A photographer’s creativity, vision, and tenacity make one succeed while others struggle. And self-assigned projects are the perfect opportunity to develop and hone these qualities. Self-assigned projects also offer photographers the chance to explore and develop their skills in a specialty that they are looking to break into. This is even more relevant in the age of Instagram, which can be as important as a photographer’s portfolio website. Posting images from self-assigned projects can not only show a photographer’s skills but also let their personality shine through.
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No matter where you are on the career ladder, making time for self-assigned projects can help advance your career and keep your passion for the medium alive. Marianna Glasser, founder of the acclaimed BEATs agency says,
Self-assigned projects are important because they often represent the reasons why photographers decide to be photographers.
Salt Lake City-based adventure and fashion photographer, Keith Fearnow, agrees. He says,
I enjoy the process of trying to create something. It’s like a hobby to me. Pushing the edge of what I’m comfortable doing creatively and not knowing what will happen if we go to X and try Y. I think of it like going to the gym and doing a workout. Every self-assigned shoot is a chance to get smarter and stronger.
But Keith’s latest self-assigned project also directly led to more work. He says,
I took three trail-running friends to the desert. Shooting and exploring with them for a few days was a lot of fun. They are ambassadors for a clothing company, and after I finished editing the shoot, I sent the company the photos. They’ve hired me a few times since then.
Similarly, Lewisville, Texas-based commercial photographer Jami Clayman uses self-assigned projects to develop her signature style. She says,
Personal work is my opportunity to play, show how my brain works, and photograph stories in my style. The more personal projects I create, the easier it is to talk about my work with clients. I also find the more cohesive my personal work gets, the more opportunities I have to work with clients in my style.
Self-assigned projects allow you to gain experience and show what you can do. Brooklyn, New York-based portrait photographer Matt Carr, says,
Without doing personal projects, you’re at the whim of whatever jobs are coming your way. Sometimes that’s great, but I found that if I just followed the money, the work became less creative and not as fun. I came out of newspaper photography but always loved portrait work.
To switch gears and become a portrait photographer, I did a 30-photo portrait portfolio while I was living in London. I didn’t show anyone until it was done, as most of the art directors had pigeonholed me as a reportage/lifestyle photographer. After that, I started getting work for my style of portraits.
Instagram increasingly serves as a portfolio and exhibition space, as well as a place to network, find clients, and sell photos. Self-assigned projects are perfect for reminding clients of your skills and creative vision. Showcasing your self-assigned projects on your social media feeds has many benefits. It offers a near-constant (and unrestricted) stream of content for your feed, helps build trust in your photography skills with potential clients, explores and develops your personal brand, and shows a personal side to your work that many people can connect with.
Doing self-assigned projects also helps develop and expand your skills and experience, ultimately making you a better photographer. But most photographers choose this career path because they just love photography. So they find themselves taking photos whenever they can. For example, when the lockdown happened, Matt decided to do a portrait project by art directing shoots via video call.
This is another shot from Matt’s lockdown portrait project, which allowed him to push his creative boundaries as well as develop his photoshop skills.
It was a lot of fun and kept me relatively sane during the lockdown. Generally, I’d have them take some photos of the space so I could get an idea of where to place them for the best lighting, etc. A few times I’d Skype with them to talk them through camera settings and how to get a good photograph.
It was a lot of fun finding ways to express creative photo ideas to people with zero experience. I got a lot out of it, and I hope they did too, as they ended up taking great photos of themselves.
Marianna also notes that some photographers find great satisfaction in using their photography to make the world a better place.
They might use self-assigned projects to bring attention to specific stories or communities. A project could raise public awareness, change public opinion, or create pressure on political representatives. For example, Cyril Schirmbeck‘s “Receding Worlds” wants to draw attention to the unstable ecosystem, to the mighty beauty of the glaciers, and to what we are gradually losing.
In addition to being a tool for advocacy, photography can be a window into ways of life across different geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. It offers the public an opportunity to recognize different realities and reflect on them. London-based photographer Jon Enoch’s self-assigned projects frequently compel us to do so. Most recently, he photographed the cotton candy sellers of Mumbai after the pandemic restrictions were lifted. Despite a sweet appearance as its facade, the story had unsavory undertones. The country is grappling with a growing obesity and dental hygiene crisis, largely plaguing its impoverished communities.
I’m looking to create images that really stop you in your tracks, and create questions or make you think. Things that you don’t see all the time… When I plan a project, I’m looking for concepts that fit certain criteria. This idea ticked all the boxes. Like most things I research, I tend to do a fairly deep dive into the subject. The ideas that are good tend to get stuck in my mind. The only way to get rid of them is to go and do it.
Photographers have the unique privilege that their professional training consists of doing something they feel passionate about. From bringing attention to environmental issues like Cyril Schirmbeck to pursuing creative ideas like Jami who uses self-assigned projects to develop her signature style. Jami says,
There is one image I created in my front yard on a whim. I wanted sparkly shoes that I could use a star filter on — so I created a power line in my front yard with an extension cable and photographed a pair of glittery tennis shoes. I had no end goal in mind, I just liked the idea and wanted to see what it would look like. Everyone comments on this GIF. I’ve been hired because of this one GIF.
If you have a crazy idea for a project that you’ve been thinking about for a while, execute it. You will only benefit from giving yourself the opportunity to play. Trust your gut, and don’t ask too many opinions while you are at it.
So, where do these “crazy ideas” come from? Usually, it’s a case of noticing what you’re most curious about and running with it. When Miami-based photographer Mary Beth Koeth got the idea for Off-Season Santas, she was simply scrolling through social media.
I was on Facebook seeing my friends posting pictures of their little ones with Santa Claus over the holidays. Some of these guys have such beautiful beards and faces. I’m just looking through and asking myself, “Who are these guys?” I wrote down the idea to do a project, looking at what these guys do outside of December. I Googled it, and there was a brotherhood of real-bearded Santas, and the Florida chapter called themselves the Sandy Claus. I started reaching out to people there and started photographing each one.
Do your research and see what’s new in that area and what other photographers and clients are doing. Try and spot trends and then set your own assignment to create a fresh portfolio. Put yourself in the shoes of a client. What would impress you?
It’s great if personal project ideas come to you easily, but if not, there are some tried and tested ways to get creative. Often it’s about creating some space, free of disruption, and being observant and open to the world around you. Julia Cameron pioneered the idea of an ‘Artist’s Date’ in her book “The Artist’s Way“. She suggests taking yourself on a creative date once a week. The date should be fun and, most crucially for it to work, you need to do it alone.
Many photographers have a section on their website for self-assigned projects, but to make the most of them, you need to go beyond your URL. Marianna says,
It is useful to contact different kinds of organizations. From artist agencies to art collectives and galleries. Self-assigned projects might be very frustrating if they don’t get attention right away, but don’t give up. Keep working and trust your instincts that the story deserves to be seen by the world.
Make sure that your work is noticed. Whether that be on your website, on your social media, or, if you are a Wonderful Machine member photographer, on our Unpublished page.
Do you think your work might be of interest to a magazine or newspaper supplement? Research publications that feature similar projects. Send a brief pitch, introducing your project and why you think it would work well in a certain section. It’s crucial that you are familiar with the publication and send an email to the relevant editor.
Mary Beth Koeth has had considerable success pitching her self-assigned projects. Off-Season Santas was picked up by websites like HuffPost before making the rounds on several other platforms. Porn Moms, about women in the adult industry balancing work and motherhood, received attention as well, starting with the British Journal of Photography. In both instances, her outreach efforts began with emails. After the first set of media coverage, the attention snowballed and more outlets came knocking. Mary Beth put it best herself.
It takes on a life of its own.
In these instances, some publications will pay a fee to carry the story while others will not. Usually, those in print are more likely to pull out the wallet compared to their digital counterparts, but it’s worth considering the reach of those websites before discarding them as options. For Mary Beth, it was also critical that the publications respect the perspective and intentions of her photo essay.
This could be a museum, commercial gallery, or local community center. Seeing your pictures on the wall can be hugely satisfying and may get your work noticed.
Photo contests can also amplify your self-assigned project’s success. Jon garnered critical acclaim for his work on Bikes of Hanoi, documenting the city’s deliverymen who transport staggering quantities of goods on their tiny mopeds. He was shortlisted for several awards and received top honors at some as well, including the Smithsonian Grand Prize, the Lens Culture Portrait Award, and the Portraits of Humanity Award.
Winning an award or getting close to it generates a plethora of benefits. Some awards are accompanied by a financial prize, making them an additional revenue stream for your photography business – though it may not be as regular, consistent, or sizable. Secondly, the publicity alone can lead to your next commercial or editorial assignment, especially if a potential client finds your aesthetic suitable for their next project.
More and more clients look to Instagram to find new talent and book photographers, so posting fresh content will remind existing clients of your work and help you get noticed.
If you think your images have broad appeal, you could try and sell your stock to an established photo library, such as Getty or Shutterstock. Or go it alone and try and sell them as stock or prints through platforms such as 500px, Twenty20, or Foap.
Self-assigned projects connect photographers with the passion for the medium that made them choose this challenging and exciting career. And to do that can be as easy as to “get out there and start photographing”, which is Matt’s advice.
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