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 convey their message without the influence of any client concerns.
At its most basic level, a personal project is self-assigned and has little to no direct potential to generate income or future work for you. This is a collection of images that you want to create. Or better still, it is a collection of images that you are compelled to create. If you are shooting regularly, you may think that you don’t need to self-assign additional shoots. The problem is if you have a lot of clients, your images may be more reflective of their vision than your own. You may love black and white photography, but your clients do not, and as a result, your portfolio is filled with color images. Or perhaps you are trying to crowbar your love for black and white imagery into jobs you have been hired to photograph. Your client isn’t interested in these shots since these monochrome images are not representative of what you are truly capable of creating in this medium. A better approach to showcasing your passion would be to treat yourself as your own client and devote time to creating black and white photographs in the exact manner that you feel they should be created. This is where you can fulfill 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 those people want. You might have a great sense of humor, but if your client owns a funeral home and doesn’t see a place for humor in their imagery, your humor will not be evident in those photographs. If you want your images to represent something more than a paycheck, you may have to take full control over some of the things you are photographing. 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 any way you desire. But beyond these technical concerns, a personal project can be a place for you to express a message that is important to you. When you convey an authentic message it has great potential to resonate with others.
To understand how one artist was able to express herself through personal work, I spoke to UK-based photographer, Rachel Vogeleisen who has completed 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 an MFA in photography. She began by photographing landscapes, but realized that landscapes were not the subject that she was truly drawn to.” I have always admired women who were trailblazers — women who bring change. Women who went beyond were expected.” Her first project was titled “Stories of Women Who Served During World War II” and showcased women who had volunteered with the Air Service, the Air Transport Association, the Navy, and the Army. “They were flying airplanes. I had never heard of that before,” she said. The first challenge was to find these women. There wasn’t much information to be found 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 over four years.
Rachel photographed mostly in the women’s homes using a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 50mm or 85mm lens. For lighting, she used a portable Elinchrom strobe that has since been replaced by the ELB 500, paired with a 49” umbrella to create soft lighting. Rachel self-published a book featuring the photographs along with the women’s stories. It is important to note that the project did not lead directly to Rachel securing a paid job, but she still embarked on another personal project when the first project was completed. A personal project must be driven by passion and not a desire to see immediate financial or career gains. These projects can be very expensive and time-consuming.
Rachel’s next personal project took two years to finish and focused on women over the age of 50 who had decided to reinvent themselves. This subject was very personal to Rachel. “I was reaching 50 and I wanted to show that this isn’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 cosmetic company that specialized in products for older women. Another woman had started a company that sold the collagen that can be produced from cooking chicken bones. There was also a woman who had a factory where she was selling healthy chips made from fruits. For these portraits, Rachel sometimes photographed the women in their working environment or alongside elements that suggested their work. To ensure that the project would be seen outside her circle of contacts, Rachel sought out a gallery to host a display of printed images.
Rachel’s third project was titled “The Quiet Rebellion,” and you may instantly have some idea about the gender of the subjects and perhaps a vague sense of the message of the project. Rachel’s projects provide insight into her value system and vision. Clients who are connecting 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 a person who creates beautiful pictures.
The benefits of a personal project include developing the skills needed to work on an extended project. This will be valuable if you are ever hired for an ad campaign that requires you to complete 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 enjoyable, but don’t be misled into thinking it doesn’t involve actual work. A self-assignment requires that you be a self-starter and rise to a level of excellence without expecting a reward or even praise. Do you have the work ethic necessary to complete a project that has no deadline, no manager, and no expectations?
If you don’t know how to begin your first personal project, you can look outside of photography and examine your other interests. Perhaps you like to bake, play soccer, or build model airplanes. What do you want people to know about this endeavor 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 that featured women of different ages with different stories to tell, but the message of the importance of gender equality, risk-taking, sacrifice, and residency was prevalent in all of the images. The images from your projects will reveal as much about you as they will about your subjects. And it is this merger between self and art that we should all strive for as artists.
Images by Rachel Vogeleisen and used with permission.