes up with that word I kinda day dream, I let my brain to go off wherever it need to go and I’ll just write all the words that I can think of. I’ll look at those words and maybe pick a few of them or all of them and build an idea, sometimes it’s random. Then I usually try to sketch it down. In times when I’m shooting something that I’ve been planning I have the picture in my head already and I want to see how close I can get the actual photo to look like in my brain. And sometimes I just really like to grab my camera, my backpack and go to the woods and see what happens. When I create like that it’s more about what I’m feeling then and there and it’s closer to who I’m.


- Would you recommend going full time job as a fine art photographer?


- It’s not easy, in past 2 years it’s gotten harder and harder because there’s so many people doing it, which is great, more people are feeling empowered to create, in art sense of it it’s amazing, we can never have enough of artists. As a business side of it makes it a little bit harder, the quality goes up and the level of what people want goes up. In the last 2 years I’ve been trying to find a balance between what I want to create and what people are looking to buy, to see more as an investment or a commercial purchase. But you can do it if you’re really believing in your individual art, it’s easy to create work that’s cool and flashy, but to really be successful at it personally and be able to do it as a job you have to know what you do really well and show other people that you’re the only one that can do that.


- Tell us about working with clients.


- it’s been interesting over the years to learn how to work with clients and from starting creating just for myself by myself never expecting anyone to even like what I do to people wanting to hire me. I’ve been pretty lucky to work with big clients like Coca-Cola, Oprah, Google. Everytime I do a project with a client it’s a chance for me to learn a little bit more about myself and how I can do better for a next client. I'm very lucky, in a sense that a lot of a job opportunities have come to me rather than I have to go to a person and find them. The client work that I do changes all the time, it depends on what brands want. The last big project that I did was on a world’s largest cruise ship.


- You recently joined, could you tell more about that?


- it’s been something that I’ve been looking at doing for a long time and I’ve been wanting to have a space where I can engage with people in a different way and level. People that want to learn a little bit more can help you help them, they’re subscribing to a content that you’re giving them that’s a little bit more exclusive. I’ve been doing it for 10 years now and everything I do is pretty much for free, this is a chance for me to really to take a bit more time creating content that, I think, will help people. Everyday I get messages from people asking how to do this or that, instead of directing people to other places I’d rather take a chance to teach them myself. Right now it’s a learning platform, I have different membership levels starting with $1 that go all the way from getting access to blog posts to behind the scenes tutorials to getting templates that you can put on your own images. I haven’t really set a goal on a patreon yet, but I want to create a learning platform for people and to engage in a different way that I have before.


- Do you really want people to implant into your photos?


- I’m not going to create an image for myself, but an atmosphere of photograph, so the template or the background, the portraitless part of the image and give people the opportunity to insert themselves into that piece. For me it’s coming up with the idea and let somebody else to be a part of it. It will allow people to learn the layers and how to do it the next time.


- Tell us how you meet all of those amazing photographers? Do you go to any photography events?


- When Flickr was in its peak time we naturally fell into the same crowd of people, we started to follow each other, get to know each other, chat, we’d even plan the meetups, they were like a family reunion, the biggest ones we had were around 65 people. Some of them happened 6-7 years ago and I’m still good friends those people, best friends with a lot of them. Every chance you get to form a community and to engage with them is really beneficial. I moved to UK and lived there for 2 years, I didn’t know anyone, I knew there’s a photography community and I need to engage with them, and same thing happened. It’s like speaking the same language, it really helped me to expand my friendships and get out of my comfort zone and it taught me a lot of things.


- I’ve been into few bigger photography events, I just happened to be in the city then. I was at Adobe conference few times and that’s a place to be, it’s really creative, all the different people that use Adobe products in one room. Next week I’m flying to California to talk at the conference about creativity to the people I don’t really shoot, it’s baby and family photography conference.


- You did many workshops, was it 800 students?


- I think it’s more now, I did lots of workshops. 2 years ago I did a roadtrip across US, sort of a travelling workshop tour. Then I did a tour in Europe as well. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of online workshops, it’s a chance for people that live in smaller towns to participate, the content is there, people can access it whenever they can. I’m hopefully gonna launch another one in the fall. I also teach a lot at conference workshops, last year I taught in Argentina, Peru. I really love it, it’s a chance to show people how to do things that they might not be able to do before.


- Do you organize your workshop yourself?


- With the conferences it’s usually organized by someone. But a lot of the other ones I organized on my own, people that come know and understand what I do, they already have a connection to what I do, it’s much more personal connection.


- When you teach, what do you want your students to learn?


- Whenever I teach I always want to make sure that people remember that they are artists no matter what, it doesn’t matter how much work you produce or how many followers you have or what type of work you do, the way you see the world and how you share with others is your art. Art isn’t just the physical copy of it, art is something that’s inside of you and that speaks to you. Today you might feel you’re not an artist because you’re not creating anything now, but you’re still an artist, it’s there no matter what.


- Is there something in photography or editing that you dislike?


- I think trends and cliché things that everyone falls into. I’ve actually did a post about it in a magazine talking about clichés, are they good or are they bad? I think in a way they’re good because without clichés a lot of people wouldn’t learn how to do things. When you start something new using clichés is a good way to teach yourself basic skills. The tick is not to get trapped in that, if it’s not something that feels right or personal to you then, I believe, it’s not something that you should pursue, it’s not helping you anymore. Clichés are great way to learn new skills but might not necessarily be the best way to show who you are as an artist. I think I dislike that it’s so easy to flashy and cool looking stuff really quickly and it doesn’t have that personal connection.


- What is the difference between creative work and professional work?


- I think most of the work I’m getting paid to do it something that I’d feel comfortable doing on my own, I’m in a place right now where I can decide if it’s something that I want to do. But there are always those opportunities that come up and might be something completely different from what you do, professional work is always going to be something that pushes you a little bit further than you’d go. There’s not that much of a difference between creative and professional work, creative work can be professional.


- What you do when you have creative blocks?


- They happen all the time and people are always so afraid of them. When you get that block you feel like you’re never going to create ever again. Usually in the summers when I’m busy with other things I get the block and I think that’s it, it’s the end of my career, end of the world, I just let it take over. Last summer it lasted 2-3 weeks and made me realize that it was so dumb, I was just tired. Busy doing other things. It’s just like a muscle in our body, we need to take care of it, sometimes we overwork the muscle and it needs a break, creativity is the same. Sometimes we get so invested in only being known as a creative person, when you think you’re photographer and it’s the only important thing about you and we just live entirely in that bubble. We’re not only that one thing, we’re lots of things, when we focus only on that one thing, other things that are beautiful about us get ignored, we become less of who we are and less comfortable with who we are. When you feel that creative block it’s hard as it is, the best thing you can do is just walk away and just enjoy the other things that makes you who you are. Art should never be frustrating, it shouldn’t make you feel bad to create, and if it start to feel this way you need to take a break from it.


- What makes a good photograph?


- The story behind it. I’m not technically good photographer, I don’t follow the rules, I don’t pay attention to things that traditional photographer would. I don’t care about those things not because I don’t think they’re important, I care more about the story that the image has. I’m more attracted to the story than anything else. If I look at the piece of work and I get sucked into a story that it’s telling that makes a really good photograph. When I create and someone is looking at my work with no capture, no words, I’d want them to be able to create the story themselves or ask me.


- Do you think it’s more about making a good photo or taking a good photo?


- When I started not many people were doing what I do and Photoshop was still a bad thing, like how can you call yourself a photographer if you use Photoshop. At the end of the day nothing that I create can exist without a camera or without knowing how to use it. I like to put myself into positions where I have to work really quickly, shooting a wedding or an event you have to know how to use your camera, you have to visualize something before it happens, that’s important and that made my work better. You can’t really fix a bad photograph, before you start creating anything you have to start with a good photograph. The story is really important but pieces to make that story are important as well.


- What is your neighbors reaction about bts?


- I think that people that watched what I do have been entertained. I’m lucky I live in a small town so I often don’t have viewers. There were a lot of times that I thought that I was alone but I wasn’t. Now a lot of people in my town know what I do so when they see me walking around with my camera they know I’m going to create something, but at the beginning I’d be out in the woods and people would just watch from the distance wondering what was going on. There’s been few funny times, once in winter time I made a house out of paper and lit it on fire and I was sitting there with my camera set up and all of the sudden I could hear the footsteps coming from behind and I thought “oh no” there’s no way it looks normal, I’m sitting in the middle of the woods with this burning house, I looked at the women and she asked if everything is ok, i had really sweet people offering help. I think it’s fun and interesting to people to see what happens before it’s the finished piece. 


- Do you feel insecure if you run out of ideas?


- Yeah, it’s almost like your magic power has ran out. When I run of ouf ideas or they’re not that good I feel overwhelmed. I used to force things a lot, like I’m gonna turn medium idea into good idea, this doesn’t happen. When I run out of ideas I feel nervous, maybe I have to change my style or learn new techniques.


- How do you define a great idea from a bad idea?


- For me a mediocre idea is the one that doesn't have a real story to it and it’s not simple enough. I like to create work that doesn't take a lot to see what’s going on and I don’t want a person that’s watching it to be distracted or overwhelmed. When you have a mediocre idea it’s important not to just throw it away, look at it and think why doesn’t it work. Bad ideas are still valuable, because they help us create better ideas and stories.


- It’s amazing to know that there’s such a human being in the world that shares love and hope.


- We have the ability through social media to create work that makes other people feels good and understood. When I first started sharing my work online it was a little bit selfish, mostly my way of expressing myself and I never really expected anyone to appreciated or like it. Coming from a small town I didn’t expect anyone to know about me or what I’m doing, now I’m in the place with the ability to put into the world what I appreciate about the world or what I think it might need, to create a space that’s creative, positive, compassionate and accepting, that’s really important.


- What do you do when clients don’t like your work?


- I’ve been really lucky, the work I’ve done with the clients has been received well, but there’s been times where there were a lot of back and forth. As an artist you think you know what’s right, but as a client the client knows what right, you have to put your pride away a little bit and do what the person is asking. There’s been times where I pushed a bit too far or said no when I shouldn’t have and I realized this person is hiring me to do what I do but they also have expectations, they have things they want as well. It’s working with someone and as artists we are used to working on our own. When clients don’t like what you do it’s important to not to take it seriously, they’re not saying that you’re bad at what you do, they’re just saying that you didn’t meet what they needed. The key is to meet clients halfway.


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