If you’re having trouble deciding on a personal project, think about taking on a smallerone for a start. A short-term photo essay can be a visual profile of an idea, a person, an event, or a business; a “day in the life” of an artisan, musician, community leader, or heroine; or a portrait series of a certain group of people. It can be still lifes, landscapes, or other groups of images with a common thread that ties them together.
You can come in with a clear point of view or idea for documenting the subject by focusing on one aspect or one person, which usually leads to clearer coverage of that issue. Keep it simple; less is more. It can be presented chronologically or thematically, but the images need to work together. Look for subjects and environments that you’re going to enjoy and have fun with.
Access really is everything, and it helps maximize your shooting possibilities and strengthen the work. It’s best to choose a subject that allows unfettered access. Maybe it’s a 24-hour laundromat or diner, a street corner, a nature conservatory, a bus, subway, or train line. If there’s an event that’s coming up, you can target that for your photo essay.
I began my coverage of political conventions in 2004, and I schedule the time to cover them over a few days every four years. I continue the coverage to this day. As a supplement to this work, on election night in 2008, I went to Harlem to do a short essay on the faces in the crowd that historic evening.
Stories that have a resolution you can document—a pregnancy, sports stories, a political convention, events that begin and end—let you concentrate your time and energy. There are no rules.
I’ve seen great essays where images were all taken from the window, with a photographer riding on one bus line all day. It’s really up to you. Think personal.
Also, consider taking on small projects alongside more comprehensive ones. When I start a project, I often find that many of the images—though they’re all quite different—end up communicating the same or a similar idea and are not moving the body of work forward. This is 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.
Finding ways to illustrate or document your idea in a storytelling way is one of many challenges you’ll face that will help you break through to your next level of your work.
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