Not shooting / won’t shoot – What to do to find and build inspiration – by Ryan Neilan

‘I wanna live. I wish I was dead.’ So screams Henry Rollins through my headphones, screaming at me from Black Flag’s debut album,’Damaged.’

Ever since I was about eleven or twelve I’ve been a metal fan. Not so much a punk/hardcore fan. Sure I’ve heard some tracks I liked over the years but it was never quite my thing… So why listen to it now, at 11:30pm on a Sunday?

Starting after Christmas I am planning to shoot a new project, based around the hardcore/punk scene here in Saigon, Vietnam. So I have do research. I need to be inspired.

Of course I’m already inspired and excited to do this; I’m doing it because I want to do it and I think it could be good, really good. But I need more than my own internal monologue telling me what to shoot and what could and couldn’t work. I need to listen to this music and spend time with these local bands and fans to really be inspired and visualize where I want this to go.

And so this got me thinking over the last few days. Where we can find inspiration when it comes to our photography, especially when we hit that photographer’s block?

Other photographers

This sounds obvious but the more I talk to people (especially those only just getting into photography) the more I find people who are not looking at work, not researching those who came before, especially those who would be considered ‘masters.’

‘I don’t want them to influence my work, I want to be my own photographer,’ is something I’ve been told quite recently (and I remember Eric Kim, someone who actually influenced my return to photography, admitting he was once one of these people on his blog.)

Maybe I’m the crazy one but to me this is… crazy!

Studying the work of other photographers is crucial. Studying composition, style, technique. Taking those elements, copying them, experimenting, making them your own, finding your own style is all part of the photographic experience in my mind.

When I first started to learn photoshop I followed and copied dozens of tutorials online, to the letter. And once I was confident and found something I liked, I mixed it up and experimented and made it my own.

It should be the same with other people’s work.

Books not Gear

I used to be a gear junkie (camera gear, not the other!)

I wanted every lens, every accessory. If I just had that filter, that lens, that whatever then my pictures would finally be perfect. It drove me mental. And it made my wallet cry. Then one day while I was reading Eric Kim’s blog I came across a post about ‘Buy Books, not Gear.’ And it really changed my view on things.

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Since then I’ve started to build a little collection of books. They can be hard to find here in Vietnam but I’m finding some.

Back in college I loved going to the library to find new books and new photographers. Where had that fallen by the wayside over these past few years?

I recently picked up a ‘Definitive Collection,’ of Robert Capa which is simply beautiful and as I mentioned in another post, an eleven pound monster of a book of Peter Beard’s work.

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Yes you can see all these online for free. But there’s something special about being able to sit down, computer away and read these pieces of art on the balcony on a hot afternoon. You can’t get that tangibility, that focus, through a screen. It’s just not the same.

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‘But books are expensive!”

Well, as Eric said to me when I was planning to buy a lens that, deep down, I knew I didn’t need, ‘How many books or rolls of film could you buy for that money?’ Seriously.


Why just read about these greats of photography when you can listen and watch them also? YouTube is full of great documentaries about amazing artists, for free.

Smith, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Frank, Moriyama, Salgado, they all have documentaries and interviews on there, for free.

This is one of my favorites, about Moriyama, a huge influence on me. While not a full length documentary, there is one available on YouTube, titled ‘Near Equal.’ Well worth checking out.

And don’t just watch those about photographers you like, check out those you don’t know much about. Fashion is of no interest to me but there is a fantastic hour to be spent watching about Duffy, a man who takes no prisoners and at one point said enough was enough and burnt his negatives in his back garden. I watched it twice in a row.

Another fantastic one, though not on YouTube, is ‘Everybody Street.’

This film is a wonderful look into street photography, through which I found a photographer I’ve really grown to love for his take no prisoners attitude, Ricky Powell. At first he rubbed me the wrong way, but the more I saw of him, the more I grew to love his views on photography and his work itself.


It’s fun to go out and shoot on the street or just wander and shoot what you see. But without direction it’s easy to get lost in this. It took me a long time to realize how important it was to have a goal in mind for what I was shooting. At least some of the time.

Making books has been a relatively new goal which I’m really focused on right now. Seeing that work printed, in my hands, rather than simply on the screen, that’s what will help push me forward.

This does not mean that I can’t/won’t shoot random stuff and just have those mornings and afternoons where I just shoot for the love of shooting, but to keep focused and moving forward I think it’s crucial to have that project in the background you’re working towards.

However, it’s also true that often these random expeditions can lead to bigger projects.

I often find myself having these little moments of inspiration and ideas for projects while out shooting.


On my recent trip to Tokyo (which you can read about HERE) while out wandering the streets aimlessly, a project struck me. Everywhere I saw people wearing these hats. These big hats. And I don’t know why, but I found myself thinking ‘Hats, square crop, mini book, perfect.’


And so I shot about five or six rolls in two hours that evening, just chasing down these hats. I even found a store selling them, half price, a perfect ending for the book.


I’ve begun to write these ideas down in a notebook, something I procrastinated about doing for a  long time, and as such lost a lot of good (and plenty more terrible) ideas. It’s too easy to get distracted and then, it’s gone. In my case these ideas pop in my head at night, when I’m tired, and so if I don’t write them down, they’re gone by morning. I sometimes ownder how many ideas for projects have I lost because I didn’t write them down? Ideas that would have been very helpful for those times where I just couldn’t focus or find inspiration.


Invest in a pen and notebook.

No matter how silly it may sound on second thought, you can always ignore it and scratch it out. But if you don’t write it down and it disappears, it may never come back. It would be a shame to lose the next great piece of photographic work because you got distracted by facebook or fell asleep and forgot.

Make sure to let everyone know who and what inspires you in the comments below.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to this album again. It’s starting to grow on me.

Based in Vietnam, you can see more of my work on my website,, on my blog and also on Facebook. 


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8 thoughts on “Not shooting / won’t shoot – What to do to find and build inspiration – by Ryan Neilan”

  1. Thanks Ryan! A great post!
    No doubt a welcome break from all the GAS inducing posts I’m normally peddling! I really appreciate your contributions to the blog!
    Thanks again!

  2. Well thought and honest review of how easy it is to both be distracted and inspired to get out and shoot. Any subject is worthy of your eye, but the best image collections arise through research and heaatfelt interest and identification. We should all shoot what we know.

  3. Excellent post Ryan. The books suggestion really works. I’d been int the doldrums for a while and looking at some photojournalism books kickstarted me.
    Another TV recommendation to off is the exceptional series “The Genius of Photography”. Originally on BBC Four it is now a DVD well worth buying. Or on the tube

  4. Ryan,

    I enjoyed your post and the words of wisdom. Can you expand a bit on the book production? Are you planning on getting it/them published with a commercial publishing house, self-published, or something else? What is the marketing and distribution plan? I like the idea of a project that has such a definite endpoint because it provides something to really keep one focussed (no pun intended) along the journey.


    1. Hi Tony,

      Right now I’m planning on getting them printed myself and then selling them myself. I do plan on shopping them around perhaps (not sure if the Tokyo stuff will get much interest here in Vietnam.)

      But right now it’s really just a do it myself job so that I can have then done, in my hands and hopefully sell a few, rather than just having them sitting on hard drives forever.

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