The Art of the Personal Photographic Project

By David H. Wells Back to

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While getting paid to be a photographer is certainly one measure of accomplishment, in my experience, the ultimate challenge for a photographer is the personal project. To appreciate this, remember how the first step for many serious photographers was to develop the skills to successfully photograph/capture any kind of subject. The next step for some was to go pro and get paid for doing photography.

Making a set of images which tell a story from your point of view, under your own direction (rather than to just satisfy a paying client) is a process that is even more challenging and at the same time, more rewarding than just getting paid for pictures. With that in mind, I’m sharing a portfolio of my current personal project, called Foreclosed Dreams. I photograph inside foreclosed houses right after the actual foreclosure and before they are cleaned up to be put back on the market. That’s when I can photograph the “ghosts” of the families that used to be in those houses.

To date, I have photographed in twelve states with my goal being to photograph in at least thirty states to highlight the nationwide scope of the issue.

Approching the Project
I initially worked in California, an epicenter of foreclosures as well as in Rhode Island where I live. Since then I have photographed in ten other states. I access the foreclosures through realtors, contractors who clean up the properties and real estate investors who own them.

Those same people have been much more receptive to dealing with me when we are connected with a personal introduction. So I concentrate on finding those people through my social network. I ask everyone I come in contact with for leads. (Any photo technique readers who can help me access foreclosures that I can photograph will win a prize (a fine are print of mine or accompanying me on the shoot.)

The best images have an emotion to them, which I try to convey by drawing on my own emotional reaction to each house. I was in a particularly grim, even creepy foreclosed house in California recently and at first I was pretty bothered by the grimness. Then I calmed myself down, embraced that feeling and accepted that I was at the intersection of fearful and sad. Then I pushed myself to try to convey those same emotions in my photographs.

Background and Funding
By way of background, in college I studied the history of photography to better understand the evolving aesthetics of the medium. For the first five years of my career, I worked as a photojournalist, initially for newspapers (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Los Angeles Times) and later for magazines (New York Times Magazine, LIFE Magazine and Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine.)

Since then I have concentrated on long-term projects around the globe, where I define the project, create the finished work and disseminate the final project via exhibitions, publications and more recently on the web. My long-term projects have been funded by fellowships from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation’s Program of Research and Writing on International Peace and Cooperation as well as grants from various state arts councils.

Equipment
Olympus PEN cameras are all I have used for this project. About two thirds of the images are made on a tripod, almost always a tabletop tripod resting on a wall, a door, a chair, etc. Although I have a conventional tripod, most shoots are in houses far from my home (typically in other states where I am there to work on other projects) so the tabletop model works for my needs. I have used the same Olympus Zuiko lenses over and over for this project. I occasionally use a 9mm to 18 mm f/4 to 5.6 zoom, but mostly I work with a 12mm f/2, a 20mm f/1.7 and a 45 mm f/1.8 with a 14mm to 150 mm f/4 to 5.6 in reserve. (Those are the 35mm equivalent of 18 mm to 36mm zoom, a 24 mm f/2, 40mm f/1.7 and a 90 mm f/1.8 with a 28mm to 300mm in reserve).

Tips For Successful Personal Projects
Though my projects are documentary in nature, personal projects can be about any topic and use pretty much any style of photography. Though the subject matter and the approach may vary widely, the most successful personal projects share a few traits:

1. The scope of the project should fit within the larger culture and society. Foreclosed Dreams is just one example of this. My wife who is a fine-art photographer has done personal projects that explore the experience of people living between cultures, which is an ever-growing phenomenon in our global world. She draws from her own experience since she was born in Britain, raised in India and now lives in the US.

2. Research is the key to a successful personal project. Good advance work helps you use your time most efficiently when you are photographing and helps make sure your work stays “on message.”

3. Projects that have a strong degree of authorship are usually the most compelling. The subject matter often becomes something of an obsession for the photographer, sometimes serving as a journey of self- discovery.

4. Good personal projects communicate with others. Text and captions may be included, however viewers rarely read those. The best projects need minimal explanation and are of interest to both the photographer and the audience.

5. Projects need to be very tightly edited, usually with someone besides the photographer selecting the best images. For my Foreclosed Dreams project, every time I photograph a new house I send a PDF proof sheet with my top 20 images to a list of ten friends who give me immediate feedback on the work.

6. Every successful personal photography project, regardless of subject matter, uses the photographs to shape and reinforce the idea at the core of the project.

7. Personal projects almost always change, usually between the initial proposal and the final execution. Good research can smooth the way to the finished project but executing the actual project invariably means changes, diversions, discoveries and revisions. If a project does not change, you are not working hard enough.


About the Author

David H. Wells
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David H. Wells is a freelance documentary photographer affiliated with Aurora Photos. See his work at: davidhwells.com. He specializes in intercultural communications and the use of light and shadow to enhance visual narratives. Twice awarded Fulbright fellowships for work in India, his photography regularly appears in leading international magazines. A frequent teacher of photography workshops, his blog, The Wells Point, appears at http://thewellspoint.com. As an Olympus Visionary, Wells has been contracted by the camera company to produce images and provide feedback on new product lines.