Here’s something I’ve noticed during my time in design and advertising: the most successful, energetic and inspiring creative professionals are those who spend time doing something creative that isn’t professional. Alongside the day job, they make work for the sake of making work. There’s no brief, no financial motivation, no guarantee of recognition or success, they simply make things for the love of making them.
When I mention this observation to the creatives and designers who attend my workshops, they usually nod wistfully. They look off into the middle distance and tell me that they’ve often thought about doing the same but, well, they just don’t have the space or the time. Their commute is an hour and a half in each direction. Or they’ve just had a baby. Or they keep meaning to embark on a personal project, but somehow it never quite makes it beyond the lower reaches of their to do list.
So I tell them the story of Kazim Hakimi.
Kazim Hakimi is an Iranian immigrant. He runs a fish and chip shop on the Iffley Road in Oxford. It’s not a big shop, but it has a loyal clientele and Kazim works there on his own, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Kazim is fascinated by the endless differences and similarities among the people who come into his shop. And so, while he’s waiting for a new batch of fish to fry or some mushy peas to microwave, he invites those customers he finds most interesting to visit his ‘studio’, a white wall round the back of the shop. And he takes their picture.
Over the years Kazim has acquired an extraordinary library of portraits, a gloriously diverse catalogue of his customers; from a laughing nun to a bare chested man blanketed in tattoos. You can see some of them here.
Kazim’s portraits are formally successful — the uniformity of the white wall and consistent soft natural light allow you to relish the difference and detail between his subjects. But, for me, the real strength of his images lies in the unforced feeling of empathy he clearly has for the people he photographs. And I’m not the only one to be touched by his work: it’s been exhibited at galleries across the UK.
Kazim has only moments spare during his working day, but those moments are enough for a couple of exposures. He’s unable to stray far from the fryer, but far enough to be able to pop out the back with his camera. Using your limitations to establish the parameters of your non-professional creative project is the secret. If your working day is book ended by a soul-crushingly long train commute, then use that commute. If you’re a writer, write a couple of sentences on the imagined biography of whoever sits opposite. If you’re a photographer take a picture of the same building as you pass it each day. Over a year see how the light, the skies, the people change. Most of all, never worry if the work you’re making is any good. This is the most common thing to stop us from embarking on a personal project; the fear that whatever it is we hope to do won’t turn out to be any good (if we ever get round to doing it).
Just make something.
Do it regularly.
And do it without fear or judgement.
If Kazim can do it so can you.
There’s a lovely short film about Kazim and his work here.