There are a number of psychological battles that you face as a photographer (or anyone pursuing a creative endeavor). If you’re like most people, then you’ll likely find yourself fighting, at one time or another, doubt as to whether you’re a good photographer, or whether a particular photo is clichéd or obvious, or whether there was a better shot to be had. Over the last few years, one of the annoying questions I’ve found myself facing while shooting is “why am I taking this photo?”
For years, I was quite content to simply wander about, looking for good light or interesting subject matter. When people asked me what I like to shoot, I was fine with answering “interesting light” because that was, for the most part, all that guided my shooting. But then something started to change. I began to question the point of an image that was simply a well-crafted photograph. I found myself looking through the camera, building a shot, and then thinking “so what?”
From the photographer Keith Carter I learned that one answer to that question is “Because why not?” which is a pretty good answer, and it can sometimes get me to take the shot anyway, in spite of any existential photo dilemma. But there’s another way to tend to this question, if you’re finding yourself regularly facing it, and that is to engage yourself in a photographic project of some kind.
In Chapter 9 of Complete Digital Photography I offer the suggestion of simple photo projects, and the ideas there are good starting points as well as good exercises to take on, even if you’re not finding yourself plagued by questions of whether stand-alone photos are worth shooting. The idea of a project can be intimidating because it sounds so portentous, but a project does not have to be something of National Geographic caliber. You don’t have to go make first contact with a rainforest tribe, or pursue an endangered species or stumble onto a lost civilization to have a worthwhile project. A project can start with anything that you find interesting or compelling.
My project with the Gnawa
A few years ago, as I was planing a trip to Morocco, I realized there was a very obvious project to take on. That project, in turn, gave me a much different shooting experience there, guided some of my travel through the country, and ultimately led me to a previously unrealized link between photography and something else – a link that I’m very curious to explore more. In this short video, you can see how I put the project together and what the experience of shooting the project led me to.
I know that it might seem a little strange for me to say that a project doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, and then I show a trip to Morocco, but the point is that the actual starting point for this project was very simple: “I like this particular music.” Following any kind of interest can give you the structure and foundation for a project. If you’re taking a trip somewhere, I especially recommend trying to find some sort of project to work on while you’re there. Pursuing a project will take you to places you might not normally go to, and open up new subject matter.
To be honest, I’m not crazy about any individual shots that I got of the Gnawa. As standalone photos, they don’t do much for me. But as a starting point for more work, and when I think about what I could do with a broad enough selection of images – that excites me in a way that a single well-crafted photo does not.
If you’ve never tried shooting a project, I consider it a must for anyone’s growth as a photographer. Even if you never do it again, it will still teach you much that you cannot get from simply shooting standalone images.