The Importance of Personal Photography Projects.

Onion seedlings in a greenhouse in South Hampton, New Hampshire.

Onion seedlings in a greenhouse in South Hampton, New Hampshire. From a recent personal photography project (Photo: Jerry Monkman)

This is the first time in eleven years that I am not working on one or more book projects (I tortured myself with three last year.) I love working on books most of the time, but add in the usual bunch of commissioned photo projects that I do every year, and it’s rare for me to have the time to shoot just because I feel like it.  I think this is a problem. Always working under deadlines makes it hard to grow as a photographer. You are less likely to experiment with new techniques, explore new subject matter in depth, or just have fun being a photographer.

I think emerging photographers often create such unique and compelling work because they have yet to be hemmed in by years of running a business and fulfilling the demands of clients.  Us veterans need to get back to the freedom of our early days once in a while by regularly tackling personal photo projects.  These projects are a a great way to have fun, while stretching your skills to new levels and sometimes unexpected places. Besides giving you a chance to grow creatively, they are an important way to let photo editors and art buyers see what you are interested in, new directions you are exploring, and that you can find new ways to make art and tell stories.  It’s sometimes hard to do that with commissioned work, as the client hires you based on what you already do. Sure, you can experiment on those projects too, but you better get it right using tried and true methods first.

Seed flats planted with onion seeds in a greenhouse in South Hampton, New Hampshire.

Seed flats planted with onion seeds in a greenhouse in South Hampton, New Hampshire.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Sustainability, Marcy and I are members of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) on the New Hampshire Seacoast called Heron Pond Farm. CSA members give the farm capital at the times of the year when they need it most, and the farm pays back its members with fruits and vegetables once a week or every other week during the course of the year.  Heron Pond Farm, offers both a summer share, which runs from June through October, and a winter share that pays out from November through March.  (By the way there is still room to purchase this year’s summer share if you’re in the area – from our experience, I can tell you that you receive much more value than you pay out.) I’ve decided to make chronicling the work at Heron Pond Farm a personal photo project that I can work on over the course of the year, and  beyond.  I feel that the CSA movement has benefits on many levels – it strengthens community, it keeps open space from being developed, and it encourages people to eat locally, which reduces carbon emissions. As a personal photography project, it is ideal for me for several reasons: 1) it is different than my usual nature and adventure photography, 2) it has a conservation theme, which is something I am passionate about, 3) it is close to home (about 15 miles) so I can shoot an hour here or there without feeling like it is getting in the way of my “real” work, 4) it is a story I can easily follow long-term and develop a body of work that has meaning and is marketable, and 5) it lets me support people and a business I believe in.

Training tomato plants in a greenhouse in South Hampton, New Hampshire. Heron Pond Farm greenhouse.

Farmer Greg Balog training tomato plants in a greenhouse in South Hampton, New Hampshire. Heron Pond Farm greenhouse.

I’ve spent 6-8 hours/month so far since January with the Heron Pond Farm crew, and I’m really just getting started photography-wise.  While I have photographed farms before, it has typically been from a scenic standpoint, while this project is inspiring me to take a more in-depth approach, learning what’s going on and why, and capturing the course of events from planting to harvest to market.  Of course, starting a photography project focusing on a vegetable farm in New Hampshire in January may seem less than ideal, but it has been a great time to get to know the farmers and their crew as well as shoot the farming that happens in the winter in greenhouses.  I never understood the extent of winter farming in New Hampshire, and to me that’s a new story that I can pursue.  (Plus, the light in a greenhouse has a great diffuse quality, so you can shoot any time of day using natural light. That will end soon as planting moves outside.) What’s nice about working on a story like this as a personal project is that there is no deadline or client, and if I get to the farm and just feel like goofing around with my new lens baby for 3 hours, that’s o.k.  The goal for me is to use that time to try new things and techniques and see what happens.  If it sucks, who cares? But maybe I’ll figure something out that is pretty cool

A greenhouse damaged by a rain and wind storm in South Hampton, New Hampshire.

A greenhouse at Heron Pond Farm that was damaged by a rain and wind storm in South Hampton, New Hampshire. Thankfully, the plastic sheeting was due to be replaced soon, and the warm weather meant the crops were not lost.

I’m excited to see where this project goes as the weather warms up and I get to spend time out in the fields.  I feel like the creative opportunities will get even more inspiring as this story progresses, but I already feel like I’m better off just for having started it.  Now I just have to find the time for the other three or four projects swimming around in my head.

Until next time,


2 thoughts on “The Importance of Personal Photography Projects.

  1. Jerry-

    Very well said. Projects are so important today and even more in an era where working pros have to dedicate so much of their creative energy to the business side. We all got into this biz for the joy of shooting but unfortunately the business side can sap some of that joy away. Personal projects are an important way to have a mission beyond the business that provides a nice balance. And they can be simple projects like setting out a hummingbird feeder or more involved like your farming project. The nice part about what you are doing is taking that break to shoot something you enjoy and that project will at some point have commercial value to it as well.

    Charlie Borland

  2. Pingback: The Food We Eat - Local Farm Photos - EcoPhotography

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