Hit the Books: Are Personal Projects the Secret to Professional Success?

We all have personal creative projects that can provide a refreshing break from our professional work. But these personal projects could be just as important as anything you do for your clients. Here’s why.

How do you distinguish between being an amateur or professional photographer?

For me this is a simple question with a simple answer. I see a professional photographer as someone who makes their livelihood by supplying images to clients. In other words, photography is your full-time gig. Personally, when I walked away from making my living from photography, back in 2010, I stopped calling myself a photographer. The title “photographer” is sacred ground for me. “Professional” comes with responsibility. Training, knowledge of the history of the industry, mastery of a variety of techniques, and enough practice to be able to create unique imagery. However the interesting thing about working as a photographer today is that the lines between professional and amateur have been blurred. What you create or explore in your personal life can be hugely impactful in your professional life.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

What I mean is that, in my humble opinion, in 2018 you have to be much more than just a photographer if you are going to survive and have a long-lasting career, as opposed to being around for a year or two. As a photographer, you get hired for a variety of reasons, many of which have little or nothing to do with your actual photography. Are you intelligent, funny, interesting, or well-versed in life outside of photography? Are you interesting enough to spend day after day with? On set? With a client? In my opinion, you better be. There is so much more to life than making images, even if this is what you do full-time, and clients need more. Especially those you envision working with for years, even decades.

As a professional, do you still make personal work?

Yes, yes, and yes. Personal work, in many ways, can be key to your professional success. Even at the peak of my photography career, I was spending at least half of my time creating personal work.

Why is personal work important?

Personal work is the best reflection of who you are as an artist. In addition, personal work is often the best work photographers create, even if they have a successful commercial career. To put it another way, I am a collector of both books and prints, and of the forty-two images I have on my walls at home, a grand total of six were made while on assignment. All of these artists are full-time working pros, but it’s mostly the work they do on their own that ends up on the wall.

How do clients see this work?

First of all, clients LOVE to see personal work. At least the good clients do. They want to see what you create when left to your own devices. Often their commercial needs can be inspired by what you create on your own. The best clients become two-way relationships and collaborations, where you are more than someone hired to push the button. The best relationships are based on trust, so when something goes wrong on a shoot (and usually something does go wrong) the client can turn to you and think “I know this person is truly creative, smart, passionate, and will find a solution.”

Are there any other reasons why personal work can influence your professional work or life?

Personal work allows for a level of creative risk you can’t often take on a commissioned assignment. So, you take chances with personal work, you break some eggs, but if you work hard and get a bit lucky, those personal moments can lead to breakthroughs.

How can I best utilize personal work to get professional work?

Good question. I have several suggestions. I learned many years ago that when someone was hiring me, or buying a book or print, they were in fact buying a small part of ME, not just my work. People are drawn to a photographer for all sorts of reasons that may go far beyond the actual images. So behind-the-scenes images and personal photographs can give people a better understanding of who you are as a human being. They work great for things like social media because it lessens the impact of attempting to sell yourself full-time, something that gets old for even the most dedicated photographers.

I also love using personal work as part of a professional portfolio, even if you are showing commercial work to commercial clients. Again, as someone hiring a photographer, I want to know as much about them as possible. I don’t review portfolios much anymore, but when I do I’m always intrigued by those fringe images. I find that often times those images are clues to where that artist will be five or ten years down the road.

Will clients hire someone for their personal work?

Yes, and this is a running joke in the professional industry. I was hired based on my documentary work but then assigned to do portraits in a studio. And this happened many times. It’s funny how this works, but it’s been this way from the beginning. Again, clients can be impressed with all kinds of work, and they are looking for a specific skill set that translates to their needs.

What is the best-case scenario with this personal/professional perspective?

I’m glad you asked that because there is nothing I loathe more than watching creative people being held back by the confines of being a professional. The goal, in my mind, is to be hired full-time to create your own work. This comes with responsibility. You must educate yourself on what has been done, and how you as a modern artist are complimenting what history has already shown us. You also need to work hard enough to learn how to make unique work, work that is your fingerprint as an artist.

A quick story. I once attended a lecture given by an assistant to Helmet Newton. Also in attendance was Helmet’s wife. She stood up and said this, “When Helmet first started he was given an assignment to make five photographs for a client, and they gave him a list of what they wanted. So, he did the assignment. But the next time, he snuck one of his own photographs into the five. And this continued until the client realized if they wanted great work, they should just get out of Helmet’s way and let him make his own work.” This is the dream people, and it’s a way of having a truthful, rewarding career.

What about you?
Still doing personal work?  

Heck, yes. Like I mentioned before, I don’t work full-time as a photographer any longer, nor do I do shows, exhibitions, etc. But I always have an ongoing personal project. My current project requires me to sleep in my truck in desert conditions, while spending days alone in the mountains. Someone asked me why I was doing this, and where I was going to post the images. I explained I wasn’t going to post the images anywhere, and that I was doing it because the need to create is overwhelming, regardless of the end result. But I’ll also add this. If I ever decide to return to professional photography, I will have a massive compilation of personal projects that will be my entryway back into the void.

Have your personal projects paved the way for your professional creative career? Share your experiences in the comments below. Or, why not turn a personal project in to a beautiful book you can share. 



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