The Proven Path to Doing Unique and Meaningful Work

Arno Rafael Minkkinen delivered a commencement speech at the New England School of Photography in June 2004. He shared with the graduating students his simple theory called The Helsinki Bus Station Theory, which in his view, made the difference between success and failure.

The Helsinki Bus Station Theory is based on a bus station located in the center of Helsinki, Finland. The station has two dozen platforms with signs that post the numbers of the buses leaving from each platform. Minkkinen used this as a metaphor for the life of a photographer, with each bus stop representing a year of photographic activity.

He explained that when a photographer begins their work, they may create platinum studies of nudes (Bus 21) and show them at a museum or gallery. However, they soon realize that others have already done this type of work (Irving Penn, Bus 71). Disappointed, the photographer hops off the bus and looks for a new platform. This pattern may continue throughout their creative life, always being compared to others and showing new work.

Minkkinen then asked the students, “What to do?” He answered, “It’s simple, stay on the bus. Stay on the f*cking bus. Because if you do, in time, you will begin to see a difference.” The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line for a short distance but eventually, each bus begins to separate and head to its unique destination. Minkkinen explained that it’s the separation that makes the difference and once a photographer starts to see the difference in their work from the work they admire, it’s time to look for a breakthrough.

At this point, their work begins to get noticed, and they start to work more on their own, making more of the difference between their work and what influenced it. As the years go by, their vision takes off, and their total output becomes a stamp of their unique vision. Over time, the critics become interested in their work, and their early imitations, breakthroughs, peaks and valleys, and closing masterpieces are all evaluated and appreciated for their unique vision.

The Helsinki Bus Station Theory emphasizes the importance of staying on the bus and being consistent in one’s work. Consistency leads to success, and mastery requires consistency. College students, for example, have likely spent over 10,000 hours in a classroom by the time they graduate, and it’s the same with photographers. They must be consistent in their work and stay on the bus, regardless of how often they are compared to others or how much their work is criticized. In time, they will begin to see a difference and their vision will take off.

In conclusion, The Helsinki Bus Station Theory is a powerful reminder to stay consistent and focused on one’s work, regardless of the challenges and comparisons. It takes time, effort, and patience, but if a photographer stays on the bus, their work will eventually become a stamp of their unique vision. They will regain the whole bus route, and their early work will be re-evaluated and appreciated for its uniqueness. So, stay on the bus and let your vision take off.

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