Your Questions Answered: How to find a documentary project?
A question from photographer Devashish
I wanted to ask you about something. I am a journalism student, and am trying to do documentary projects but am unable to find the right thing, have been thinking since last few months but can’t seem to be able to find something. How do people finds thing on which they do their photo essays and stories? I have no clue, would you mind telling me about that as I don’t have any other means to contact to experienced people. Plus my summer vacations will start in a few months and we are supposed to do internships, is there any way to find something related to documentary photography?
I love street photography but sometimes it feels missing to me, I feel like knowing the stories of actual people.
This is an excellent question, one which I pondered frequently at the beginning of my career. While I can’t speak for every documentary photographer, I will give you my approach to finding projects.
1. Pick something you are interested in. Shooting what is popular or what is edgy is bound to leave you running in circles. Being “ahead of the curve” means trusting your own interests. As curator Susie Bright said in one of my workshops, “It’s the thing that is most uncool about you that people often find the most interesting.”
List out your interests on a piece of paper…all of them. Don’t worry about what it says. No one will read it but you. Somewhere in that list is your first project. I’ve seen people do excellent projects about the most random sh*t. The key is their ability to convey their interest into a format that other people can understand.
2. Become your subject. All too often journalism, even things called deep-investigative journalism, seem to only scratch the surface. After university I spent 12 years in construction and 7 years in and out of a Zen monastery. As a result I photograph craftsmen as a craftsman, not as an observer or researcher of craftsmen. I am one.
With Zen, I never wanted to take my precepts and BE a monk. That was not the point. I wanted to understand, from the inside, what meditation really meant and what it did for people. To do that, I could not be a tourist. I had to drop the camera, for years, and just sit in silence.
Chances are, there is something you already do, something you already know, that is right outside your doorstep. People enjoy insights from photographers who possess an understanding of their subject matter. Not just “oh there is a monk in a cool robe.”
3. Connect with people doing similar things. Avoid working in a bubble. It is very isolating. I like to make the analogy that a lot of young photographers work like scuba divers with their eyes closed. If you close your eyes while diving it is VERY HARD to tell which way is up. The process is profoundly disorienting.
Documentary work is about connecting with the people you work with and also your colleagues. Once you find your subject or story, seek out other photographers, groups, institutions, or anyone who shares your interest. If there is one thing the Internet has shown us, it is that somewhere in the world there is another person who is passionate about the same things as you. If you can’t find anything, get on to Blink.la and see what other people are up to.
4. Start with a short story. Almost every great writer started out writing a short story first. Let’s be honest, your first story might not be a masterpiece…and that is totally normal. But you would like to get in the habit of:
- Finding an idea.
- Connecting the idea to reality (so you can photograph it…shooting a project about life on Mars might be cool, but will present some logistical problems)
- Getting yourself to the location and working with your subjects.
- Finishing the story. There are more people who start and never finish great projects…make sure to FINISH. No one will eat an unbaked cake, no matter how amazing it might be.
5. Keep your project in perspective. Most editorial layouts are a maximum of 12 pictures, maybe 15. All you need to do is take 20 good pictures and the story is done. For some people they need to take 20,000 to reduce it to 20. For others they take 200 and finish at 20. IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT METHOD YOU USE. All that matters are the 20 finished pictures.
6. Words are your friends. I like to keep a small notebook of ideas. When I have a realization about a project, I write it down. These ideas will help you build the story around the pictures. Ask yourself, “What is the point of this project?”
In truth, the only thing a photographer can control are the things they do. Figure out what you are doing and why you want to do it. There is no magical formula, and what worked for one person might not work exactly the same way for you. Success stories tend to have commonalities and also funny, little details that are unique to each person.
Like artist Gregory Crewdson once said,”If I knew exactly what the story was I wouldn’t need to make pictures. In my own head, the story is undefined and murky, impenetrable. My whole need to make pictures comes out of the urge to understand what that story is.”
“If I knew exactly what the story was I wouldn’t need to make pictures. In my own head, the story is undefined and murky, impenetrable. My whole need to make pictures comes out of the urge to understand what that story is.”
Wishing you the best on your journey Devashish,
P.S. “Your questions answered” will be an ongoing series, so if you have a question to ask, please leave it in the comment thread below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org