Musings on Photography

Different Kinds of Projects

Posted in motivation, process by Paul Butzi on January 9, 2007

 On this post, Mark Hobson commented:

Most photographer, great and small, who have the vision thing going have discovered a personal passion for something other than just taking pictures. The passion becomes an unavoidable must-do, a focus, an obsession. Discovering a passion is very different from “chosing a subject”, “developing a concept” and “setting goals”.

Out of the desire to give voice to a passion, a photographic technique that flows from the passion is developed/adopted as part of the vision. The technique developed is most often felt to be “owned” by the photographer, that is to say, part and parcel of their idiosyncratic voice. It is the mechaniccs of how they see.

For a photographer with vision, when the passion and the technique gel, there is simply no other course of action. Nothing else is conceivable. The work pours forth. A coherent body of work – a “project”, if you will (although some “projects” last a lifetime) – is inevitible.

Maybe your “problem” is that you haven’t discovered your passion.

PS – the process of finding your passion/vision is rarely a “clear cut process”. Most often it’s a rather messy affair and involves a lot of “rope pushing” and “stumbling around”.

So, perhaps, even though you haven’t discovered your passion, you’re on the road to find out.

Without disagreeing directly with what Mark says, I’d still say he’s striking wide of the mark.  It’s not that I lack passion, thanks very much.  It’s not even that I lack vision, although if you don’t much like what I tend to photograph or how I photograph it, you might well disagree with me on that.

And, reading Mark’s comment, he seems to think I have trouble with the whole ‘project’ thing.  Well, that’s not true.  I’ve been working on photographic projects for quite a long time, now.  It’s not the project concept that I have trouble with, it’s that when I work on projects, the whole thing is a whole hell of a lot more emergent than you would expect reading a book like On Being a Photographer, or reading Brooks Jensen wax eloquent about the importance of projects. 

I think there are projects of the sort David Hurn describes in On Being a Photographer, where the photographer decides on some subject about which he feels passionate, and then with forethought plans out the course of the project, right down to building a shot list.  I’ll call that an ‘agenda project’.  Agenda projects are goal directed, along the lines of “end up with 20 photographs which illustrate the impact of clearcut logging on fish habitat”, or “build a portfolio of photographs of urban blight that show the negative impact of poverty on neighborhoods”, or even “build a portfolio of photographs that show the social fabric of this community”.  The cohesive quality of the images is planned into the project from the start. 

And then there are projects that emerge organically.  That’s what I do – I go out to photograph stuff which engages me, and in the process of that photography, I learn things.  The things that I learn influence the photographs I make next, and because there’s no way to anticipate in advance what I’m going to learn, there’s no way to anticipate in advance what direction the project is going to take.  With emergent projects, it’s often the case that the project gets started without the photographer doing any planning at all.  I know that I often discover projects are underway when I browse back over the photos I’ve made in the past year and discover threads I wasn’t consciously aware of. 

An example is all my photographs of gates and ‘do not enter’ signs.  Just last year, I realized I had quite a few of these photos.  Recognizing the trend has made me focus a bit more on those subjects as I try to figure out what the hell is going on there.  Before, I was stopping and photographing these scenes, never really noticing that I was doing it pretty often.  Now, I’ve recognized the theme, and I’ve started pursuing that subject consciously.  And, as I do, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that it’s not so much that I’m photographing gates and no tresspassing signs so much as I’m photographing inaccessible places from outside, and start photographing fences as well.  I don’t know that’s what will happen, though, and that’s the point. 

Emergent projects are an adventure in faith – I set out on the path, and I don’t know in advance where the path leads.  Maybe it’s an exploration of my personal ambivalence about privacy issues; maybe it’s an exploration of the difference in attitudes between urban and rural folks.  It’s not just that I don’t know, it’s that I can’t know.

Different folks have different working styles and different processes.  That’s fine, and pretty much what we’d expect.  I just think it’s worth noting that not everyone does projects with a little notebook that is filled with the detailed plans for the content of the project, in advance.

6 Responses

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  1. Billie said, on January 9, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Your process is pretty much my process. I have a couple of projects that have happened just because I felt drawn to a place. I photographed. In one instance I didn’t know what to do for a couple of years until I started photographing with a holga and color film. Then suddenly I found how to express what I felt about the place. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to plan out any project. Somehow that just seems like I’m telling the place, project or whatever, what it is suppose to be instead of listening to what it is telling me. With that said, I’ve seen some great projects that started as lists of what to photograph and when I see that project all finished, I feel guilty that I don’t work that way.

  2. Gordon said, on January 9, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    I think what the lists and ideas and all that stuff do is get you started. If you have a tendency to be lazy about it, they at least give you a kick to get moving, to start shooting – and when you are shooting, you’ll start developing the ideas more fully. I don’t think Hurn is trying to describe some sort of set in stone shot list that you must adhere to all the time, just that if you’ve got no idea where you are going when you start, in the middle, or towards the end – then nothing is going to emerge even.

    What you describe with your gates/ closed areas/ boundaries or whatever is really that. You’ve been shooting these for a while – you’ve started seeing a theme, so now you’ll maybe explore that some more.

    With a conscious eye on what you are doing, you’ll maybe refine and define the theme of these shots and go forward with it.

    Just like all the people who try to project manage research & development projects want to pretend that everything follows regimented plans, the reality there is more organic. I don’t see how it couldn’t fail to be even more loosely defined in an artistic context.

    But I think anything that makes you shoot and think about the shots is key. You don’t take great photos by thinking about them – you have to shoot them. Lots of them.

  3. Gordon said, on January 9, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    More rambling. I think the other thing Hurn is trying to get across is that if you want to tell a ‘story’ then you need to have some sort of flow to the pieces. They have to work together, somehow. I don’t know if that is likely ever to really be true of an ’emergent’ project.

    Do you find images work together in some way, or they all just tend to have the same theme when you find sequences that emerge rather than with some directing thought behind them ?

  4. Rosie Perera said, on January 9, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    This is pretty much how I shoot, too.

    See this recent photo on my blog, which fits with your theme of inaccessible places.

  5. Kent Wiley said, on January 9, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    No doubt professionals like to have a plan of attack when faced w/ an entire world of possibilities. Builders generally like to have a clearly defined set of architectural drawings prior to breaking ground. But something as organic as art, for those of us who are not paid to meet a deadline with such and so images to explain a story or concept, inevitably proceeds by fits and starts.

    Maybe I’m not disciplined enough, but I’ll take your method of working on “projects” Paul, to the regulations of a Magnum photographer.

  6. Gordon McGregor said, on January 9, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    I’ve seen the comment often made that pretty much everything that is now considered ‘great’ photography was shot on assignment for someone, or under contract or some form of non-free form, forced project.

    Same goes for the vast majority of historical painting and other artforms.

    It seems to be a fairly recent notion of this artist working without constraints on whatever they want, without direction or any ‘forced’ restrictions to get in the way.


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