Before you commit to that 365:
First of all, happy almost new year. It’s that time of year when we all start thinking about all the great things we’re going to do in the new year. For photographers, we inevitably start thinking about changes to our business, new directions, and starting fresh with projects. And that’s why I’m choosing right now to raise this subject.
Let’s talk about 365 projects.
I want to preface this blog post by saying that I am not telling you that 365 projects are bad. I’m not telling you that you should absolutely not do it. I’m not criticizing anyone who is doing or will decide to do one in the future, and I’m certainly not attacking anyone who recommends them. I simply want to give you some food for thought in determining whether this is a goal that is healthy for you.
When I critique photographers, more often than not I end up critiquing the images on their blog. It’s generally updated more often than a website, and it’s usually more “culled” than Flickr. But I find that almost every time I mention images that were made as part of a 365, I get a heavy duty disclaimer. Why? Let’s discuss.
The purpose of a 365, the best that I can figure, is to encourage photographers to get out there and shoot. That is, generally speaking, a good thing. It’s tough to improve when you aren’t taking pictures. Practice is a good thing. But that old adage “Practice makes perfect” is wrong. As so many have said more accurately, practice makes permanent. What you do over and over again becomes habit. That is good, when you are practicing effectively and correctly. When you practice bad (or sloppy, or lazy, or inconsistent) habits, those become permanent. So when you realize at the end of the day that you haven’t taken your 365 image and you’re exhausted, grumpy, and out of light, that “I’ll shoot it because I have to” image is what you end up practicing. And let’s be honest — with a 365 project, that usually happens a lot. These are generally hurried, less than thought-out, not very-very-invested images. They’re the ones that, when I bring them up in a critique, photographers almost always brush off and/or apologize for.
And then there’s the fact that, as with anything, moderation is key. What would you say to a friend who compulsively works out every single day? Well, you would probably remind them that you have to have non-gym days to let your mind and body recover and actually build muscle. What would you say to a friend who works at his or her job every single day? You would remind them that they need to take a break and enjoy life every so often, to find balance. What would you say to the friend who never, ever allows herself to eat pizza or have a piece of cake? You’d remind them that balance is key, and you have to allow yourself an indulgence every now and then. But 365 projects require that you do not ever get to have a day where photography isn’t necessary, and if you do miss a day, you feel guilty. I don’t necessarily think that’s healthy. I think it creates a real risk of photography being associated with drudgery and obligation.
Keep in mind, too, that for many if not most of us, the primary subjects in a 365 wind up being our own children. 365 days a year, every day of the week, they will probably have that camera pointed at them, for the sake of fulfilling a long project, with zero days off. And we wonder why our kids run away when they see the camera come out! It’s not fun to be on stage every single day. It’s a lot different than “documenting our kids lives.” The photo-a-day mentality says that there will be a picture, no matter what. Documenting our kids lives means photographing little moments as they happen. Very different things. Even if you sometimes point your lens toward other subjects, our kids get the majority of the frames. Oh, and our significant others have to live with the insanity too, to have a partner who cannot go a single day without thinking about that camera. Lots of potential for friction there!
The importance of personal projects is that they allow you total freedom of expression, to learn and explore both your technique and your voice, to learn what you want to say it and to say it more effectively. To take risks without fearing rejection. It’s not strictly the shooting of the images that we learn from, but the examining and studying of the images we make. Identifying what works, what doesn’t work, what strikes a chord and what falls flat. Without that, we are getting really very little out of what we shoot. It takes time to do this, and I don’t personally believe that forcing ourselves to shoot every single day allows much time to study and learn from those images, and to be inspired.
I would much rather see meaningful, disciplined personal projects. Ones that you work on on a regular basis because you are compelled to by the story, rather than driven by obligation. Images that you have the time and the will to really invest yourself in, to exercise your ability not just to take a technically adequate image, but to strengthen your thought process as an artist. Photographs that motivate you and that you are, eventually, proud of and willing to stand behind, with a cohesive, coherent and eventually, mature voice.
I am always talking to photographers about figuring out a personal project that they really love and that comes from a deep, honest place. Rather than rewriting all of that here, I’ll just link you to this post. I would love to see photographers commit to one really meaningful image per week, or even per month, to add to their personal project. Time to think, to analyze, to re-shoot, to reconsider and try in different ways, to enjoy the process rather than be ruled by it. To grow in a healthy and balanced way.
In the end, if you decide you can make a 365 work for you, then by all means go for it — and don’t feel bad at all if you do start and then don’t keep up with it. But if you decide it’s not going to take you in the direction you want to grow, then more power to you. It’s about positive, meaningful growth. Do it in the way that works best for you.