Josh: One of the hardest things to do in the documentary style of photography is to work on a project. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is just deciding on a theme or subject. Of course, that is just the start! In this post, I’ll talk about my philosophy on the subject of photographic projects and how you might start one for yourself.
“I made a decision that to me, photography had to be something that I could feel. I could feel in my stomach. I could not take pictures that were not connected to my own inner life.” – Jacob Aue Sobol
This is a quote from magnum photographer, Jacob Aue Sobol. When it comes to the conception of a project, I always come back to this quote. In the end, if you’re not working on behalf of someone else you have to “feel” what you’re doing. In photography like anything else, the outcome is usually equal to the effort and the effort equal to the commitment.
If you care, so will your audience.
When it comes to projects, there are 5 steps I usually go through.
So, this one is obvious. As I said earlier, for me it’s important that the project mean something to me. Over the past two years I’ve worked on 4 projects each of which has some significance to me personally.
The first project I worked on when I was living in Toronto, was called “Labyrinth.” At the time, I had sold all my camera equipment, went through some difficult personal stuff. I was working a 9-5 and didn’t do much else. Get up, put on my tie, and make the trek to work. Everything became this blur of mundanity. I stopped seeing people, just obstacles. I had an old Blackberry with scratches all over the lens from the previous owner. I took the photo above and the idea for the project was born.
While this may be a good way to do a personal project, it isn’t always so easy. The second project I worked on was called, The Culture. While at a Korean festival I saw a tent with a group of Korean tattoo artists. For those of you that know a little about Korea, you’ll know this is quite a rare sight. I had the idea I wanted to photograph it.
This takes me to the second, and one of the more intimidating parts of starting a new project; Access.
This takes some creative thinking! Well, in this case I figured whats the easiest way to get to talk to a tattoo artist? Get a tattoo, right? So, I went over to talk to him about getting a portrait of my dad done in black and grey. During the session, I talked to him about the idea of coming around his shop every now and then to take some photos. He didn’t seem overly enthusiastic at first, so I offered to do some of his portfolio photos for him and then he was sold.
It pays to be persistent. Little did I know Brad and I would later become really good friends and the project would end up being more about him and his family then the tattoos. Creatively though, I just try to go with the flow. A lot can change over half a year, including your vision.
My most recent project, Hatch, started when I went to meet an old friend who was practicing with his band in this underground studio in Seoul. Spending some time with him and some other underground musicians in the city I realized what a great “untold” scene it was. Access in this case was a little more difficult, as the vision I saw for the project was hardly glamorous. In this case, I sold the idea of telling their story. Again, it took much convincing but eventually I got them to let me tag along for a night out. Knowing they weren’t excited by being photographed I didn’t take anything but an old, small consumer looking point and shoot that I had gotten from my aunt.
3. The Process
So, I suppose that leads me to the process. In my opinion, this includes the gear you use. For “Hatch”, this (The EyeEm app photo above) is essentially what I’ll carry to a shoot. Yep, an 8 megapixel Sony something-or-other, some money, headphones, and my phone charger. I only take the charger in case I end up staying somewhere other than home.
It’s important to have the right gear to supplement your vision. For this project, I envisioned a series of portraits of these guys as they went about their business. I also wanted them to show their vulnerability. Big cameras in their face I felt like I’d get a version of what they thought a rocker should look like. The compact camera being less intrusive allows me to get genuine emotion and expression.
So, Leica gave me their new compact, the Leica C to use for a while a couple of days ago. A couple of my friends asked me if I’m going to use that for my project instead and in fact, I won’t.
I wouldn’t use a 100 000 dollar camera if it was given to me. Something Eric often talks about when it comes to projects is getting a consistent “look.” The best way to get a consistent look is one camera. I’ll keep using the one from my aunt. I’ll also shoot most of the project in portrait orientation and not crop anything.
A consistent look is one of the most important things in a project.
4. Letting it Flow
When I started shooting the tattoo artist, Brad, in Toronto I imagined it being a project about his work. I imagined it being the story of an artist and his business.
Well, two months into the project I realized I had been going about it all wrong. What was most interesting to me was the way he interacting with his daughter; with his wife. His life was also interesting. Where he came from and how he ended up there. It became the story of a father; a husband.
So, I got rid of all the photos I had taken up until that point. It was no longer the vision I had. You have to trust your instincts and go with your gut.
A similar thing happened to me for the project that followed. I had planned on shooting my way across Canada as I traveled back to my home province of Newfoundland. I planned on shooting the trip, almost of documentary of my trip. Not having been home in years, once I started driving I found it hard to stop. Only stopping for gas and photos the last thing on my mind I drove nearly straight across Canada.
It was Newfoundland I cared about, not all the rest. The project became a story of my home and not my trip to it.
5. The Edit
Well, the final part of a project for me is the edit. I’ll be perfectly honest and say I’m terrible at editing my work. While I’ve gotten better I still rely a lot on help from others to narrow down for a project.
“Editing” often gets confused with processing. Processing, it is not. Editing is more the selection. A great project can be ruined by a bad edit. That’s why I always ask people I trust to help me edit my photos. Don’t be afraid to ask for help as most people are their own worst enemy when it comes to editing. Eric and I will often help each other edit projects. Eric’s manager Neil is usually in on the edits, too. I usually ask 2 to 3 people, one of which usually isn’t a photographer.
For me personally, it’s also important to let the photos permeate. One of the reasons I like to shoot projects on film is because it forces me to distance myself from the photos. This is especially the case with projects you are emotionally invested in. For example, the hardest time I’ve had editing a project is currently with The Culture. I grew to really care about the people I was photographing. I became invested in their well being. Becoming close like that has made it hard for me not to like every photo I took of them. Letting the photos sit really helps my choose objectively.
I’ll end with a quote as I started with one, this time from Anders Petersen:
“Shoot with your heart; and your gut. Edit with your brain.” – Anders Petersen
“I shoot with my heart, and my stomach… But when I’m planning a project, then I’m thinking. And when I’m developing the film and looking at the contact sheets, then I’m thinking and editing and choosing, very, very carefully.” - Anders Petersen