How Secrets Catalyze Creativity
I recently attended a creative conference in Palm Springs called Adventure Always. For three days, about 100 people gathered to hear various “catalysts” (i.e. keynote speakers) talk about how they connect and communicate and overcome the interpersonal barriers often intrinsic in our culture which keep people from opening up in a productive and creatively generative way. The event focused on the topic of secrets and how secrets have creative force behind them. Attending this event, I was reminded of the power of secrets. But most importantly, I was reminded how our relationship to secrets carries over into our work in agencies and as creative people.
Jesh De Rox is the founder of Adventure Always. He’s a man who made a drastic life change—from banker to photographer to guru-of-sorts for creatives. Jesh is young, clear skinned, bright-eyed and bold in a zen, lead-from-behind way. He’s an incredible public speaker, especially when he speaks about his method and inspiration for his photography business. You see, he doesn’t just take pictures of people. Each of his photographs tells a captivating story about the American spirit looking for a kind of salvation through human relationship.
His photographs have been compiled into a new genre he calls Beloved. The most straightforward way I’ve found to describe Beloved is “couples therapy captured on camera.” Technically, it’s portraiture for couples and families.
But Beloved draws subjects out to capture a true moment of discovery: the look of someone rediscovering the thrill of love, of seeing or interacting with a person you know—most likely deeply know—in a new way.
Jesh facilitates these moments of discovery by asking his subjects a series of questions aimed at drawing one person into the other, forgetting about the camera. The questions come in three waves. He starts with a range of questions that may seem funny, aimed at loosening the subjects up, like “if this person were a sound, what would she sound like.” The middle wave of questions get a bit more serious—“Whisper something in this person’s ear to make them blush”—and the final wave often elicit tears from either or both subjects. “Close your eyes and imagine you have one chance to tell this person how you feel about them, one last chance. Open your eyes and tell them only with your gaze, or your hands on their face.”
In the course of being photographed, the Beloved method changes people’s lives and relationships for the better. Jesh routinely hears from people for whom a session results in a deeper connection, renewed vows, an actual falling back in love, deeper in love, differently in love.
Adventure Always was originally created for photographers interested in learning the Beloved technique, and becoming—through a training process—official Beloved photographers. Although I’m not a photographer, I am a friend of Jesh’s, and he invited me to attend simply as a creative so I could explore what it means to be creative, and even farther, to break down creativity to it’s truest motive: better human connection.
As a start to the conference, Jesh cemented the theme for the week—secrets—by asking us to turn to the person at our shoulder and whisper one secret into their ear.
Of course, everyone has a secret. Everything does. But still, I was paralyzed—a reaction I was uncomfortable with—and could only eek out a few sounds in my attempt to say something profound yet not too secret. I think I was in similar company. “What if I don’t have a secret?” “What if I don’t know my secret?” were existential considerations that immobilized the vocal chords of many attendees.
And here’s where we cross from Beloved-method photography to agency work, using the universal bridge of creativity: Every client and project has a secret, perhaps multiple secrets requiring more than one problem solving lens. To echo Clarice Lispector, we need secrets in order to live.
Problem solving is another way of exercising curiosity, and the impetus behind a client’s bringing their problem to an agency lies in communication: there is a secret at the core of every project which we all know about in theory, and our job as creatives is to find one two or more pathways to that secret, providing a strategy of communication to reveal it in an original, simple or radical way.
To be the ones on the ground staying inspired, the ones people come to with secrets that need uncovering, is in part a radical act. To get the job done in a way it’s never been done before we as creatives have to find ways of remaining relevant, refreshed and understanding. Remembering no secret is like another—each has its own character, features and language—stokes that curiosity in a mutually relevant way. Value those secrets.