The Tao of Personal Work

Personal projects are important. I’ve heard many working photographers talk about how they landed jobs on their personal work and not on their portfolio. Don’t get me wrong, their portfolio got them in the door. But when Art Directors are looking at 5 portfolios they like, compelling personal work can tip the balance in your favor.

Personal work can also get you noticed and help you stand above the crowd. Japanese photographer Natsumi Hayashi has had a photo blog for over two years posting mostly photos of her cats, food and occasionally friends. About 9 months ago she posted a picture of someone in mid-leap. Then she posted a picture of herself seemingly ‘levitating’ and started posting more. A few moths ago, she stopped posting photos of her cat and started posting the “Levitation of the Day’ photo. They are self-portraits of her in the air. She is getting more and more inventive and many of the pictures look like impossible levitations. I specially like the ones where she is floating in a crowd of people. Now, a site that was most likely visited by friends and family has gotten international attention.  If she doesn’t get a book deal out of this, she doesn’t want one.

Natsumi Hayashi self-portrait for her Levitation of the Day photo blog.

I recently attended a talk with advertising photographer Mark Laita at the Annenberg Space for Photography. He shoots mostly products for high-profile clients including Apple, Canon, Effen Vodka, Absolut and MARS cosmetics. What you don’t see in his portfolio is people. He has a dual site with his commercial work and personal work. He has a series of dead birds, colorful snakes, another series that he put drops of dye in clear water and photographed the shapes as the colors swirled and, his latest coming this fall, fish swimming near the surface. But the personal project that put him all over Google and landed him a book deal is Created Equal.

The web page for Mark Laita's Created Equal book.

He traveled all around the country photographing regular people being themselves. He stripped down everything that would draw attention away from the subject. Everyone was shot with the exact same set-up: one light (I think), the same background and all in black and white. The choice of black and white interested me because I think many people use it to give the photos a more artistic look. He wanted to strip everything down, including color. He illustrated this point by showing a big guy and said the jacket he was wearing was bright blue and would have dominated the picture. I could see how color could be distracting.

When I talk about personal work, I'm talking about a well-planned, well-thought out project that tells a story or expresses a vision. It's about giving yourself an assignment and sticking to it like it was a paid gig. It took Mark Laita over 6 years and almost half a million dollars in travel and production expenses to complete his project. This is an extreme case but it illustrates the point.

Personal work allows a photographer to branch out and push the envelope beyond what they would do while on assignment. I will also keep you shooting between assignments which, for me at least, leaves me enough time for some significant personal work.


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