Article by Harold Lee Miller
Assignment work for advertising photographers isn’t enough to keep most of them fed creatively. Personal work fulfills the creative side but doesn’t feed the family.
It takes a balance of the two for proper nutrition.
There was a time when all my photography was personal, before I made it a vocation. I shot for the fun of it. But once I turned my hobby into a business, I ruined my hobby. Literally. I stopped taking photographs for the fun of it and started thinking about them as commodities that supported my family. This led to a dramatic downturn in the number of times I went out to shoot for fun.
For years, I almost never did. It took a long time for me to understand that what most fed me creatively was the personal work I did, work for which I expected nothing in return.
It took a lot of frustration for me to gain that insight, but not everyone struggles like I did. Today many photographers make their “work” an extension of their passion to create art, showing their very personal vision through self-assigned shoots, and the market increasingly responds. Websites now can make every facet of a photographer’s vision available to everyone in the world. The market is responding to this relatively new capability and photographers who understand it can take advantage of it, too.
Anna Williams is one of them. She created The Voracity, a site for the themed personal projects she and her team create. “Clients can see it and get a sense of who I really am as an artist and what kind of people I collaborate with. It can be hard to get that from just tearsheets,” she said.
For her, “The Voracity is a very personal expression. The thing is, I have to do these projects. To really feel inspired and to push myself as an artist. And to see the response, it is really all worth it.”
She doesn’t see a gulf between her personal work and assignments. “The Voracity has changed the way I approach shooting commercially, and I couldn’t go on without that kind of expression. So I see it as one of the most important things I do.”
“One of the stories we shot in upstate New York, Seven Steps, was an amazing experience. We were in the rain for two days straight just shooting outside. And it was no big deal, just a flow. And when the series came out, Martha Stewart Living saw it and wanted to recreate that feeling for their Thanksgiving issue. So we shot a story inspired by Seven Steps, and it came out beautifully and was even nominated for an ASME (American Society of Magazine Editors), one of the top five stories of the year. And that led to at least a couple of other ad projects. “
Aside from the commercial benefit, Williams says, “It really is a recharge. Those days on set, I just want to keep shooting. Like something is unlocked and I can’t stop. It’s a great feeling…it just rekindles that love I have for shooting.”
For Jim Hughes, a people shooter based near San Francisco, his personal work takes him to a place he can’t occupy when he’s on assignment. “On a commercial sense when I’m shooting, a lot of other elements are there that I’m focusing on: model, client, everybody else around in that scenario, so my mind’s firing 24/7 on many different levels.
“When I’m in the personal creative process, I’m not hindered by everything else, it just becomes free. It’s a zone, it’s a place. It’s exciting, there’s an adrenaline rush to it. I don’t think about anything else. But it’s taken years to get to that point.”
Hughes says his personal work is “…the one thing that keeps me alive creatively. I think if we don’t experiment with our creative side and develop that, we’re as good as our last job. That’s where we have that ability to experiment… or have something that is meaningful to us in our art. It translates into great photography for commercial applications.”
As with Williams, his personal work often leads to discussions with art directors about assignments. The image on his home page now, a shot he took at a rodeo in Wyoming, led to a request to bid on a pharmaceutical project.
Like Hughes and Williams, my most successful non-assignment projects are always about subjects that I’m drawn to emotionally and spiritually. My book on state and county fairs, Fair Culture, was the product of my interest in rural towns and farming. Having grown up around the world as the child of an Army officer, I never had a home town. My family’s roots are rural and agrarian so I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of living in one place and being part of a small community.
I did a test shoot at the Indiana State Fair one year, liked the results, and did more work before seeking a publisher. Once I had a book deal, I created more images over a couple of years and the result is a great collection of Americana that is not only a coffee table book, I use the images in my portfolio, too.
I’ve had several discussions with potential clients that refer to those images, and some assignments that led directly from them. So I can see the immediate benefit for my business. An indirect benefit, but just as important, is the aid and comfort that kind of work provides to my soul.
The longer I go without creating something I own completely, the more I feel disconnected from my true calling. That creates discontent, which impacts my business as well.
I guess I’m saying that what’s good for the soul is good for business.
Of course, to start on the Fair Culture project, as with any other self-generated shoot, I had to overcome the fear that I was wasting my time, that it wouldn’t lead to any good images, the whole exercise was a pointless waste of energy and money. That is a crippling fear that if not dealt with can absolutely crush creativity and kill good ideas.
There’s a method I employ that enables me to overcome the inevitable anxieties that show up when I’m doing work that I’m not getting paid for. I call it the “end-use method”.
What it means is that at least at first, I design my portfolio projects and my strictly personal projects with an end use in mind – some idea for what I’ll do with them before I start. This allows me to approach them more methodically, helps shape the project, and most importantly, gives me a reason for doing them that keeps the howling insecurity monkeys at bay, at least long enough for me to get started. Once I’ve started, I have overcome the second greatest obstacle after fear: inertia. After that, all the remaining inhibitors are manageable.
The end use may never materialize. It doesn’t have to. It’s principal function is to help me begin, and the project takes on it’s own momentum after that. Where it leads is to the unknown, which may be the best place of all.
If I could dictate the ultimate result I would probably seriously short-change myself.