Mongolia series. 2012. Hasselblad and some old film.
There’s a lot of talk among photographers about personal projects. I assume, by this, we mean projects that are not for clients, though I’ve tried very hard to never do a project that is not in some way also personal. Life’s too short. For me the key word isn’t “personal” because that’s assumed. If it’s not personal, don’t do it. No, for me the key word is “project.” The idea of a project is that it’s something specific, defined by constraints, and I believe very strongly in them. Personal projects lead to bodies of work. Personal projects provide a conduit for intentional creation. The alternative is an accidental, ad hoc approach to photography, an approach I also love but for most of us it’s a scattered approach that takes a lifetime of curating before it becomes something brilliant only in hindsight.
The personal project is about intent and curation, the opposite of most 365 projects. I’m not qualified to speak about 365 projects. Much as I love what I do, I don’t do well with a sense of obligation. I love constraints. I don’t like obligation. It’s probably a difference that’s only in my mind, but I’d rather focus on a theme or a final body of work (which I admit I could do on a 365 project…) than the need to make photographs daily. I’d rather focus on what I create than how often I do so.
But that’s not what I wanted to say. This is what I wanted to say. Last weekend someone asked me about personal projects on Facebook. She had a bunch of ideas and was a little stuck on which one to choose. So I chose for her and told her to start now. Talking about a project is not the same as doing a project. So at the risk of talking about personal projects, a couple thoughts.
1. Choose Something. Art, like life, is about choice. We almost always have more choices in front of us than the time to do them all. Pick one. Which one? I don’t know. But if you like the 6 choices in front of you enough to be indecisive, chose one and move forward. The others will still be there later if you come back to them. Flip a coin if you have to. Picking the “wrong one” and moving forward is better than picking nothing. Begin now.
2. Create Constraints. By this time next year I will have a body of work that is 24 images deep, only black and white, only on the theme of water. I will publish it as a print-on-demand book called Dark Water. That’s a well-defined project (but don’t wait to see it, it’s just an example.) What is the theme of the project? When will it be done? What are the deliverables?
3. Be Open. Sometimes the best thing about choosing a well-defined project is that it leads you to a better one. If you’re 2 months into the project and it starts taking you in a new direction, away from one of your constraints, see where it leads. The power of constraints is in giving you a strong starting point, not in keeping you from following the muse. Few projects I know end up exactly where the artist thought they were going when they started.
4. Ship It. Do your project as you like. For me the rule is: ship it. I always have a deliverable, even if it’s just for me. A printed folio. A book. Something more than a collection of images sitting in Lightroom. For me there’s something powerful about bringing my work into the physical world and putting my mark on it. Even if it’s only for me. Especially if it’s just for me.
Personal projects can give you direction and focus. I’d be lost without them and believe they make me a better photographer for having that focus. Make it well defined. Make it deliverable. But most importantly: make it something you care about – it’ll be part of your legacy – and make it now.
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I read this post almost two weeks ago. I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it applied to me. However, the idea kept sitting at the back of my mind. This morning I searched for it, reread it, and came to the full realization a defined project with a tangible result is exactly what I need to stop wandering in creative circles and get moving forward. Thanks for once again providing inspiration and guidance.
Thank you so much! I just came here because of a post on Twitter and am really happy to have discovered you now.
I am a ballet dancer and have started my first project trying to photograph the process of a choreography coming into existence and following it to the final product on stage.
I feel that it is something that I have to do while I’m still dancing, as I have unlimited access that way and my colleagues trust me.
Thank you for your post, you have given me some very useful tips to point me in the right direction. I am now even more excited to see how this project will evolve and how it will change me and my eye.
Hoping to read many more of your knowledgeable posts in future and will surely check out your book.
I’ve tried to do a 365 project, but it turned to a feeling of „oh, I need to take a photo”. I was documenting basically everything, especially people and architecture but sometimes I was just not in the right mood or there was nothing interesting around (yes, practice is important but sometimes I just need a break…). A personal project would probably fit me more, I had many ideas for it. I’ve decided to start documenting a group of musicians, not only during their performances but also in the backstage before and after the gigs because I love the charisma and the raw energy around them. I hope I can really capture the real essence of it.
Thank you David, your advice on personal projects comes at a critical time for me.
You’re very welcome, Jean-Paul. Glad to help.
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Thank you for sharing your amazing photos and words with us. I find it all most inspiring.
A timely post for me, David. I have gradually realised the benefits of project based working and this adds some more useful and important information, thanks.
This post reminds me about your post awhile back about leaving prints in places for people to find and keep. I had been wondering if you have done much with that, and have any stories to tell…?
Yep – gotta say I too have often wondered what became of the random photos?
Good question, Marke. It’s on my list of things to do when I’m walking again after this last surgery. I’ve either been away or unable to walk for quite a while. This year I’ll pick it up again.
Thanks for the intel.
I’m sure you must have not only lists, but lists of lists!
Thank you, once again, David, for the brilliant perspective and kick in the behind. Always so good. You put into words some things that have been rolling around in my thoughts – particularly the idea of obligation versus constraints.
A really true point about the projects. I just finished my project on photographing all remaining public phones in my city. So what is left is to create the final product, which will be a book.
Good enough that I have more than one personal project, which keeps me busy.
Yes indeed you have done it again. By ‘it’ I mean put into a few well chosen concrete sentences the loosely, ethereal, may be, some day, possibly, tomorrow project words which go around in my head. Thank you!
Where can I get a bus like that?
Russia? Mongolia? Pretty cool looking, right?
“Create constraints” and “Ship it” are such useful concepts for me, moving me from the nebulous realm of ideas to a finished product. That is always my challenge. So the take home point for me is to define clearly what my project is, and to see it through to finished product, so that in the end I can say, “Look at this. Here it is.”
Thanks for sharing
Before reading this Personal Projects post, I had come up with the casual idea of a project I thought I’d call Amazing Grace: Instinctive Beauty in Found Objects. Or something like that. The project will include images of the simple graceful beauty of an unravled roll of toilet paper draping over the edge of my sink; snaking roots flowing like lava out of the trunk of a tree, etc.
Now having read this post, I think I’ll make a more formal commitment to this personal project – maybe even commit to printing out a book of my final images in Lightroom’s Book Module?! Thanks for the push….
Sounds great, Barrett. I’d love to see the final work when it’s done.
I never thought of putting together a personal project in a more purposeful manner as you’ve outlined here. Lightbulb! 🙂 I needed to recognize that, and also need the push to print it out, or do something with it. Thanks!
This is great David. One of my personal projects is an experiment in gratitude and giving… Gifts In Plain Sight (http://giftsinplainsight.com/). Whenever I travel I leave wrapped gifts in plain sight. The more you put into the giving, the more you get out of it.
What a brilliant idea, Kai! Good for you. I love this concept so much!
David thank you for this! I think projects are going to be very good for me, not just challenging but enjoyable! I look forward to seeing where my first project takes me. Thank you again for all the inspiration!
A big and sincere thank you from me! Not just for this post, but for the many insightful and inspiring things you’ve written. And I say this as someone fairly new to the game. Your writing is always encouraging me to step back out and take those risks. I’m always looking forward to what you have to say next.
That Michael Jordan’s green jumper on the second picture could had been part of my latest project. Project on mind equals mind focused and ready for details. I have to agree with this one 😉
I started a 365 project to make sure I practice ( I am very new , just received my camera in December) and started out with the theme of graffiti and unusual yard art. Big mistake- I live in the country and ran out of things that met those criteria within a month. I now include anything I find inspirational and find myself photographing a lot of nature, abandoned buildings and people I don’t know going about their daily routines. By allowing myself to seek out different experiences, it has improved my photography and has forced me out of auto mode and made me learn all the functions on my camera. My goal was to become good enough to hang in a gallery and I will have two of my project images in a gallery starting May 3. I will continue to shoot, hopefully continue to improve and learn too. Thank you for your posts, I always find encouragement in them!
Thank you. Great stuff.
Needed to hear this today. I’ve been talking about a project I’ve been wanting to tackle for too long but been a little fearful to start.
The fear is good Michael – shows you which direction you need to go. Make it happen!