The Power Of The Personal Project

When I was 16, I spent a dream summer riding around my Honda 70cc motorcycle with an all-mechanical Nikon FM with 35mm f/2.8 lens dangling from my neck. I say “dream” because documenting community life for a local weekly newspaper at the time and getting paid for the priviledge was as good as it gets, I thought. All I ever wanted to do was take pictures.

When I graduated university with a journalism degree, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for embarking on my photojournalistic career. I was young and idealistic when I arrived for my internship at  The Edmonton Journal, and I couldn’t wait to aim my camera at important issues and stories of the time.

Fast forward a decade.

After 10 wonderful, often times-frustrating-but-always-stimulating years as a news photographer, I was finding it difficult to stay fresh and challenged. Hundreds of daily assignments had made me a skilled and quick-working photographer; able to deal with a variety of situations and work towards squeezing the strongest image out of every assignment. But I had become impatient and just a little uninspired, often retreating to my comfort zone feeling forced to work in a formulaic fashion because of time constraints. I was ready for a photographic change.

I wanted to slow down and find a way back to the innocence of vision I had as a young photographer, to find that joy of photography again rekindle my passion.

“Passion is in all great searches and is necessary to all creative endeavors.” —W. Eugene Smith

In my evolution as a photographer, to get to the my next level I needed to liberate myself from my photographic routine.

I know that photography is a creative pursuit and that every photographer has a unique vision of the world. But I have found that to peel away layers of traditional imagery and get to the core of my photographic soul was to be honest with myself and ask, “What is it I am trying to say through my photography?”

Enter passion for the personal project.

If there’s one concept I want you to take away from this post, it’s that the most rewarding part of the photographic process often comes when you find a project or theme you feel passionate about. Im not advocating you go out and change the world with your camera (which I believe still can happen); but by finding meaning and purpose in your picture-taking process, you will learn about yourself while elevating your personal photographic vision, regardless of the genre that excites you the most.

Uncle Sam being interviewed in New York City, from the “America at the Edge” project. © Steve Simon

And I have found there is no better way to do this than take on a passion project. It will sharpen, nurture and grow your personal vision.

“Think big” is what New York Times Magazine photo editor Kathy Ryan recommends when it comes to finding that project and it’s good advice. Of course, all big ideas start with a small step and securing your idea is what you need to do first. You won’t know for sure that your idea is executable until you start the process of shooting.

Years ago, when I hit my creative wall as a newspaper photographer I was inspired by much of the great documentary work I was seeing in books and magazines, and on the web. I saw work from enlightened people showcasing innovative and in-depth work often created in their spare time.

I took a workshop with the documentary photographer Eugene Richards, whose work stopped me in my tracks and motivated me to travel thousands of miles for the week-long workshop to see just how he did it. How did he get so emotionally and physically close to his subjects?

Richards told us he needed to be close enough to his subjects to touch them, and an Olympus and 21mm lens were the tools he used at the time. But the technical stuff is the easiest part; I wanted to know how he could get so close to his subjects and capture such emotional intimacy. I learned that concentration, patience, passion, and empathy for his subjects were some of the answers.

RedBall Eugene Richards
Eugene Richards is a photographer who always inspires me. This is the cover of his latest book.

It was his workshop that made me realize that I was not doing the work I wanted to do. I realized that I needed to find a way to peel the onion and go deeper with my camera. Finding a personal project was my way to break free from the shackles of daily assignment work. I needed to pursue a story I felt passionate about; I needed to follow the story in depth and with the only limits being ones I set for myself. I would learn to slow down and make time to get what I was after.

I would also unlearn some processes that had become formulaic and were preventing me out of my usual comfort zone and into a new and exciting creative place. I wanted to be original, authentic, and true to who I was as a person and photographer.

Finding Your Passion

Directing your photographic energy and passion towards a story or theme is something I feel confident will lead you toward becoming the photographer you want to be. It is passion that will take you there…if you let it. But you have to find that story or theme that inspires you to commit and drives you to work hard, moves you past frustrations and through obstacles, pushes you towards a photographic place of competence and excitement you cannot even imagine as you read this.

In my next post you will find a series of questions to help you find your passion; your story. Let’s first take a look at the process and projects that can help inspire your story.

The Sum

Chuck Close is an artist whose unique and consistent artistic vision has made him one of the most important contemporary artists working today. One thing you might notice when you see his work is the similarity of his technique and the pixel-based digital image. But Chuck Close has been making his art long before the first digital cameras arrived on the scene.

He often works from photographs he takes himself and creates his art through small individual pixel-like paintings which, when viewed from a distance, take on a whole new meaning. The sum of the rectangular “pixels” tells a much different story than that of each unique individual one.

When you study a Chuck Close painting up close, you see individual “pixels” that, when viewed from a distance, look completely different. The sum is greater than the parts. © Chuck Close
When you study a Chuck Close painting up close, you see individual “pixels” that, when viewed from a distance, look completely different. The sum is greater than the parts. © Chuck Close

It is his process that makes Chuck Close’s work analogous to my point for taking on a project or theme. When you take on a project, you strive to make each individual image as strong as it can be. But the greater challenge is to create a set of pictures with each piece strong on its own, yet when put  sequenced together in a very deliberate way, the message communicated is often bigger and more complex than any individual image can convey on its own. The sum is greater than the parts.

Your passion-project idea can come from anywhere and at anytime, and often when you’re doing something else and your mind is free and wandering.

I tend to read as much as I can– looking at blogs, websites, interesting social media links, magazines, newspapers and books. I love listening to music, visiting galleries, looking at the work of other artists and photographers.

Henri-Cartier Bresson has said that inspiration comes from living your life, as fully and richly as possible. Personal experience and exploring your own connections often yield some of the best and most rewarding stories to cover. The more personal you make your project, the more universal it will become, to paraphrase Diane Arbus.

So I encourage you to pursue a project or theme comes from my own experience.

As you’ll find out in a future post, it’s no mystery that when you go through a volume of work, you learn from your experience and you get better. More comprehensive coverage yields stronger, deeper, and more interesting work. If your story involves people, for example, they often get more comfortable with you as time goes by, relaxing and letting their guard down to reveal more of themselves for you to capture. Shooting more helps improve your skills and makes you a better photographer. Focusing these skills on a specific theme or story lets you communicate your vision of the world.

The Inspiration

Often at the beginning of a project, when I spill out the images and take a closer look, I find that many end up communicating the same or similar idea and are not moving the body of work forward. Not to say that every image needs to be uniquely different from the other; in fact, some projects use repetition as a way to build momentum. But the process of editing and evaluating how the images will work together often reveals to you what is missing and allows you to go back and fill in the gaps, for deeper coverage and stronger work.

I found inspiration for one of my break-through projects through a newspaper article in which Canadian writer Margaret Atwood talked about Canada becoming more and more like the United States, for better or for worse. This article was the spark that ignited my idea. I was thinking along similar lines and I wondered: If Canada were to become more like the U.S., might we start to actually look more like the U.S.? What would that look like?

The article by Margaret Atwood.
The article by Margaret Atwood.

So I set out on a photographic road trip through all the states that bordered Canada to observe life and find the answer. I thought that maybe through my photography I could illuminate what life was like along the northern edge of the United States and give Canadians a peek into our own futures. America at the Edge became the working title for my personal project.

This project was organic for me. As a kid growing up in Montreal, our family would often venture across the border on vacation, and I remembered how different and captivating life was in this strange new place. I also wanted a project that was not overly specific, leaving me free to experiment throughout the huge geographic landscape I was about to cover.

I got a leave of absence from my day job as a newspaper photographer, took my savings and set out on my longest road-trip, driving from Alaska to Maine. America at the Edge was my way of rekindling my love affair with photography; the journey was the destination which would provide me with amazing experiences I would learn and grow from.

A drive-in theatre in Twin Falls, Idaho. From “America at the Edge.” © Steve Simon
A drive-in theatre in Twin Falls, Idaho. From “America at the Edge.” © Steve Simon

I took a variety of cameras because I wanted to push myself and feel different when I was shooting this work. But I also wanted the picture-taking process to be second nature—organic and fast—feeling my way through and reacting on instinct. I mostly shot with wide lenses, for the look and feel of intimacy I was hoping to convey.

It was the pre-digital era, and I armed myself with Nikon SLRs, a Leica M6, and a Pentax 645 along with a tape recorder to interview people along the way. I think it’s smart to get in the habit of keeping meticulous notes and information which comes in handy down the road if you choose to do a book or exhibition. Collecting relevant artifacts is a good idea, as is thinking of the inevitable multimedia components of sound and video. You want to leave yourself and your project with as many options as you can, since it’s impossible to predict with certainty just where the project will end up or look like.

It was not always easy to find that Zen photographic state I was looking for, especially when struggling with new and unfamiliar tools. In retrospect, simplifying the process would have made more sense—one camera and lens. But that was a conclusion I needed to work towards. It was an amazing journey and I saw a marked improvement in my work.

What This Project Taught Me

When I was on the road I realized that for a photographer, a day never has to end. Life is 24/7 and so are photo opportunities. The look, feel, light, and rhythm of a place constantly change and can be interesting at different times of the day or night. I just needed to edit my situations, choosing where and when to photograph. I needed to use visual potential as my criteria, and learn to slow down and be patient.


Four images from “America at the Edge.” © Steve Simon

1-8A 1-8B

The project taught me the rewards of leaving my comfort zone and getting past my own fears. A shy person working on a project that requires you make contact with strangers certainly did that and I will outline my strategies for photographing people in a future post. I learned to trust my instincts and intuition when I photographed the Aryan Nations and I learned that patience and persistence would often be rewarded with great images.

I heard about a Canadian on death row in Montana named Ronald Smith. Because I was looking at issues like capital punishment on both sides of the border between Canada and the United States, I wanted to try and get in to interview and photograph him. The red tape was long but after a year of writing letters to the prison, Ronald Smith’s lawyer, and Ronald Smith himself, I was finally given permission. Some stories seem impossible to access but you would be surprised how many times seemingly impossible permissions are granted to photographers; it’s always worth a try.

I realized that each situation was a process and by doing a compositional dance and moving around my subject—eye to the viewfinder—I would see my subject from all angles, which often took me to great images I would not have otherwise had. This way to move around your subject increased my editing time by making my choices difficult because I had a lot of photography I was happy about.

An arrest in Spokane, Washington. From the “America at the Edge” project. © Steve Simon

I learned to edit thoroughly and seek out trusted second opinions that would offer me the insight I needed because I was too close to the material to be able to see it myself. This part of the editing process helped me learn, grow, and improve. By looking at my contact sheets and seeing when I had not worked the scene enough, I learned from my mistakes and, when possible, would go back and correct them—a great way to strengthen a photographic weakness.

I learned that when I was distracted, I would not be doing my best work. I needed to discipline myself to concentrate to find my way into the photographic zone, where everything disappeared except what I was seeing in the viewfinder. I learned that the light was constantly changing (and changing fast), so I needed to follow the light to increase my chances of getting better images and be alert and work quickly when the light was good because it moved so fast.

I set actionable goals for my project and stuck to them but left room for serendipity and spontaneity. When I was done I was not shy to seek out opportunities that helped me get my vision out to the world. So much growth, and all from one personal project.

Today, I am more passionate and  enthusiastic than I have ever been in my photographic life. Good things happened that I never could have predicted—throughout the journey and through the finished work. I have rediscovered the sheer joy for photography I felt as 16 year old, riding my motorcycle through the suburban streets of Montreal, looking for my next photograph.

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  • Your ability to isolate and simplify the subject of your photos is one of your greatest strengths, in my opinion. The people at the drive-in, the old guys, all of the shots above show that. And I still think about your shot of President Obama with the chaos of the Democratic convention behind him, yet somehow you made it so that he stood out from the crowd. Do you think you could put into words how you perform that magic? Sometimes you use shallow depth of field, but you certainly don’t use it as a crutch like so many others.
    Would you mind sharing some of your secrets?

    • I don’t mind sharing my secrets, in fact there are all in the book The Passionate Photographer where I put it all out there. Not trying to sell you the book other than to say sharing the secrets takes a books worth of words and pictures which is more than I can include in this comment. Thanks for the kind words and don’t hesitate to ask any more specific questions.

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