Photographers are creators. As creatives, we have something to say. Photography, as a medium, can capture a mood or a message as powerfully as words, music, paintings and sculptures. Embarking on a personal project is the perfect opportunity for a photographer to get their message across without being influenced by the concerns of their clients.
At its most basic level, a personal project is self-assigned and has little or no direct potential to generate income or future work for you. This is a collection of images that you want to create. Or better yet, it’s a collection of images that you are forced to create. If you shoot regularly, you might think you don’t need to assign yourself extra takes. The problem is that if you have a lot of clients, your images may reflect their vision more than yours. You may like black and white photography, but your clients don’t, and as a result, your portfolio is filled with color images. Or maybe you’re trying to translate your love for black and white imagery into jobs you’ve been hired to photograph. Your client is not interested in these shots because these monochrome images are not representative of what you are really capable of creating on this medium. A better approach to showing your passion would be to treat yourself like your own client and spend time creating black and white photographs the exact way you think they should be created. This is where you can achieve your vision.
When you work for other people, you are selling a service or product that meets their needs. Your job is to create a photograph that is a tangible manifestation of your client’s vision. You are limited by what these people want. You may have a great sense of humor, but if your client owns a funeral home and sees no room for humor in their pictures, your humor won’t be evident in those photographs. If you want your images to represent more than a paycheck, you may need to take full control of some of the things you photograph. This is where a personal project comes in.
A personal project gives you freedom of choice. You can use your favorite camera and you are free to process the final images as you wish. But beyond these technical concerns, a personal project can be a place for you to express a message that is close to your heart. When you deliver an authentic message, it has great potential to resonate with others.
To understand how an artist was able to express herself through personal work, I spoke to UK-based photographer Rachel Vogeleisen, who has done several self-assigned projects that reflect values that are important to her. After working what she describes as “normal jobs” for most of her life, Rachel decided to pursue a master’s degree in photography. She began by photographing landscapes, but realized that landscapes were not the subject that really appealed to her. I have always admired pioneering women, women who bring about change. Women who went above and beyond were expected. Her first project was titled “Stories of Women Who Served in World War II” and featured women who had volunteered with the Air Service, Air Transport Association, Navy and Army. “They were flying planes. I had never heard of this before,” she said. The first challenge was to find these women. There wasn’t much information on the internet, so Rachel placed ads in veterans’ magazines. She also contacted veterans’ groups to find suitable candidates. The process of finding and photographing the 20 women took more than four years.
Rachel photographed primarily in women’s homes using a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 50mm or 85mm lens. For lighting, she used an Elinchrom handheld strobe which has since been replaced by the ELB 500, paired with a 49-inch umbrella to create soft lighting. Rachel self-published a book containing the photographs as well as the women’s stories. It’s important to note that the project didn’t directly lead to Rachel gaining paid employment, but she still embarked on another personal project when the first project was completed. A personal project must be driven by passion and not by the desire to see immediate financial or professional gains. These projects can be very expensive and time-consuming.
Rachel’s next personal project ran for two years and focused on women over 50 who had decided to reinvent themselves. This topic was very personal to Rachel. “I was turning 50 and wanted to show that it wasn’t the end of the line. I wanted to inspire other women by showing women who had changed their lives after 50. One of the women was 75 years old and had started a cosmetics business specializing in products for older women. Another woman had started a business that sold the collagen that can be produced from cooking chicken bones. There was also a woman who had a factory where she sold healthy fruit fries. For these portraits, Rachel sometimes photographed the women in their work environment or next to elements suggesting their work. To ensure that the project would be seen outside of her circle of contacts, Rachel sought out a gallery to host an exhibition of printed images.
Rachel’s third project was called “The Quiet Rebellion,” and you can instantly get an idea of the subjects’ gender and perhaps a vague idea of the project’s message. Rachel’s projects provide insight into her value system and vision. Clients who connect with her vision and values will be drawn to her on a personal level. These people will be her ideal clients because they see her as something more than someone who creates pretty pictures.
The benefits of completing a personal project include developing the skills needed to work on an extended project. This will come in handy if you ever get hired for an ad campaign that requires you to do multiple shoots that will be combined to create a single cohesive message that aligns with the company’s brand.
Working on a personal project should be fun, but don’t be misled into thinking it doesn’t involve real work. A self-assignment requires you to be self-reliant and achieve a level of excellence without expecting reward or even praise. Do you have the work ethic necessary to carry out a project without deadlines, without managers and without expectations?
If you’re not sure where to start with your first personal project, you can look outside of photography and consider your other interests. Maybe you like to cook, play football or build model airplanes. What do you want people to know about this business and how can you communicate that through photography? If you complete a second and third personal project, you will begin to see common themes in your work. In Rachel’s case, she photographed three projects featuring women of different ages with different stories to tell, but the message of the importance of gender equality, risk taking, sacrifice and of the residence was prevalent in all images. The images of your projects will reveal as much about you as they do about your subjects. And it is this fusion between self and art that we should all seek as artists.
Images by Rachel Vogeleisen and used with permission.