What I Learned From My Photo Project (Standstill) by Mehran Khalili

Syntagma Square, Athens
Syntagma Square, Athens

Editor’s Note:  Mehran Khalili is a British-Iranian photographer that works in political communications by day and shoots photos by night (and sometimes the other way around). He recently published a photo project on Greece, ‘Standstill’, which looks at the country’s economic shock in over six years of crisis. It has been featured on LensCulture, Vice, Dodho and other platforms as well. Here he shares his thoughts for photographers on what he learned from making and publishing the project:

Anafi Island
Anafi Island

1. On selecting a subject for a personal photo project 

I’ve been in love with Greece for a long time, and moved here five years ago with my wife, who is Greek.

In the past, I’ve shot projects purely for the aesthetic challenge, or because the subject presented itself. Standstill was different. Each time I put the camera to my eye for the photos in this project, I was capturing a piece of something that intrigues and inspires me: life in Greece.

Omonioa Square, Athens
Omonioa Square, Athens

When I compare my photos of things I care deeply about and those of things I don’t, the difference is stark: the images simply work better when I have strong feelings for the subject. This is perhaps why beginner photographers can often take wonderful images of their families or loved ones.

Never again will I do a personal project on something I don’t care deeply about.

Nikis Street, Athens
Nikis Street, Athens

2. On minimising the variables

There are so many variables in photography; so many possibilities. And while this sounds like a positive, for the kind of photos I shoot it can actually get in the way of making images, creating concerns like: Which lens should I shoot that scene with? Would the photo work better in colour or black and white? And so on.

Athens
Athens

So five years ago I decided to strip things down to the basics, and started shooting my photos in the same way: with the same camera, lens, focal length, orientation, and processing.

That decision freed me to think less about the technical aspects of making the image and more about the result and what I wanted to say. It enabled me to travel light, with just one small camera. It improved my picture-taking skills, as it defined limits I could work against.

Bozika Village, Peloponnese
Bozika Village, Peloponnese

And for this project, that decision made assembling it much easier. Because it gave me a set of visually consistent images before I’d even thought about selecting or sequencing.

One day I’m sure I’ll explore outside those constraints, say shooting in colour, or using different tools. But for now, while I’m still learning how to work within them, it’s encouraging to know that completing future projects will only require me to cover the basics, and won’t drown me in options.

Goura Village, Peloponnese
Goura Village, Peloponnese

3. On finding meaning in images

Charlie Kirk told me “Shoot first; you can find meaning later”. That was very much how I shot this project: I captured life around me in Greece for six years, and tried to fit it together once I felt I had enough images.

I knew broadly what I wanted to say with the project. But as crazy as it sounds, when it was time to put it together I found it hard to pin down the meanings of my own photos, since I was too close to the work and interpreting photos is so subjective.

Bolati Village, Peloponnese
Bolati Village, Peloponnese

Sometimes, understanding what others see in your work can give you clarity and even change how you view it. It helped me enormously to show my images to people and ask them: What does this say to you?

Often I ended up with contradictory opinions. For example, many friends saw the picture of the little girl looking up at the mountains as something hopeful: a child with a world of possibilities before her, sunlight breaking through clouds. But others — me included — saw something much bleaker; the picture evoked media images of dead refugee children, washed up on Greek beaches.

Peak of Mount Ziria, Peloponnese
Peak of Mount Ziria, Peloponnese

What’s the right interpretation? All of them — and then some I haven’t come across yet. And that’s the beauty of photography: the anarchy, the randomness, the ambiguity of it.

So I won’t fret over the meanings of images anymore. I’ll just gather as many interpretations as I can, and try to arrange them to say what I want to say.

Kavros, Crete
Kavros, Crete

4. On selecting and sequencing

For this project I went through thousands of images and chose around 100 that I thought were strong enough and could work together. I then tried to narrow them down to a set and sequence to tell a story. It turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done with my photography.

I spent weeks looking at others’ work, reading tutorials on selecting and sequencing, trying different combinations, shuffling prints around my floors and walls. No luck. I’d hit a block: once again I was simply too involved with the photos to see them clearly, and understand how they played with each other.

Agios Lavrentios Village, Peloponnese
Agios Lavrentios Village, Peloponnese

Fortunately I got help from a close friend with a good eye. She made some proposals, found threads, and put me on track to finish the project. I also got good advice from Jason Eskenazi: “Think of each photo as a still from a movie. And try to make sure the sequence has the same elements that every good movie has.”

Selecting and sequencing involve different skills than photo-taking, but a good photographer should master them all. I realised with this project just how much I have to learn in that respect.

In the meantime I plan to include my friend’s input in every project I make.

Athens
Athens

5. On procrastination

Procrastination and perfectionism are closely related, and I’m guilty of both.

Once I’d settled on a set and sequence, I sat on this project for months. The work didn’t feel right. I thought it needed a cut here, a better linking image there. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll need to go out and shoot more before it can be complete.

Triopetra, Crete
Triopetra, Crete

At some point, I’d had enough of thinking and just published it.

When I look at the work now, I see plenty that I’d change. But there’s something obscenely satisfying in knowing that it’s out there, in all its imperfection, instead of existing only on my computer and wall.

The importance of overcoming procrastination applies to any artistic endeavour, and there are many proverbs about it: “better to take the wrong decision, than no decision”; “real artists ship’; “ideas are cheap and abundant, execution is everything’. They’re all saying basically the same thing: don’t sit on finished work.

Wildfires seen from Evia
Wildfires seen from Evia

The next time I’m at the final stage of a project and I’ve been polishing it for too long, I know what to do: hold my breath and push it out.

standstill-15
Archanes, Crete

6. On moving on

To my surprise, Standstill generated more coverage and interest than I’d ever had for my photography.

So for a few weeks I sat back and wallowed in the glory. I kept the photos on the wall in my study, and whenever I passed I looked at them and thought: “Whoah, I made this!”

Archanes, Crete
Archanes, Crete

But not only was this behaviour self-absorbed, I soon realised it was also counterproductive. Keeping the last project top-of-mind for so long was stopping me from starting the next one.

So a few days ago, alone in my study, I had a kind of ceremony. I took down the Standstill photos from the wall and stuck them in an album, then put it in a cupboard.

It felt liberating. And now — I think! — I’m ready to work on the next project.

Stylos, Crete
Stylos, Crete

More from Standstill

Scaramanga Shipyard
Scaramanga Shipyard
Vrachati, Peloponnese
Vrachati, Peloponnese
Ermou Street, Athens
Ermou Street, Athens
Brussels
Brussels
Kyparissia, Peloponnese
Kyparissia, Peloponnese

For More on Mehran

Website: mkhalili.photo
Flickr: flickr.com/mkhalili
Facebook: facebook.com/mehran.khalili
Twitter: twitter.com/mkhalili

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