Elements of a Successful Personal Project
So in this episode, I want to distill down some of the elements that are important to have a successful and lasting personal project. And the biggest one is that it can't be easy. Because if it's something easy, it's most likely already been created. And that ties into the second big goal of a great personal project is that you want to focus on a topic that you feel is underrepresented or could be amplified by your voice and your images contributing to telling the story. You really have to care and be passionate about the subject that you're photographing. And it is a really beautiful intersection of passion, of hobby and personal interest. And for you to wake up and shoot something day after day, it has to be relevant and important to you in your life. Yeah, and the intersection of personal work and commercial work is that taking on a focus and dedicated personal project gives you an opportunity to hone your style and your vision for creating images. And that in turn ...
is what you'll be hired for commercial work because art directors and creative directors are gonna see the past work that you've created and they're going to interpret that to fit a commercial project that they need fulfilled. So in the end, you have to make the work that you want to get hired for. And that's like, I mean, that's just so true. 'Cause a lot of photographers and myself included, I could shoot anything that anyone asked me to do, but we all get. I can't say the word right now. Yeah, pigeonhole, we all get put into little compartments and just like most chefs could likely cook any dish, when you think about restaurants in the context of their menu, not that they have the ability to cook anything. And the same thing is true with photography and art directors is that when they think of you, they're gonna think of your style and they're gonna see the past work that you've proven you're capable of, and what you can build in photograph. And then you're gonna get hired based on that. So it's so imperative to make the type of work that you want to get hired for. So, I mean, if you're shooting landscapes because you wanna get hired to shoot landscapes, that's great. But if you don't love doing it, I don't know, it's just phony, it's gonna float to the surface. And the beautiful thing about the personal project is, you've essentially hired yourself to create something that you love and care about. And it's free from commercial restraints and the creative and art director on the project is yourself. And then you, of course, you can tap your community for feedback and review of the images you're creating, but it does give you a ton of space. Taking on a personal project gives you a lot of space to take risk and to fail and to figure out what doesn't work. I'm trying to think of where this comes from. I don't know, it's just comes from, 'cause you just love photography. And the way to get better at being a photographer is taking lots of photographs, hundreds and hundreds and thousands of photographs. You have to put in the time. And the shortcut to it all is not the volume of work that it takes. But the shortcut is making sure that you are focused and honed in when you're shooting images, not to just be random about it and hoping to capture hero single one off photographs, but you become a wise photographer when you can execute the same idea across a broad range of images over time. That's when you've become successful in the craft. Yeah and it's also important to realize that a lot of times the discovery, so like the impetus for going to shoot work could be like, I wanna tell the story of my town. Which is really general and huge, and anything could fit into that. But a lot of times, the place to start is if you don't have the honed in idea, if you're like, I wanna photograph, like, tell the story of my town. A lot of times what you need to do is to go forth and create, put in the time and the hard work to capturing the images, make sure you're dedicating yourself to capturing the town in the best light, obviously, the best time of day, finding the right locations and the people to photograph. But a lot of times, the story will evolve and become more clear through the editing process. So you have to go shoot the images, then edit them. And then when you've sat down and reviewed your images, that informs you of how to go photograph and shoot the next day. So with my personal project, this wide idea day one was awkward and uncomfortable and I'm like, "Where do I put my hands?" And I just had to go like, "I'm doing this, I have to be uncomfortable." And I just walked up to this lovely couple in their front yard doing gardening and I was like, "Hey, my name's Theron, I'm doing this crazy project. I'm going to all 50 states. Can I hang out with you and take some photos?" They were like, "Okay." And it was uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable to ask, it made them uncomfortable to say yes, but ultimately, it led us go somewhere really beautiful. Because years later, I have people emailing me like, "Thank you so much for photographing my friend. I didn't have any photographs of them. They've passed away now. You're the last person to take images of them." So that's the intersection of being uncomfortable, taking on a project that's not easy, but also, as time went on, from day one versus day 300, I was a far better photographer because I'd been doing it for 300 days, day after day. And I became more comfortable walking up to ask people. And I became more aware of the time of day I was shooting and the environments I was shooting. Because I had a bunch of failures in the project. Some days were super duds. Some days were not exceptional. The locations were great, the people were stiff. I couldn't drop my guard to be present with them. And it was like the process of creating that you become better. You gotta burn a bunch of burgers if you want to become a good cook.
Okay. (Theron laughing)
Yeah and I think that, I mean, there is a fine line where it has to be a project that, obviously, the personal project has to be a topic that you are interested and invested in, but it's also having a wisdom to know that you can be too esoteric where the only audience might be hyper niche and for yourself, which is not ineffective or it might not be the reason not to do it, I think it's just good just to have awareness of where do you think your topic is falling as far as interest. And for me, a big personal project that I've been working on for the past decade has been photographing my friend, a dog, Maddie. And it started from a very genuine place of loving her and spending time with her, but also getting an awareness of like, "Oh, other people also love their dogs." So it's a relevant story to more than just myself. So the point is, pick a topic you care about, but it can't, I don't know, if you don't want anybody else to listen to your song, that's okay. But there's some kind of balance between not selling your soul, but being. Man, how do I say this? I don't know, 'cause I've got a lot of friends who are musicians and they all know when they're writing a pop song for the radio to get a hit, to get paid, but it's also like, how do you write songs that you love that are also commercially viable? That's the magic. Yeah, so finding inspiration in photographing the same subject over and over again to create a body of work in the personal project. If we're focused on This Wild Idea, 365 project, was that the subject matter was always the same, was like a person's story that day. But what gave it new inspiration was that it was always in a new setting and location. And over time through creating the work, you become more aware of the magic of what makes setting and location interesting. And it's just through the creation of shooting and editing. That's how I found, I don't know, that's how I got better. I don't know, I'm trying to say it in an interesting way. I don't know. I took a bunch of photos and a lot of 'em sucked and then the next day I was like, "Well, what sucked about that image? What's not speaking to me?" These suck, 'cause some of this feels like really ineffable. It's not like a recipe in the sense of everything is spelled out, it's something intangible. It's like light and setting and mood. And it was like doing it day after day do you become aware of what's not working. So finding new inspiration for me was creating lots of images that didn't have that magic and then continuing to push into the topic. So I knew the idea was good. I committed to it and I was gonna see it through. So I think there very much is that important part about it. And then being inspired, for me, in that context, that specific project was that I was gonna do it better the next day. I was gonna find more compelling subjects. I was gonna take greater risk in who I walked up to and asked for permission to intersect their life. And that was the drive of it. So it was all based around a love for creating images. Part of the success in a personal project is having a community or in friends set up that can give you feedback for your images. You really do need that hard truth about what is working in your images and what's not working. And photography is many layers and one of them is science, another one of them is craft. And part of that craft is honed in by shooting lots of photographs and making mistakes and making images that aren't successful. And then looking back on them and distilling down what is working. And the best way to do that is with editing is to go in and to pick out the images that you love and then to show people and your friend and photo community what images you're speaking to them and then start picking out those components and then learning to repeat that. You have to repeat the process. 'Cause if you look at Irving Penn's portraiture, you instantly know it's an Irving Penn image because he's honed that style and that feeling and it's his, and it's his way of seeing. And that is what the personal project gives you is that it's an opportunity to repeat yourself until you understand, until you can swing the bat the same every single time and it becomes second nature. Yeah, I think so. There's gotta be like a hike in, you have to sweat or it has to make you feel uncomfortable to walk up and ask a stranger if you can take their portrait. If there's not a component of physically exhausting or emotionally scary, that's not going to be the gateway to making great images. If you're only shooting your comfort zone forever, that's gonna be a much slower, more agonizing pathway to creating images. It's like, when you're uncomfortable, it creates impetus to be vulnerable. And then when you're vulnerable, it's gonna create more meaningful connections to your subject. So in my personal project, the start was photographing my grandfather, which was an accessible subject to me. He didn't like to be photographed very much though. So I had to ask him for permission, but then I translated that into walking around America asking people I'd never met until that moment to invite me into their personal space. And that was extremely uncomfortable for me. And I still squirm thinking about doing it, but when I'm uncomfortable, it's making me squirm. To me, that's like a flag that goes up that like, "Ah, maybe I'm onto something worth exploring more." And the personal project needs that internal squirm where you're like, "Mmm, that's gonna require me to dig down and find something within myself to actually get up every morning and do this." And I think just like any journey we go on, walking around the world, walking across America, trying to lose weight and change like huge aspects of our life. The personal photo project needs those same challenge elements that are not on the nose, that not everyone else is doing, that you have to exert emotional or physical energy to capture the work. For me, the distilled part about this is one making sure that you have a friend, a community group that's interested and passionate about photography as well. And even today in my own work, I have a group of friends that when I'm stuck on the image, and I don't know which one to send. So a series of select. So it's a single image that's communicating the single idea in three or four different ways. I'll still send that group of four photos to a friend, multiple friends even often, and have them pick which image communicates the idea I'm trying to get across the best. So that network and community group of people interested in this pursuit, this craft, this hobby, this love of photography is so important. You can't exist in a vacuum. We don't create in a vacuum. We need input from people that we care about to help us hone and sharpen our images. So establishing that. And then also being that person for others. If you have a friend group of people that are image makers, letting them know that like, "Hey, I'm here for you. When you get stuck, I want to be a part of honing your craft. Send me your selects and I'll help you choose." And that's something that Alex Strohl and I do, and he'll send me, he's like, "Hey, how would you pair these? Which ones do you think?" And the cool thing is, I'm not emotionally attached to them as he is. So I can just quickly select it. And the really nice thing with iPhone texting stuff, you send a group of images and you just go through and you hit the thumbs up like on the ones that are working. So it's just like the workflow for doing this is really nicely streamlined with technology today. Your personal project has to come from a place that makes you uncomfortable or is a physical challenge, or it requires you to sacrifice something. And for me, that was walking up to strangers that I didn't know and asking them for permission to photograph them. And by the way, I think you should always ask for permission when you photograph people. No one likes to have a gazing device, the camera pointed at them unwillingly. And to approach people I didn't know and to make that connection, for me, made me squirm inside. And like I said, that's something that I think when that happens is when you know you're onto something good. You're like, "Ooh, I'm gonna hike 25 miles into the spot." That require a sacrifice, a dedication. And that is when you're gonna make great images. If you're just gonna pull off to the side of the road, everyone's been photographing on that spot forever. And so you're gonna have to find something new to say in a space where hundreds of millions of images have been made since 1870. And part of that is making sure that it's not easy. The challenge is just assemble a group of friends that you trust and love that y'all can share your images that you're making and have shot that week, and a text chain and get feedback on your work. 'Cause if you try to create images in vacuum, you're not gonna grow. You need other people who love and care about photography to point out your highlights, places you're succeeding, point out places that you have more blind spots on and you're not doing that well. And that's how you hone your craft. And even still today, even myself, I worked really hard on a concept, but internally, I know it's not clicking. And I sent it to a friend just hoping that they'll be like, "Oh, I love this so much." And 9.9 times outta 10 they're like, "Yeah, Theron, this idea is not resolved yet. You need to shoot more." And then picking up the camera again, taking a deep breath, sighing, going to shoot more. That's when you resolve the photograph, when you capture it, when you tell the story of how you are feeling on the still image. And that is the value of having a community of friends that you can share what you're creating together and get their feedback. It's imperative to the creative process. You need to hang your photos on the wall and have your friends come over and tell and hear from them what they love and what they don't love. It's just like, if you're cooking a recipe, you want to hear if it tasted good to people or not, and that's how you hone your craft. The cool thing is you can do that through text messaging now.