Working in Projects

January 15, 2009

If there is one thing that I have learned during the past years, then it is that the quality of my work becomes much better when I work in projects. Like most people my photography used to be rather spontaneous. It’s like when people tell you they never leave home without a camera, or they walk out onto the streets to shoot what comes intotheir way. This seems to be the “Henry Cartier-Bresson” way.

Well, to be honest, I don’t think that any of the street masters of the 20th century ever worked that way. Random shooting, in my experience, usually leads to random photography with over 90% of rubbish. From my experience I can tell that my results become much better if I have at least some kind of theme in my mind before I take my camera out. Then I know what to look for with much better results.
For the last four years, I have mainly been working in projects. That means I spend a big time of thinking about topics, set ups, perspectives etc. before I start to fill out what has been an idea and now becomes reality. When there is an idea, a plan, a structure, the results become much more consistent, much more thought through. Planning usually includes decision about the theme, the perspective (i.e. the camera), the film used, light and picture format. Usually I have a list (in my head) about all the things I want to have covered so that there is nothing missing.
An example of a rather formal street project in Shanghai is this image. I took my Mamiya onto the street, placed it on a tripod and asked the bypassing people to pose for a portrait, on a stool against the wall. The plan was to get a good overview of ordinary people in Shanghai (urban China) at the beginning of the 21st century. I chose a fixed camera position, neutral daylight (Spring and Autumn mornings) and always the same Color slide and/or b/w film. The project went on through the years 2005 and 2006 until I had the feeling that I had covered a good range of different characters.

Today this project alone means more to me and shows more about the place than hundreds of random street images I took during my first few years in China. It just makes more sense and is simply more thorough and complete than anything I could have done without a project theme. A good lesson about photography and the creative process!


2 Responses to “Working in Projects”

  1. I fully agree on everything you said and I got the same experience.

    Shooting in projects means preparing my work, thinking about what to do before I do it, being creative before starting photography itself.

    But I do enjoy unplanned and spontaneous work as well, allthough when being deeply in a project my “spontaneous” work normally also fits into the main theme to a certain degree. I guess I am focusing more on those things at that time. I believe that feeding a the main subject by thinking about detailed themes is the only way to let spontaneous and suprising ideas come to my mind.

  2. Thank you , Michael!

    It’s not that I don’t do spontaneous photography. But the results are usually not as good. i also think that most (good) photographers will have always a theme in the back of their mind, even if they are not consciously thinking of it.

    I also notice that almost everything you do is project work. hence the high quality! 😉

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