Personal Projects - with Zoe Whishaw
18 October 2016
For some photographers, shooting personal projects is as natural as breathing – why wouldn’t you be shooting stories and ideas that inspire and excite you? For them, ideas tend to come easily; they are always likely to have something on the go.
For others, the very idea of shooting outside a given brief will bring them out in hives. They may feel they have nothing to ‘say’, feel it is a bit of an indulgence or are simply devoid of ideas. While for some there is an acceptance that they are important and should be embraced, displacement activities will easily consume any time available. Guilt sets in.
Then of course there are those in between who want to work on projects, and despite time pressures try to squeeze them into their schedule.
Any successful professional creative, be they photographer, painter, writer, film maker, etc will agree how important it is to find ways to explore new ideas, to be allowed to make mistakes…to be surprised and to show others they are moving forwards and keeping things alive in their work.
Those who find themselves sticking to a formula or comfort zone with no time or inclination to explore personal passions are bound to come unstuck at some point and will feel as though they have come to a standstill. In the work that I do as a mentor, I come across many photographers who have had a decade or more of running a busy, lucrative business only to find they have become burnt out and find it difficult to know how to take their career to the next phase. This can often be due to being caught up in the inevitable pre-production, production, shooting, post production, etc, etc cycle that then repeats and repeats. They have little time or energy for anything else.
Yet, time needs to be found if you are to continue to grow as a photographer. It is crucial that the day-to-day of satisfying clients doesn’t stop you from thinking about new work that expands your viewpoint, techniques and approaches, and indeed gets you lost in your discoveries.
I came across a great quote recently from the playwright and novelist Deborah Levy that sums up this process:
“When I begin a novel I plan a route and follow my direction….Yet, it’s when I detour and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes”
The best personal projects are born out of private passions. These can be as much about how you see/enjoy the world (eg you love strong colours, are a party animal, are quiet and thoughtful…) as a subject you have experience/expertise in (eg growing vegetables, dancing, scuba diving…).
Loving the subjects you shoot in a manner that comes naturally to you must surely be the Holy Grail for photographers. But unless prospective clients can see examples of what drives you visually, this will only ever remain as a dream.
Agents will invariably encourage photographers to spend time on personal projects and indeed find that many clients actively seek out this work alongside their commercial body of work to get a glimpse of what is important to them and what their personality might be like. This work shows the sole vision of the photographer and not an extension of an art director, editor or designer. Regardless of style, it may even be the guiding factor in being selected as the photographer simply because they may see a common interest.
Tim Flach is a great example of photographer who is deeply passionate about the medium of photography and strongly believes personal projects allow for (and indeed demand) progression in his work.
The origins of his book project Equus can be traced back to a time when he was investigating the somewhat ethereal concept of spirituality. His hitherto fascination with animals and anthropomorphism was a perfect precedent to his exploration of ‘otherworldliness’ using a white horse. Using ambiguous viewpoints and curious crops he created a beautiful series of enigmatic ‘landscapes’ to transport the viewer beyond the reality of the horse.
Tim emphasises that this project really enabled him to investigate something that was preoccupying and fascinating to him – how to reduce down a subject to the point of abstraction and still manage to evoke an emotion.
It was several years later that his publisher saw the series in a magazine and made contact with him to propose Equus …which then lead on to Dogs Gods and numerous other projects since including a variety of high profile international exhibitions and advertising campaigns.
© Tim Flach
© Tim Flach
Another photographer whose self-initiated projects have lead to advertising campaigns that echo their personal work is Venetia Dearden. Much if not all of Venetia’s honest and spontaneous work sums up her personal spirit – you get the feeling she truly shares the mind-set and lifestyle of those she photographs.
Back in 2010 Venetia embarked on a short project entitled Eight Days, which was later published as a book. Her inspiration emanated from the fact that while she was accustomed to working on long-term personal projects, she had had several years of back-to-back commercial work and felt the urge to have more freedom and do something unscripted. It would be an opportunity to freely flex her creative muscles and ideas using a bunch of friends as they travelled across the American West.
Meanwhile, Häagen-Dazs were looking for a photographer who was able to epitomise spontaneity, intimacy and naturalness between couples. ‘Eight Days’ wonderfully demonstrated her intrinsic ability to capture those free-spirited and playful moments and lead to her being commissioned for their 2014 campaign.
© Venetia Dearden
Phil James has been working as an advertising photographer for over 20 years and runs a busy, successful studio (Shadowplay) creating CGI, motion graphics and photography for wide-ranging clients. The in-house team is talented, multi-skilled and self-motivated but with Phil at the helm to guide and drive it forward. Until recently, there had been precious little time to further develop his own work until quite by chance he took his son out for a walk while on holiday. What began as a completely unplanned outing turned into pivotal series of pictures with no commercial constraints. The resulting images are a beautifully relaxed, natural and somewhat enigmatic portrait of their time together…pictures that Phil says take him to the heart of who his son is. Following this, further personal projects with this more natural style have been emerging.
As an entrepreneur to his very core, Phil has recently embarked on developing his own clothing brand, ANDSONS. The timeless, traditional clothing is made by skilled artisan craftspeople using the finest natural materials. Crucially, Phil takes all the pictures for their campaigns and the imagery used resonates closely with his newly-discovered personal style which helps to further deepen the trust and belief in the brand and what it represents.
These 3 journeys are a great example of shooting a subject in a style that is personally meaningful, which then takes on a life of its own as it begins to permeates more and more commissioned work.
Personal projects give a photographer permission to take a step back, to take a break from the relentless day-to-day of client demands. They are a wonderful resource for marketing and they can be the fuel that forces development and a reinforcement of a creative vision.
Experiment, make mistakes and push yourself in ways you cannot foresee as you continue to develop as a photographer in the quest to be hired for what comes naturally.
Zoe Whishaw is a commercial photography consultant and mentor.