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Self-assigning photography work is the healthiest thing any photographer can do for themselves. Without it, you’re only doing what you’re told, and never sharing what’s truly meaningful to you. Independent projects allow you full creative freedom and are essential for finding your own visual language.

Words by Dominic Gould

Photography by Aaron Chapman

When personal photography projects come to mind, you might be asking, ‘why spend so much time on something that earns you no money?’ And to be honest, that’s a good question. Photography is such a saturated industry in which it’s difficult to maintain a steady income, so it may seem silly to spend your time shooting for yourself rather than a client. But while it may seem counterintuitive, project-based work can be extremely beneficial for your creativity, your practice and your career.

From Aaron Chapman's photography project 'Memoirs of a Geyser'

“Build a portfolio of work that’s meaningful and exciting to you.”

Changing Lanes

One reason you should be self-assigning photography work is that you won’t be constrained to the genre of work you create commercially. You’ll be able to build a portfolio of work that’s meaningful and exciting to you. Maybe you’re a wedding photographer or a music photographer that’s always wanted to be a photojournalist. Pursuing a personal project could help you break into another lane of photography and will diversify your portfolio with work you really want to do.

'Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room' (Diane Arbus, 1970)

“She would never have been commissioned to photograph the range of subject matter that was meaningful to her, but she did it anyway.”

Breaking Boundaries

Diane Arbus for example, based in New York and born in 1923, was renowned for breaking the boundaries of portraiture and photojournalism in a way that was unorthodox for her time. For years she documented members of the LGBTQ+ community, dwarves, strippers, carnival performers, nudists, children and more. Michael Kimmelman, in his review of Arbus’ exhibition Revelations wrote, “her memorable work, which she did, on the whole, not for hire but for herself, was all about heart — a ferocious, audacious heart.”

In Diane Arbus’ time, she would never have been commissioned to photograph the range of subject matter that was meaningful to her, but she did it anyway. Her influence on contemporary photography is still snowballing today. So much expression of marginalised communities comes through art and photography and so much of that representation comes from photographers like Diane Arbus who strive to tell the stories that are personal to them.

“Whether consciously or not, you’re committing to a greater level of visual literacy by self-assigning projects.”

Visual Language

Another reason why it’s so useful to pursue personal work, particularly project-based work, is to develop your personal visual language. This is an important part of photography because it links back to the purpose of the art, which is through sharing ideas and stories through images.

Aaron Chapman is a talented photographer from the Gold Coast who spends a lot of time on personal project work. He has been included in a multitude of group exhibitions as well as hosting two solo shows in 2018, neither of which would have been possible if it weren’t for his commitment to practice his own visual language and style. One of his latest projects, Memoirs of a Geyser, was shot and written over four days in Yellowstone National Park to record his tourist experience “as if predicting the involuntary memory recall we observe in the months and years following holiday or travel.”

Speaking of his personal projects, Aaron Chapman says “I think we forget that photography is a language. It needs to be read. Project-based work is the best way to try and speak the language fluently, by stringing together a bunch of photographs into a story. There are endless single great photographs out there, but those are sometimes just sentences that often sit without context.”

“Whether consciously or not, you’re committing to a greater level of visual literacy by self-assigning projects. It’s an exercise all photographers need to undertake.”

There are so many ways to share things in this day and age, images being only one of them. Being able to share your ideas and stories clearly through a series of images is taking the level of storytelling to the next level.

“Start small and work up to bigger projects.”

Next Steps

By no means should you quit your day job and spend every penny travelling around taking photos (although that does sound nice). Self-assigning and pursuing project-based work can be as simple as taking a photo of something you love once a day and in a year you could put them all together and look back on the year. Start small and work up to bigger projects if that’s something you are interested in. It will open your eyes up to notice things you might not have noticed before, it will help you become a better storyteller with your photos and it will give you the sense of satisfaction that you’re doing work that matters to you.

Here are some examples of self-assigned photography projects created in the past year:

1. Sarah Pannell travelled to Ireland to document the relationship between man and nature.

2. Mona Kuhn used a glasshouse in the desert to abstract the human form.

3. Alexey Vasilyev compiled a striking series of images of his home, one of the coldest cities in the world.

4. Tom Wolff captured portraits of fellow surfers and asked them to finish the sentence ‘I surf because…’

5. Nichole Sobecki found photos of Somalia taken in 1970 by an ecologist and travelled to the same locations to take comparison shots and evaluate the effects of climate change in A Climate for Conflict.

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Dominic Gould

Dominic Gould is a director, photographer and cinematographer from the Gold Coast, Australia. He mainly dabbles in music & documentary work. He has a huge appetite for content creation as well as servo pies, Peep Show and talking in third person.