There is much talk in the photography world about “personal projects.” Like anything that becomes a catch phrase, the words themselves get more play than the thing they represent. In other words: a lot of talk, much less action. And when it comes to personal projects, action is everything. Here are three ways to gain momentum on your next project.
1. Choose a theme or subject
Don’t flesh it out. Don’t make fancy flowcharts or, for the love of Ansel, start writing an artist statement. Just choose something that you love, something that you’re curious about, perhaps something of which you’ve made a few images and thought, Hey, I like that, I should do more. Choose one. This is the hardest part for most people. Don’t get paralyzed; this isn’t the only personal project you’re ever going to do. If you have a list, great! Pick the first one, and keep growing that list. You’ll need it when this next project is done. Whatever you do, don’t feel the need to have the whole thing worked out. You’ll never begin if you do it that way. The magic of these projects is that you discover as you go.
2. Choose your constraints
Do this as soon as possible. Write it down. “I will create a series of 12 square format black and white photographs that explore the relationship between my cat and my aardvark.” Those are well-expressed constraints. Add a deadline and you’re off to the races. Add an outlet for how you will share them, and I’ll send you a gold star. "By the end of October, I will create a series of 12 square format black and white photographs that explore the relationship between my cat and my aardvark. These will be printed 12” x 12” and displayed at the local Aardvark and Cat Rehab Centre in November.” Constraints are everything. Choose them well, choose them quickly, and then move on. Again, if you decide you want to change the constraints, do it. If you have a good reason. In Italy recently, I set out to do a black and white series. The work became not just colour, but bright, vibrant, colour. It was the initial constraint that got me to that point, then I changed it. And if you have a whole list of the kinds of things you want to do, make a list, pick one and move on.
3. Begin today: don’t wait
Don’t deliberate. Pick up your camera and make the first steps. Make the first photograph, render it in colour or black and white, print it, and put it on the wall with a deadline written across it in red Sharpie marker (or whatever you need to do to get excited) to see one small step’s worth of momentum, and to begin to get ideas about what that next step looks like.
Those are the three steps I take to begin a personal project. The key is not letting yourself think so much that you get paralyzed. And don’t let the constraints rule you. They are there to guide and to prompt, but not to undermine your creativity. Most often, for me, constraints are the single greatest ally in completing a project, but once in a while they just don’t work. Or they change. I set out to use a 16:9 aspect ratio and find the 4:5 is stronger. I adjust. If the constraint moves you forward, use it. If it holds you back, change it. But do it quickly, and move on. The best time to begin is now. Momentum is everything. Ideas come hard and fast once you start moving on something; they come slowly when you’re sitting down chewing your pencil or surfing Instagram looking for ideas. The best ideas come from the work, not the other way around.
The three images posted with this article are from a short personal project in Venice recently, while doing a workshop about this very subject. My theme became the waking up of Venice, and my constraints included the use of Fuji Velvia film emulation, strong shapes and colours, shadows, and backlight. To the end, that project has become broader and will be a longer series that includes other Italian cities.
David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.