Personal Projects
In our latest guest contribution, Colin Corneau talks to us about personal projects and how to give yourself a boost when you are in a slump.

I often joke that a photographer is a person who works more on their days off (or holidays) than they actually do on the job.

There’s a lot of truth to that observation. Most photographers I know talk very easily in their ‘down’ time about many of the same things they do at other times, only a lot more so and a lot more excitedly once freed of the contraints of work. A lot of this is due to one thing – passion.
The best photographers love what they do, and can’t imagine doing anything else. The really lucky ones still can’t quite believe someone pays them to do what they do.

However, even the best and most driven photographers may sometimes find the well coming up dry — in terms of ideas, or motivation. It doesn’t mean the change is permanent, but it can call for stretching your creative muscles a bit and climbing out of a rut that even the most careful shooter can find themselves in. People are creatures of habit, so often a simple change of habit can make all the difference.

One excellent way to rejuvenate your photography is, ironically, more photography. Taking on a personal project is a great way to escape from any daily grind and challenge yourself to do new things. After all, it’s a lot easier to get excited by something new and the passion we all felt at the start of taking pictures is still right there for the asking — all we have to do is start.

A personal project, by definition, is fairly broad and open. While that can make it difficult to getting started it does give you the delicious freedom of defining exactly what it is you do — something not always possible with the contraints of other work. I think it’s this freedom that can make this type of work so powerful — with no other influences other than yourself, your work can only draw upon your creativity and ideas. The only limit is how much you put into the project.

One strong example of this idea is the works of Vivian Meier, rescued by an almost unbelievable fluke from the trash heap of history. Her story is, by now, well known to most photographers but her images can still give pause after many viewings. How many of us will be able to claim documenting a piece of our society so well, or so profusely? By most accounts, she led a private, almost reclusive, life but her personal pursuit left a permanent place in photographic history.

A similar approach is found with Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog, a German emigré who came to Canada after the end of World War Two and was one of the few photographers in those years using colour (mostly Kodachrome) when documenting what he saw on his walks throughout his adopted city. For some 40 years, during which time he worked as a medical photographer and occasional art instructor at local universities, his evenings and weekends were spent making pictures of thrift shops, vacant lots, advertising billboards and the crowds of people he saw. Recognition, although late in life, came through widespread acclaim for his gallery exhibits and books, depicting a bygone time in a way no one else did.

It’s not just outsiders and hobbyist photographers who can benefit from the personal project, however. In fact, it’s people whose lives are saturated with photography as a career who need a fresh perspective the most.
In my career as a newspaper photographer, I’ve certainly seen photographers benefit from this and recommend it as a remedy for burnout. My co-worker has a long term project documenting the Hutterite people of our region — a project that certainly is a lot of work but also very rewarding, not only personally but in the form of national awards, too.
Less well known but just as rewarding is my own work, rediscovering street photography and taking a closer look at my own community, for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of doing so.

In all of these examples, the common thread is photographers looking at their own communities for inspiration. You don’t have to go far to find your place. It’s true that it’s more effort to see something new in a place you’ve looked at for years, but your advantage is you know the place intimately — the difference between being a local and a tourist.

In his excellent book, “The Great Picture Hunt”, veteran photojournalist Dave LaBelle offers some excellent pointers to finding feature photographs, which I think transfer well to getting you started on a personal project, as well.

Study Your Environment — This is probably the most important, and maybe the hardest if you’re going over territory you’ve been around for years. But you can be sure that every place – no matter where – has something that makes it unique. Your challenge is to find it. But you can also be sure that if you keep at it, it will come.
Try seeing familiar places at different times than you normally see them. Go into a building you’ve never been in before. Talk to people you don’t normally talk to. It takes work, but remember this is you that you’re investing in!

Network — Sales people often ask customers for referrals at the end of a call. This is a great idea for photographers, too. If you’re dealing with someone, be it for a portrait or buying supplies, ask them about what they see. Engage them in a conversation and see what comes up, either in direct ideas or a something that sparks an inspiration within yourself. Better yet, use that idea in the previous post and talk to someone you don’t know — the person in the coffee shop, the doorman at a hotel, the bus driver on break…everyone has at least one story in them. It just has to be heard.

Keeping Idea Logs — most photojournalists keep a small notebook handy. Ideas have a way of dropping in unannounced, so don’t take a chance on forgetting one of them by not writing it down right away. We don’t know when we’ll come across something that sparks an idea, so it only makes sense to be prepared when the time comes.

Go For A Walk — I often dread those times when there’s no assignments and I am left to go searching for ‘moments’. Somehow, it always seems to happen when the weather is particularly bad or there’s a distinct lack of people around! But if I’m honest, I’ll also realize some of my favorite pictures came from those times, too. And getting out there seemed to work pretty well for the photographers mentioned above, also. If nothing else, it’s a great way to clear your head, so put on your shoes and get out there. I also recommend going through unfamiliar places, or at least not taking the same street twice. If you normally drive, walk.

Keep At It — In the 1995 movie “Smoke”, Harvey Keitel’s character owns a cigar shop in New York City. Every morning, at precisely the same time, he takes a photograph of the same scene from the same vantage point. Over years, he amasses album after album of these pictures. But it’s not the individual photograph that matters — his steady effort leads to a new way of looking at his neighbourhood. Similarly, over time your work will lead to a whole new collection of images and very likely a new outlook on your part, too.

These ideas are just a starting point. But ideas often lead to other ideas. The most important element is going to be you, and the next step is all yours. Best of luck!

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