Another question from my recent Q&A on Facebook. Some of the questions needed more time and space to answer, this is one of those:
How do develop from taking random images to working on projects? What makes a good project? When is it finished?
First, I think it’s important to recognize that there are no rules on any of this. The big question is this: what do you want to create? In the case of projects, what I will call a body of work, I think what transforms random individual images into a body of work is cohesion – they work together in some way. How they work together is where you need to get creative. Perhaps that cohesion is created by visual cues – like a similar treatment in post-production, and perhaps that cohesion comes from a concept or an idea that will get expressed in different ways. Or maybe it’s both. This is purely my own opinion, but I think the more those images work together, complementing each other but filling in different parts of the larger picture, the stronger the project will be. So for me that means – like a photo essay – a variety of compositions – from very wide to very intimate. Those can provide a rhythm that I think is important in our experience of the larger body of work.
Does that mean I am aware of the body of work while I’m making photographs? Well, yes and no. I generally get a sense of things the further they progress, and the more photographs I make the more I know the direction that it’s taking, and I know this because it’s what feels right to me. So much of what I photograph is a reaction to a place and I never know what that reaction will be, so it’s progressive. It also means it takes time, and it takes play. I need to experiment, especially at the beginning, with different ways of expression. Is this a black and white series or colour? Does it share a colour palette, or is the visual unity accomplished in some other way – perhaps all the images are horizontal 16:9 frames, or vertical 4:5 frames. And some of that too, will depend on how I plan to show this work. Will it be framed, or will it be a book? Or is it both? None of these questions have right answers, it’s more about possibilities, following my curiosity, and knowing it when I see it.
What makes a good project, for me, is a definable scope or idea. Right now I’m working on an idea for a book about my experience of Canada, particularly the wilder parts of this country. Knowing what will be in the book, and what will not is helpful to me. So in this case, it’s Canada at the edges, the parts that really draw me. It’s Yukon colours and bears and coastal scenes, not the Prairies, which are certainly part of Canada, but don’t have a place in this particular body of work. Constraints help me. And in this case, the book will a body of work comprised of multiple smaller bodies, so the challenge will be creating smaller projects with a visual unity, that can also be woven into a larger whole, the differences between those projects are what will give the book its rhythm and help me avoid homogeny.
As for when it’s finished, well that is a harder one, but again, flexible constraints help me. I like deadlines. And sure, they can move – because they serve my creative process, not the other way around – but knowing it’s done when I reach my deadline, or when I meet the conditions of another constraint (for example, I will know I am done when I have 24 images that work together and feel right) is helpful to me. Of course, knowing when it feels right means at some point I just have to make a decision, isn’t always easy, but that’s part of creativity, having the courage to be done and getting it out into the world. No more second guessing, no paralysis from the desire to be perfect, just knowing that whatever about it that remains imperfected will have to find its expression in the next project.
And I think that’s also key for me, to move onto something new immediately. To start the exploration into new subjects or new ways of expression, and as quickly as I am able, to find the new project. The more time I leave between finishing one and beginning another, the less momentum I have, and the harder it is to begin.
The hardest question that remains unasked, and for which I can give no answer, is the one we’re always thinking: what should my next personal project be? That’s the hard stuff and all I can say is be aware of where your curiosity is leading you, be aware of what interests you, and of the things that get your blood pumping. Pursue those things and see how far the rabbit hole goes.
I love this community and am actively seeking ways to interact and serve. Got a question – about creativity, composition, making a living with your creativity, travel, etc.? Leave them in the comments. I can’t promise I’ll get to them all, but I’ll try – either in the comments or as a dedicated post. It helps me too, because the hardest part of writing is coming up with relevant and helpful material. Thank you!
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For years the hardest part was coming back from a trip with stories I never planned on getting. I would plan and research as much as I could but more often than not when I arrived to my destination I found a different story. Something more interesting or relevant. It was frustrating as these discovered stories and photos were somewhat incomplete due to time constraints and commitments. I now think of my glass half full and have plenty of stories to return to and do them justice.
“…no paralysis from the desire to be perfect, just knowing that whatever about it that remains imperfected will have to find its expression in the next project.”
I think I’m going to print this out and paste it above my monitor — it’s one of the main things I struggle with.
Follow-up question: do you ever discover a project when reviewing photos later, or do you always have the project — even if just a vague idea — in your head while shooting?
How do I transition from the strings that bind. full time employment, a future “retired worker” in 12 months , to a full time Photographer … do I get the business side nailed first?
Will you be my life coach? Haha.
Seriously though, your posts are great. Keep it up, and thanks for the inspiration.
Timely… I just finished a “Body of Work”, titled simply Abstraction. It was what I really wanted to do after you wrote about New Year’s resolutions and make it a “RESOLVE”… I initially completed the task in time about 3 years ago… but have now gone on to repeat and improve on that initial goal. This particular boo involved a fair amount of research and also collection appropriate images…. and I am really happy with the end project…. now I am already considering the next project… thanks for the inspiration.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I have the images and a map of how I want to assemble a body of work but have failed to complete it after several years. Maybe talking about it publicly will add some pressure to finally finish it.
Alright, I’ll bite – tell me about the project. Nail those colours to the mast, Stephen!
I’ll send you a quick email but there is no need to bite, I wasn’t fishing for anything.
Sometimes simply admitting that I have projects being neglected is enough to push for progression towards completion.
Thank you. I can’t remember where I first found you but I love everything you write.
I am so grateful for this post, I’ve been thinking so much lately about personal projects…and this big ball of stress sat inside me as I tried to come up with the “perfect” creative personal project.
Turns out I have many….that are in the works. Things that get my heart pumping (and I didn’t even try) Things that are in my computer and just haven’t been pulled together yet.
This was just what I needed to hear. Thank you.
Hi, David! This is my first comment on your blog. I’ve been following your work for years and have enjoyed your images, blog posts, print books and ebooks with a deep sense of gratitude for all you share with the photography community.
I really enjoyed this article – thank you for sharing your thoughts on creative photography projects.
When you are planning a road trip such as your recent one to NFLD and Labrador, how do you make decisions about where your stops are going to be – where you will explore and look for your images, especially if the area is new to you? Do you make a “shot list”? What resources do you use? I’m guessing a lot of research goes into this part of the process.
My husband and I live in Ottawa, ON, and we are planning a road trip east next year. With only 2 weeks of vacation time available, I want to make the most of our time and not miss photographic opportunities that are interesting to me. Would greatly appreciate your input on how you work this part out for yourself.
Many thanks and hope you’re enjoying your trip home!
“No more second guessing, no paralysis from the desire to be perfect, just knowing that whatever about it that remains imperfected will have to find its expression in the next project.”
This is a seriously hard thing to do. I have a tendency to work well past finished in an attempt to make things “better”. I’m beginning to realize there comes a stopping point, when something is finished and instead of improving upon it what I’m actually doing is creating different, equally good versions of it. I really appreciate the sentiment here, of letting things find their expression in new projects.