As a former Art Producer, I have always been drawn to personal projects because they are the sole vision of the photographer and not an extension of an art director, photo editor, or graphic designer. This new column, “The Art of the Personal Project” will feature the personal projects of photographers using the Yodelist marketing database. You can read their blog at http://yodelist.wordpress.com. Projects are discovered online and submissions are not accepted.
Today’s featured photographer is: Naomi Harris
How long have you been shooting professionally?
Are you self-taught or photography school taught?
I got into photography late in the game, I was about 22 before I picked up my first camera. I was actually studying print-making in university, this was back in the early 90s before Google and the internet so if you needed a photo for inspiration you scoured books and magazines. And since my printmaking practice was mainly photo-based I decided it would make sense for me to learn how to take pictures in case I couldn’t find what I was looking for. It was a basic black and white class and really only taught dark-room techniques not how to “take” photos. That summer I went to Europe and when I processed what I shot I was like, oh, this is what I want to do and decided to focus my artistic practice on photography (though I do still want to go back and start using my photos in the medium of printmaking again.)
But that said I never did learn lighting or how to actually use a camera in school, that was all self-taught through trial and error, friends, assistants and while doing personal work.
You are very good about shooting personal projects, what is your inspiration to shoot them?
I think when I choose a personal project I ask myself first off, what will I learn from this. I’m primarily a documentary photographer (with a penchant for portraiture) so I’m always seeking knowledge or access to people whom I wouldn’t encounter otherwise.
My inspiration varies. Usually I’m shooting something else and stumble upon something that I’ll decide to make a long-term project out of. Like I was trying to do a project about Holocaust Survivors when I found the Haddon Hall Hotel in Miami’s South Beach which was the last of it’s kind and changed my focus to be specifically on that hotel. Or while living in Miami I’d visit the nude beach and knew that people went to swinger parties. One day I was invited to attend as a “key” (a female who accompanies a single man to a party granting them access) by a beach friend and when I saw what was going on knew instantly I’d have to shoot it! Or my most recent project I’m wrapping up, EUSA, I was shooting my very last swinger party in the mountains of Georgia and stumbled upon this “Bavarian” town called Helen nearby and from that EUSA was born.
I listen to a ton of radio (I’m a big fan of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) find things on Twitter, talk to strangers everywhere I go, you can find inspiration anywhere. And my mother is my best research assistant constantly mailing me newspaper clippings or emailing me articles of things I might find interesting. She really loves her Yahoo! News.
How many years have you been shooting a project before you decided to present it?
Seems lately like 5 years has been the magic number (America Swings and EUSA) but I don’t think it’s wise to attatch a deadline to projects. Each one is unique and you’ll know when it’s done. It could be some sort of event that happens but once or it could be shooting something daily which never really has an end, it’s all subjective. I’d love for once to try to shoot something in a studio and spend a total of say 2 or 3 weeks shooting, that would be novel!
How long do you spend on a personal project before deciding if it is working?
That’s a tough one. Some projects you know are going to be great and you feel it instantly from the first photo you take. Then I have had some projects where I’ve put a good amount of time into but then due to costs and amount of travel involved I just couldn’t get back to it right away and had to put on the back burner. Like EUSA I didn’t shoot anything between 2010 and 2013 (and had nearly 60 rolls of unprocessed exposed film in my freezer!) but I always knew I would come back to it when I had the time and money.
But then there are the projects where you do put some time and effort into it and for whatever reason decide it’s not going to work. Back in 2003 I spent 3 weeks in Vegas intending on creating a project about the economic upswing happening there but I never really liked what I was getting and not being a fan of heat (or Vegas itself) I decided to put this project on the shelf. In hindsight I should have pushed through because imagine the potentially amazing work I could have created if I had pre-recession and post-recession photos. Oh well, you can’t always predict the future and you can’t win them all.
Today though I’m beginning to work on multiple projects at a time and not sinking all my energy into only one body of work. If my projects take upwards of 5 years to complete (plus another few more years until a book is published) I don’t want to only be releasing a project every half decade or so. It’s better to split your focus into multiple projects.
What advice do you have for people who have not done a personal project? And how they are so important so potential clients see how you think.
I think it’s important for your potential clients sure, that’s an obvious answer, but I think personal projects are even more important for ourselves. Working on personal projects give us an opportunity to explore, experiment and even screw up but without the client to report back to. I learned all my lighting techniques while doing personal work and then can bring these new tricks into my commissioned work.
I would like to imagine most of us got into photography because we posses an innate curiosity about the world and want to explore it.
We also learn so much about ourselves and our potential when working on our own projects and that in itself is invaluable.
Since shooting for your portfolio is different from personal work, how do you feel when the work is different?
Actually I think all of my work, be it personal or commissioned, has a similar quality to it and hopefully a distinct style. While I’ll experiment with different formats, techniques and mediums between projects I still think the way I see is similar and hopefully people will be able to identify one of my photos be it personal work or from an assignment.
I do encourage photographers to shake it up a little though instead of an “insert-subject-here” approach that so many take (exact same lighting set up, back-drop etc). Mind you when you have a winning look that’s earning you a living it’s sometimes hard to abandon that. But remember, styles change and while your look might be popular now it might not be 5 years from now.
Have you ever posted your personal work on social media venues such as Reddit, Tumblr, Instagram or Facebook?
Yes and no. I try not to release too much of a project until I’m nearly done (and better yet would be only when the book is actually published) but I do use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as a means of self-promotion.
If so, has the work ever gone viral and possibly with great press?
Back in the early 2000s when I still had an earthlink account, the blog Fleshbot featured a story I did about a porn star reality show based in Montreal and in a matter of days over 100,000 people visited my website. That sounds all fine and good except that earthlink wanted to charge me an exorbitant amount for going over my bandwidth even though I kept calling them to increase my limit and ultimately had to temporarily shut my site down. I couldn’t afford to pay what they wanted nor did I think it was fair so I called NY1 to have them do a segment on me and earthlink lowered the bill to a couple of hundred from several thousand dollars!
I don’t know how to use Reddit (!) but I have had a couple of my America Swings photos posted and they have been quite popular but no work came out of that.
But I am shooting my first fashion story next month for a Spanish magazine called ODDA and they found me through my Instagram so really happy about that.
Have you printed your personal projects for your marketing to reach potential clients?
I don’t create my personal projects specifically for marketing my work rather I make it for the art aspect, and if it gets me publicity that influences prospective clients, well that’s the cherry on top.
I have on occasion left a copy of America Swings with an art buyer, which I consider a really fancy leave behind (pssst, call me in for a portfolio review and one might make it’s way to your desk too!).
I feel a lot of clients want to work with “fine art” photographers rather than just commercial photographers so it’s important to always be creating personal work and getting a reputation in the art circuit.
Canadian born NAOMI HARRIS is primarily a portrait photographer who seeks out interesting cultural trends to document through her subjects. Personal projects include HADDON HALL in which she documented the lives of the last remaining elderly residents at a hotel in South Beach. For this work she received the 2001 International Prize for Young Photojournalism from Agfa/ Das Bildforum, honorable mention for the Yann Geffroy Award, and was a W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography finalist.
For her next project AMERICA SWINGS, she documented the phenomenon of swinging over the course of 5 years (from 2003 to 2008) all over the United States. This project was realized in her first monograph “America Swings” released by TASCHEN in 2008 as a limited collectors edition and again in 2010 as a trade edition. Artist Richard Prince interviewed Ms. Harris for the book and it was edited by Dian Hanson.
She recently completed EUSA which is a reaction to the homogenization of European and American cultures through globalization and is releasing a book by the same title in 2017.
Other accolades include being awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship in Photography in 2013, a Long-Term Career Advancement Grant from the Canada Council in 2012 and participating in the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass in 2004.
In June 2012 after living in New York for 15 years she decided to leave and live in her car traveling around America with her dog Maggie in preparation of becoming a US citizen, which she did in August 2013. She currently resides in Los Angeles but returns to her homeland of Canada often to continue working on her project OH CANADA.
APE contributor Suzanne Sease currently works as a consultant for photographers and illustrators around the world. She has been involved in the photography and illustration industry since the mid 80s, after establishing the art buying department at The Martin Agency then working for Kaplan-Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and numerous smaller agencies and companies. She has a new Twitter feed with helpful marketing information believing that marketing should be driven by a brand and not specialty. Follow her on twitter at SuzanneSease.