When you start out in photography you won’t have much else in your portfolio except personal work. But rather than just wandering around with your camera hoping you’ll see something worth photographing every now and then (which isn’t to be dismissed, but you’re just as likely not to see anything worth photographing), it’s worth putting some thought and effort into getting something you’re proud of.
There are some great benefits to carrying out themed photo projects. Say, for example you’re interested in documentary-style portraiture. Not only can it be hard to find subjects to photograph, but unless you’ve got a focused project underway it can be hard to incentivise yourself to make the extra effort needed to get a good photo. It can be all too easy to be lazy with your photography and take a half-hearted approach, hoping that photos will come to you rather than going out of your way to organise, create and capture a good shot.
By setting out on a photo project, you are not only declaring your intention to others but to yourself. You are committing yourself to undertaking a body of work, and straight away this gives your work more weight. Simply by being able to say to your subjects “I’d like to photograph you as part of a series of portraits I’m doing” you’re increasing your own credibility and boosting your chances of finding willing subjects. Plus, by publicly declaring that you’re setting out on a project, it then makes it harder for you not to do it.
If a project is based around a group of people, it can give you an invaluable ‘way in’ to a group that can only come with time. Once you’ve gained this trust and this privileged access, you’re then in a position to gain far more interesting and intimate photos. Some of the most striking images of the last century are part of wider series of work. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, taken in 1936 in California was part of a month-long project on migratory farm labour. Mary Ellen Mark’s Damm Family in Their Car was taken as part of a project documenting a homeless family living out of their car. Diane Arbus’s photo Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 although not part of an immediate photo project as such, was very much a consequence of ongoing body of personal work based around ideas of identity. British photographer Martin Parr has created a number of recognisable images from projects based around ideas of Britishness, and became a member of Magnum partly as a result.
It shouldn’t necessarily matter what your project is based around (though obviously it helps if it’s something you’re interested in). The point is that by getting yourself involved in something you’re doing yourself a huge favour. You’re setting yourself guidelines and helping yourself generate ideas. In the same way that it can be simpler to find something to photograph if you’re given a specific assignment rather than left free to photograph anything and not know where to start, a project gives you that structure and framework to explore within. It can create great surprises too – once you’re immersed in a project, great photos can come along that you would have never expected before you embarked on it, and that you certainly wouldn’t have had an opportunity to capture had you not started it.
This is all fine and good – but what is the actual point of doing personal work? Well, for starters you’ll need something good to go in your portfolio to show prospective clients. Obviously not all sorts of personal work is going to be of interest to all clients. But there’s no reason why a potential still life client shouldn’t be interested in experimental still life work you might have done, or why a fashion magazine shouldn’t be interested in test shoots you’ve done. If you’re going for advertising work, you’ll find that many advertising agencies are most interested in your personal projects as they’ll be hoping to find something unique and interesting to use for a campaign rather than just technically proficient (though this is clearly important too). But apart from this, personal work is important as it helps keep your work fresh and gives you the opportunity to push yourself, experiment, and consequently grow as a photographer. You’re not going to want to test your new lighting ideas for example on a commissioned job, particularly if you’re just starting out as it’s far more important to play it safe and deliver what the client wants. Undertaking personal work will help you discover what you’re good at and give you space to practise your skills without pressure.
Stand out from the pack
Plus, if your personal work is really good it can help get you wider exposure. You should enter it into competitions and exhibitions – in fact there’s no reason why on successful completion of a project you shouldn’t put on an exhibition, even if it’s just in a local cafe or cinema. Make sure you’re got a good web presence too, both through your own web site as well as through services like Imstagram and Flickr (believe it or not, this can help kick start a photography career – read more about this in the article on internet marketing). Plus you should take the initiative and directly approach any potential clients who you think might have a link to the sort of work that you do. Think laterally, spread the net wide, and persevere. It’s often when you least expect it that success will strike. If you really want to make it as a top photographer, I’d go so far as to argue that the only way to do this is through creating strikingly individual personal work. There are thousands of other photographers out there who are technically skilled and can carry out a creative brief to a client’s satisfaction. You’ve got to ask yourself what you’ve got that’s going to help you stand out from the crowd – and if you haven’t got it yet, start working on it.