The Personal Project

By David H. Wells Back to

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Near the end of my recent six months in India, I started a new project. I don’t know if it will be a small, short-term piece or a long term, multi-year project. But “instant editing” helped me define the project in real time. Instant editing is my process of sending a set of selected images (20 to 40) to ten friends, to find out which pictures work for them. My peer’s comments on this new work also helped me define my approach to the project itself as much as making the photographs.

India, with the second largest road network on the globe is on a massive nationwide road building campaign, cutting shops and houses in half to make way for road construction. My new photographs show those houses and shops after they are cut, right up to the point where the newly expanded highway and service roads are to be built. While the government has compensated the owners of the cut buildings, those who were on the land illegally were denied such compensation. I am pursuing this work right now because this subject uniquely includes the “before” and “after” in the same frame. You can see both the expressway that is consuming the land and the mutilation of the building displaced by that same highway.

During the months the project was evolving, I sent out the same set of images to the same set of friends at four different points in the project’s evolution. This was the feedback that shaped me the most:

“Quick reaction to the work…the intro you gave, of houses being cut in half is very visceral and immediately conveys a sense of injustice or progress (depending on your perspective). When I looked at the first set of photos, my reaction was not the same. First, I noticed all the color (typical of your other India pics, and always impressive). Then I thought how it could be a war-torn nation, with images of rubble, minus the carnage. Finally, I needed some more context of the roads you mentioned. While several did speak to the roads and cars, I never got the context of house next to road.”

Pipalkhera, Rajasthan, India

Belluru, Karnataka, India

That motivated me to work harder and reminded me that my imagery could be confused with that of other topics/places, in a potentially unhelpful way. I knew it would be expensive, but I wanted to see an aerial image of how the cut houses look. That might really drive home the idea that they are being cut. I couldn’t afford a plane to do aerials (and getting permission in India would be a major undertaking). Still, I kept the idea in mind, trying to do “poor man’s aerials,” by photographing from nearby buildings and bridges.

Other comments included:

“I like when you can see through to the street/highway and there are people and cars to illustrate the contrast. I almost wish there were things or more of the structure to show it was a house that was there. The ones I didn’t choose were left out because the house part just looks like rubble next to a street. The ones with more stable pieces of the structure make more sense to me.”

This prompted me to work hard to make images with multiple planes, ideally with the structures in the foreground as well as roads, activity, etc., in the background.

“The ones I find most interesting or compelling are the ones with people in the scene, with the demolished buildings as their setting and the completed expressway in the background. It’s all context and buildings, and the expressway that consumed the space.”

This was one of the comments that started me feeling that I am creating work that others get. My response was to work doubly hard to get people in the photographs, even if that meant passing up interesting looking cut structures if they lacked a human presence.

More comments from different reviewers:

“One reason I like that image, despite the fact that are no people lurking around the demolished structures, is because it provides the context of the scope and scale of the expressway that is consuming the land and displacing the buildings.” (Part of this last line is something I included in the project proposal that I am now using as I send the work out).

“What works for me is the images where the house has some context with the surroundings, or some background of the surroundings. I wonder how these work as black and whites? The pastels make what is painful look pretty and reduces the impact of the pain.”

The color vs black and white question was a good one to consider. In the end, I decided to stick with color since the colors in the structures are so important to the story (and because color feels more contemporary while black and white tends to feel historical).

Karnataka, India

Yelahanka, Karnataka, India

Yelahanka, Karnataka, India

Another comment included:

“Can you find a house that is divided and show it from a distance to explain the situation? The house photos I saw only show destruction or partial destruction. What about an image that shows the road leading to the half house? I would like to see something that puts this situation in its context.”

This is a strategy I kept in mind over and over as I was photographing. Sadly, to date, I have not made that one strong image that answers this concern.

Comments like this were common and they reinforced the idea that I was on track:

“a good juxtaposition of new road and remains of an abode. The people really add to the depth and veracity of the scene. It’s as though the road is now in the house! People, cars, animals and the cut houses set in the transitional world!” and “Get those people with the context of the expressway in one image and it will be a compelling statement.”

While photographing, I often felt like the road was indeed “in the house” and the fact that people looking at my work got that was very encouraging.

“Some of the images look like your “foreclosed dreams” work, but done in India. I liked the images that included people still using their demolished or in the process of being demolished houses or buildings. None of them, however, showed them in the context of them using their building (with people standing in entryways or walking into doorways) with the expressway in the background. Get those people with the context of the expressway in one image and it will be a compelling statement.”

Also, while I was photographing, I kept experiencing mental echoes of what it felt like working inside foreclosed houses in the U.S. for my Foreclosed Dreams project. In the end, I realized that this project is different than that one. And though I wanted to include people, for me, the project is about structures first and people second, rather than the way this friend was suggesting it should be, which would be to emphasize people first.

“It’s interesting how these are different than the Foreclosed Dreams photographs. Those are studies of houses “left behind” and the evidence of the previous occupants in partially demolished buildings and residences still in use.”

This reinforced my own realization about the connection to and also the difference from Foreclosed Dreams.

Yelahanka, Karnataka, India

Kudur, Karnataka, India

A few more reviewer comments:

“I really like the ones with people and the ones with “surgical” cuts, they really give you the idea that the “surgeons” could care less about their “patients.” This comment validated my emphasis on structures and the way they were cut (as well as giving me another great line for my project proposal).

“Are you thinking of this as a body of work or as standalone images? I’m kind of torn in my editing, because I like some images that I don’t think necessary tell the story of cut houses as solo images, but they might work as part of a bigger body of work.”

This is one of those questions that prompted me to think about my approach and yet also reinforced my belief in the work. The process of “instant editing” literally shaped this project from start to finish as it was developed and defined. I owe a big thanks to the friends who were kind enough to look at all those pictures. The project would literally not be as good as it is without their input.

Every photographer working on a serious project should try “instant editing.” Do it to improve your own work and to improve the work of the other photographers who are kind enough to look at your work. In today’s hyper competitive photography market it may be one of the last win-win opportunities for all involved.


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.