5 steps to creating an inspiring personal project

Sometimes I feel like a lone ranter, perpetually nagging photographers about keeping up their personal work, shooting their next series, and tapping into their inner artist. That’s why, at Image Nation, a conference in Auckland last year, I was thrilled to hear this being reinforced again and again. Not only did the speakers show some extraordinary work, but they also proved that this work actually brings in commissions. Joseph Michael, Simon Harsent and Liz Ham all showed great examples of this. Geoff Blackwell, the publisher of some of the world’s most popular photography books, reinforced it. Needless to say, when my talk came around, I hit the message home once again. Just in case no one heard.

Personal projects are important. There’s no doubt about that. But for many, whipping up a personal project is no stroll in the park. And if it is, it’s probably not a project worth mentioning. Agents agree that extracting relevant and inspiring personal work out of some of their shooters can be like pulling teeth, and it’s not from lack of will- photographers often simply don’t know where to start.

So here are some simple steps you can take to getting out of that personal-project-rut and creating some meaningful imagery which will not only attract a better quality of clients, but will keep you motivated to shoot more:

1. Define your style

Are you really aware of your hero style? Do you understand what makes you unique? If you’re trying to build your brand it’s crucial that your photographic style is clear and you’re not afraid to share it. Once you know your authentic, best style, ensure you create personal work that is consistent with this; create a series that helps people ‘get’ your photographic voice. Whilst you’re at it, you’ll be able to feed yourself (and your agent) fresh and appropriate images for your folio.

2. Define your direction

Do you have a clear direction? What is your dream scenario and how does your photography fit into this? What are you shooting and where? If you dream about being a travel photographer stop over-analysing that other photographer’s work (the one that got the assignment you wanted) and book a trip- now! And then create a personal project around it. If your ideas don’t align with the direction in which you’re heading, you might end up with commissions you don’t really enjoy.

3. Define your purpose

Why are you a photographer? Why do you put yourself though the pain and anguish and torture of being a freelance artist? It sure as hell wouldn’t be the job security. What compels you to stop and shoot when the rest of the world rushes by? Or to feel the need to create a montage of complex layers, and spend hours, days or even weeks assembling it into a single image? What gives you that buzz? Spend some time working out why you do what you do. Then make sure your personal series is a reflection of this. If you do this you will discover a much deeper connection with your work which will keep you going when the going is tough.

4. Define your values

if you’re trying to think of a topic for your personal work, start with something close to your heart. What do you care about? What are your values? If you know the answer to these questions you can tap into the causes you’d like to help. You can get clear on the projects that are right and wrong for you. (And that also applies to the commissions you accept), whilst raising awareness and doing some good for the world.

Into the Abyss © Simon Harsent was a personal fine art piece for a POOL Collective project, inspired by his feeling of drowning when faced with a tight deadline. After shooting this image it was then purchased by a client for Nick Cave's Ship Song Project at the Sydney Opera House.
Into the Abyss © Simon Harsent was a personal fine art piece for a POOL Collective project, inspired by his feeling of drowning when faced with a tight deadline. After shooting this image it was then purchased by a client for Nick Cave’s Ship Song Project at the Sydney Opera House.

5. Create!

Give yourself some creative space, get out a pen and paper, and start scribbling down some ideas, or draw a mind-map.  Come up with a personal project that matches all four previous steps and you’ll already be well on the way there. Use your style, direction, purpose and values to guide you towards your next series, and use the same guidelines to stop you going down the wrong path.

Shooting the right personal work will feed your creativity, and help sustain your passion. It can inspire others to change, and at the very least raise awareness of things that are important to you. And ultimately, it can lead clients to you; clients who can commission those dream projects. So what are you waiting for?

If you’d like my help in building the most powerful personal project you’ve ever made, you may want to check out my Bootcamp, where I take you through this and then show you how to harness it to get paid what you love.