How Do You Keep a Project Going?
Starting and finishing a long-term project can be one of the most difficult challenges a photographer faces in their career. We’ve all started with great ideas and struggled to see them out, worked through creative slumps, and wrestled with maintaining momentum. How can we as photographers rethink the way we approach producing a body of work?
We interviewed three photographers, all actively practicing and teaching, who each have dealt with the same creative challenges as their students. Dimitra Ermeidou, Karen Marshall, and Greg Miller graciously shared their personal experiences and advice they had for emerging photographers looking to start their own long-term projects.
You each have extensive backgrounds in teaching professionally. What do you think students have the most difficulties with when working towards a long-term goal?
Karen Marshall: I believe that being able to have a solid relationship with one’s own work is extremely hard for photographers who have great ideas but are uncertain how to manifest them. Often photographers go out with an intent and yet, the photographs they make may not fit into their initial ideas. Some photographers have trouble looking at and editing their own work. One of my primary focuses is to help people find the tools to converse with their own images and allow their pictures to inform their process and how to proceed.
Dimitra Ermeidou: Staying focused and motivated could be a challenge, especially when one does not see immediate results or the whole picture yet. Lack of patience and perseverance gets in the way of creating great work, as well as hesitation and fear of failure.
I have seen the combination of providing in-depth advising and ongoing creative challenges with frequent check-ins working very well towards overcoming such difficulties. I ask questions, offer ideas, and suggest a variety of methods to help my students get closer to their needs and aspirations, discover and improve their unique strengths, experiment fearlessly and find solutions to creative problems.
Greg Miller: A long-term project can take a month or 20 years. The hardest thing is believing that you are doing it and sticking to it. In the beginning, it is especially hard because you are the only one that can visualize your idea and it doesn’t exist unless you work on it. It is a very lonely process. No one is going to remind you to wake up and do your project–that’s where I come in.
When working on a long-term project, what is your creative process?
Dimitra Ermeidou: My creative process depends on the kind of project I’m about to undertake. Most times, I would start with the concept, which is basically a persistent idea that needs to be expressed. I work on refining it and experiment on shooting techniques that feel appropriate. Other times, I happen to shoot an image that compels me to expand it and create a whole project. When it comes to editing and selecting, I give myself time to look at my images over and over again, and try to become as objective as possible. I think of what I want to accomplish with the project, where and how it should be presented, etc. There are many principles that come into selecting your best work, and my experience in art curating has proved to be quite helpful.
Greg Miller: With a new project I know I’m onto something when I can’t stop thinking about it. Once I’ve made several pictures I’m able to envision it as a larger project and keep going. I usually make prints and put them up in my office so that I can keep looking at the series. The prints make the project exist in the physical world and I think that’s important.
What is your advice for someone looking to start a long-term project?
Karen Marshall: One has to find a project that is truly visual for them and something they are truly interested in exploring for a while. They have to be willing to work with great intent but often in the unknown until they can understand how to edit and conceptualize what they are doing. It is a give and take between what they think about, what they actually capture, what photographs are the strongest and how they put it together. It takes many skill sets but more than anything the determination and stamina to dig deep and stay with the idea.
Karen, you have experiences photographing commercially for numerous publications, documenting public and private events, as well as exhibiting your personal work. How are you able to balance your creative work with your advertising/editorial/events work?
Karen Marshall: I have been a photographer for a long time. At certain moments it was hard to find time for my personal photography. I have found that it is important to bring my creativity and unique perspective to any photographic experience whether it be self-motivated or for a client. Sometimes client work has offered me the opportunity to meet people and be in situations that I would otherwise have not had the ability to manifest on my own. These situations and experiences have enhanced my perspective of the world and therefore informed my personal work.
Dimitra, your work is symbolic and you do a lot of repurposing and reconstructing photographs. How do you think your unique vision and perspective benefits your students?
Dimitra: My work is project-based, and I may employ different photographic methods to serve the concept and my goal for each project. I choose to focus on projects that work on a more symbolic level. There is a sense of curiosity and experimentation that keeps me going. I’ve found that this enriches my perspective and keeps me really open-minded.
I follow a similar approach to teaching photography; I appreciate every form of great image making, and I have critiqued a range of genres for both students and colleagues. I believe that providing insightful feedback for any kind of work is key to being a good art educator. I’m always considering the photographer’s intentions, how they are reflected in the images, and what it might take to make them shine. I have a reputation of being very perceptive, resourceful and genuinely interested in critiquing work.
Greg, You photograph daily life and specialize in capturing human moments. How do you incorporate that in your teaching process?
Greg: Photographing people is difficult. Do you talk to them or not? Do they look at the camera or not? This and seemingly a thousand other questions pop into one’s head when faced with a human subject. I help my students quiet it all down and listen to what they’re heart is telling them so they are able to begin to have clarity when face to face with strangers.
Interested in learning about developing a long-term project? We developed a ten-month online photography course centered upon the development of a successful long-term project. Check out the ONWARD Global Mentorship Program where Karen, Greg, and Dimitra will all be working as mentors and reviewers to help students progress their personal projects.
About the Mentors
Karen Marshall is a New York City based photographer and educator who earned her MFA from the Transart Institute. In addition to exhibiting and having her work published all over the world, she mentors pre-MFA candidates at the Maine Media Workshop, leads photojournalism seminars at the ICP, and is an adjunct photography professor at NYU.
Greg Miller moved to New York City to obtain his BFA from the School of Visual Arts. Now residing in Connecticut, Greg has been featured in some of the country’s top publications, exhibited worldwide, and continues to teach at the ICP and Maine Media Workshops.
Dimitra Ermeidou earned her MFA in photography from Temple University where she is now an assistant professor. Aside from her teaching career, she remains an active photographer participating in various festivals and exhibitions both in the US and abroad.