Monday, July 19, 2010

The Importance of Personal Work

A year ago I started a personal project called Seasons of Subsistence after visiting a Yup'ik summer fishing camp up here in Bristol Bay, Alaska. After a year of shooting for this project I want to take a moment to reflect on the importance of personal work.

I don't know about you but I'm constantly making up long term projects in my head, whether its a story about the lives of my backyard chickens or the solitary existence of Indonesian raft fishermen. But making these projects become a reality requires a lot more determination, commitment, time, resources and planning than simply dreaming about them. Being able to filter out the crazy ideas from the realistic ones is key to your success and involves being totally honest with yourself. I'm all about dreaming big, don't get me wrong, but executing a long-term, or short term, personal project requires that you get your all of your eggs in just the right baskets.


Coming up with an idea can often be a real challenge, especially if you haven't quite decided what kind of photographer you are yet and the focus you want to take. I spent many dark hours mulling over a multitude of ideas as I began my photographic journey, many of them completely overambitious. Being realistic with yourself is critical.

So make a list. Put it into three sections: Dream Projects, Realistic Projects, Backyard Projects. Work out what you are really passionate about and what you can realistically achieve within a given time frame, 1 month, 6 months, 1 year. Your backyard projects are ones that you can be working on all the time. Hopefully they don't require huge amounts of resources and they allow you to begin right away. For example at the beginning of the this year I began a project photographing adventure athletes in Seattle. Its a project that I work on all the time, I shoot every month or so and it doesn't require huge amounts of time and money. Your Dream Projects are at the opposite end of the scale. They are big, ambitious, and support your overarching vision as a photographer. Whether they are realistic or not, feasible or something you hope to do "one day" it doesn't matter. More importantly they give you a focus point and set the bar for your creative endeavours. While your Realistic Projects are the ones you start to put into the research phase.


So you have a backyard project or two that you are rolling with and your Dream Projects are providing you with inspiration and a guiding force. Now you have to be really realistic with your self and begin researching for a project that you can pull off, your Realistic Project. Your research needs to be thorough. It is essential that you know as much as possible about the people, issue, location etc of your chosen project. Whenever I get an assignment I begin a very careful research process that involves gathering as much information on the geography, economics, culture, language, climate, current affairs, ecology and infrastructure of where I'm going. Of course my research process for editorial assignments differs from my commercial assignments and your research process will differ from mine. You need to find a process that fits your style. But find a process and take a systematic approach to it so that you cover all the essentials. Careful planning will save you time, money and ensure you do the best job you can.


Fundraising is really important, really difficult and really beyond the scope of this posting. Fortunately there are some great resources out there and the Blue Earth Alliance is the best place to start: and a great handbook all about getting projects off the ground:

The way you actually end up shooting your project will vary widely depending on the type of photographer you are and the nature of your project. Regardless of these variables, however, are a few things that are universal to executing your project.

Whether you are heading out to document great white shark attack victims or shooting a project on Parisian barristers getting access to the right subject matter is vital to the success of your project. It takes time and commitment to forge these necessary relationships so you'll need to draw upon all of your resources, friends, and contacts.


Money. Whether you are planning a small backyard shoot or a longterm international project you are going to need money to cover your expenses. Think about all of your possible expenses ranging from rent and office supplies to airplane tickets and special equipment. Then make a budget so you know how much your ideas are going to cost and how much fundraising you have to do. There is lots of great information on budgeting in the Blue Earth Alliance handbook, link above.


Collaboration is one of your most important skills and assets. There will often be other organisations and non-profits working on similar issues to your work. Sharing your ideas with these groups and letting them know what you are trying to achieve can be instrumental in helping your project become a reality. After working with Trout Unlimited Alaska (TU Alaska) in 2008 I came to them with my Seasons of Subsistence project. TU is now one of the fiscal sponsors for the project helping me to fundraise. They also support the project by producing gallery exhibitions and promoting the project through their marketing outlets.


At first personal projects can seem daunting. Lack of money, lack of focus, making contacts, where to start...? The list goes on. But if you are passionate you will stick at it and while getting a project off the ground can be challenging, the benefits far outweigh the hard graft. Get creative and follow your crazy dreams, as Goethe said, "Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.

Here are a few reasons to persevere, stick with it and produce thoughtful and innovative personal work.

Refine your vision

You have complete creative control over your personal projects. No one telling you they want it done a certain way. You can do whatever you want. And this is why personal work is so important, because it is your own personal expression as an artist. When people look at your personal work they peer directly into your creative vision and bear witness to your purest form. Doing personal work then is essential for your personal growth as an artist and a space for you to experiment, make mistakes, grow, evolve and refine your vision.

Hone your skills

Experimenting, making mistakes and evolving are all ways in which we craft new skills. Every time I shoot personal work I discover new ways of shooting, develop new skill sets and make big leaps in my creative thinking. Its just like exercising and training for a sport. We have to flex our creativity!

Prove your worth

Personal work demonstrates artistic initiative and a thirst for creativity. People who hire photographers like to see that the person they are going to hire does more than just fulfill a creative brief and instead brings a unique set of ideas to the table. Your personal work is an important part of your creative toolbox and critical to demonstrating that you are a thriving artist.


Rowan Sims said...

Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Nick. It's good to be reminded of the importance of personal work. Focusing on the next assignment or marketing can take up so much mental energy and time that the reason we fell in love with this thing can be forgotten.

Thanks for the reminder. Very well written and inspiring!

Ann Torrence said...

Great post. A couple more things to add to your list:
if possible, break a project down into smaller chunks that can be completed sooner. At least to get one chunk "done" well enough to put together a walking-around portfolio (my first one was Costco prints bound by Kinkos). Early on I had something in my bag to show people what I had in mind as I was asking for help.

Carry the dreaming and scheming to the point of visualizing an actual physical output. Whether that's a slideshow, a book, a set of prints, an Iphone app, having that vision means imagining who my audience is, and more importantly, what done means. It's personal work, so if done means a single set of matted prints in a box, that's great. Do it. Done is one of the most glorious words in the English language.

Except then there will be another project...the only thing worse would be not to have another project.

diego said...

Thanks for sharing this. Means a lot!

Randy Romano said...

Nick thanks for the article. I too am a huge believer in personal projects and this is the year I am trying to bring some to completion. Especially like the way you categorize them, as I think defining and researching them does separate the dreams from reality.

All the best and thanks for your blog.

Òscar Domínguez said...

Hi Nick! Really good advice and thank you for sharing.
Greetings from Spain

Paul Kiesche said...

Very inspiring post. I've been in a rut with my personal work and your work and this post are a good inspiration. Thanks! Absolutely fantastic work!

john ferguson said...

Just found your site, fantastic work Nick, well done! I to believe in the importance of personal work, but it can be hard to keep up the motivation when you have difficult periods. But you're absolutely right about sticking it out. The benefits of a completed project make up for all the hassle, self doubt, and expense. I'm onto my second project, the first taking me nearly 5 years to complete, but the rewards, both financial & personally make it all worth while.
Keep up the great work.