ONWARD: Can you describe your process of project ideation?
Each project has its own nemesis. For me, the process of creating a body of work often starts with a desire to explore a place, theme or idea. There isn’t always one reason why a concept grows into a long-term body of work. As I focus on a project, themes often emerge that weren’t part of my initial thinking. Part of the process is giving work the time for those themes to materialize. Knowing when to abandon an uninspired idea is as much a part of this process as being able to identify when a project has the potential to be strong. What originally draws me to a project often has something to do with my own story and history. I try to find a point of kinship or connection between myself and the subjects or ideas I have focused on.
ONWARD: How can a photographer set themselves up for success during a long-term project?
William Sutton: Be ambitious.
I think its different for everyone. For me it is important to start with ideas that are meaningful and to believe in the process. I look at new pictures regularly and let the work inform me. I am usually surprised by something new. I review the entire body of work, edit the sequence of pictures dropping pictures that have lost energy, and develop ideas about the direction of the work. This keeps me moving forward so that the work is alive. I value the discipline to stay focused but also respect the limits of my immediate understanding.
ONWARD: Does your work involve a great amount of preparation? Or is your way of working more intuitive and improvised?
Arno Rafael Minkkinen: It can be both ways. Sometimes another idea comes to me in the act of doing what I thought I would do. It’s like an about face or a hold your horses, abandon ship lightning bolt solution that I did not realize was possible when my eye and mind worked on the frame inside the viewfinder. In situ, everything in such cases presents itself differently.
Sometimes, it’s a flip of the coin that sends me to the north face of a mountain instead of the south, or a decision to work an extra half hour that leads to a different lighting situation from which a new and better idea emerges. Likely every image is spontaneous from such perspectives, a burst of light bounces off the water that you didn’t see coming.
But there are also times when I know something can be done but the question I need to answer is whether I will have the strength and/or courage to actually make the attempt or for that matter succeed in carrying the idea out. That’s when preparation and at times rehearsal becomes necessary.
ONWARD: Do you have any advice for photographers who have a hard time finding and committing to a project?
Kim Stringfellow: When a student of mine is having difficulty locating a subject, theme or issue to build an extended body of work or photographic project series I suggest that they consider their own personal interests—what moves them, what interests do they do outside of visual arts? This could be any number of things really—music, poetry, sports, activism, politics, etc. For instance, my own interest in ecology and the environment led me to move from photographic personal narratives into a more documentary practice that I have continued exploring over the last 15 years. One should be either obsessed or extremely passionate about the subject, especially if they are to commit to it over several years as I do with my own research driven projects.
ONWARD: How important is structure for completing a successful photo project?
Richard Rothman: I like to begin without structure or a fixed idea. I need to feel a deep sense of curiosity about a subject, a desire to look at it, experience it, and know more about it. It’s important for me to leave room for unconscious exploration, the development of unexpected themes, and digressions that might strengthen and nurture my engagement. But in order to complete a project, structure is essential.
I like to trust that, given enough time, a resonant and meaningful structure will arise from a pattern of looking with intention that’s ingrained in the photographic experience. A kind of call and response that is, hopefully, a graceful exchange between the world and the photographer.
ONWARD: How do you maintain momentum through the course of a long-term project?
Terri Weifenbach: Although it’s easy to see work, my work, in terms of projects, because there are books with covers that render them as discreet, I don’t actually think of my work this way. It is all an investigation, from different places and tenors, all as a whole, all interrelated. Momentum is not a problem for something that possesses you. Think of reading a long, very good book. It is hard to put down and it is in your mind as you walk through your day. You’re eager to pick it back up and be consumed by the world it describes. This is what photographing is like for me. The saddest part is finishing the book. I truly hope I never have to do that.
ONWARD: How do you give your images a cohesive look over a long term project?
Stuart Rome: I always come into a project with a location and an idea. The idea often gets thrown out, but it gives me the parameters for a project even before I start so that I'm not casting such a wide net, where anything could be included at all. When I begin a project I don't worry about how cohesive it will be at the end. Even though I begin with parameters, if the idea leads to somewhere unexpected that's where I go. I keep my feelers out for anything that seems interesting. Once something interesting has developed I usually hone in on that one thing. Once that happens there's more research involved and the project becomes more focused.
Also, often when I begin a project I stop looking at other peoples work, especially photographers–I don't wan't anybody else in my head at all.
ONWARD: How do you know when a body of work or project you're working on is complete?
Moises Saman: It's a difficult question to answer because i find it a very subjective decision that varies from project to project. I think that the word “complete” can be bit misleading if it is not presented within the context of what you are trying to achieve at a particular stage of your project. For example, I think of my body of work from the Middle East as an open-ended endeavor with multiple “volumes" that reflect particular periods of my own engagement with the region, starting around the time of the Iraq War in 2003. However, I am not interested in defining the completion of these “volumes" in journalistic terms, but rather in terms of when i am able to present a visual narrative that prompts further questions, drawing on the confusion, ambiguities, contradictions, and multitude of voices that emerged during a particular period in the Middle East.
Feeling inspired after all of these bits of advice from the Guggenheim Fellows? Us too! So we decided to go even more in depth about what makes photo projects click and interview Guggenheim Fellow Richard Renaldi.
From initial inspiration all the way through the final product, he offers some golden advice for getting your project on track and on target. Check out the interview now!
Have you been working on a photography project that you want the world to see? ONWARD Compé '16 is the perfect opportunity for photographers to submit their very best images from their very best project. Show us the 10 pictures that best represent your latest project now!
The ONWARD Global Mentorship Program is a brand-new program, even for us, with a lot of ambition and expectation. As the course progresses, we will be tweaking the format so it stays as beneficial for participants as possible.
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