“Because it’s important” is what you’re most likely going to say to anyone who questions your photography project. When a photographer comes up with a cool idea for a documentary project or photography project to begin with, it’s typically because it’s important to them. If there is social action behind it, then it’s also because they want to get a message across. For example, the BJP recently featured a story on photographers who instead of photographing the poor, photograph the lives of the lavishly wealthy in hopes of social change.
But while a project is important to you, you’ll need to think more about the promotion and sharing of it way ahead of time.
Before I go on consider this: is a photo project is very personal and just for creative purposes with no real intent on showing it off to the world then that’s cool–keep it to yourself if you’d like and you’ll be happy as a bear with honey.
However, if you want to undertake a large documentary photography project you’ll need to consider how you can actually make it appealing to those who have the power to get the word out: i.e. who I often call the gatekeepers. These are the photo editors at major publications, gallery curators with email lists and followings, and those with a strong social promotion reach that can help to bring more eyes to your project. This all starts from the planning phase and needs to be kept true all the way through the shooting phase and needs to stick to the road even through the editing and final curation stage. It needs to tell a story and needs to stick to the original intentions. With that said, every image needs to have elements of those intentions in them. These are the fundamental principles of a photojournalistic story.
While a story about an elderly shelter in the middle of the USA may be intensely personal story to you, it’s not going to make someone in a big city care necessarily. That’s not because of the fact that they’re too busy with their own lives, but it could also be as a result of the images that you produce. By taking on some sort of big social photography project, your intent is to make someone care about a social issue. So to that end, your job is to find a way to make someone care. Each project is very situational and has their own elements and creative challenges.
But even so, you’re also fighting hard against the theory that society wants to be entertained to death (no really, this is a big theory in communication studies.) So with that said, a fun personal project showing off your creative thought processes and commenting on something can also be appealing to these gatekeepers.
Why does any of this matter? There are loads of photographers out there everyday that want to get a message across about life and the way that it happens. For years now, photography has been used as an instrument of social change. But for the most part, photographers think too traditional and don’t find a way to tell a story in a brand new way–and that can help the most on top of, of course, finding a way to make someone actually care about and want to share your story.
After you get this new perspective, you’ll need to find a way to create photos that appeal to and elicit human emotions. If someone is simply just flipping through images instead of staring at them and internalizing them, then the images aren’t effective; and to that end you’ve failed in your photo project.
And now I get to the issue of the images in this story: years ago I wanted to showcase a set of images in a project called “The Blind Can See the Pain” about major economic disparities in NYC and the effects of America’s second economic recession after 9/11. But I failed. I didn’t show it to many people though I wanted it to go further. I also had issues with the rolls of Kodak BWCN 400 film, but that’s another story. While the images clearly show these people in bad condition and show lots of evidence of it all, it lacks the effectiveness of actually getting someone to care about the manner anymore than looking at the images for artistic enjoyment. It didn’t tell the story, I wasn’t close enough sometimes, and they were overall ineffective.
That’s how I screwed up: and if I pitched these to anyone they probably would never have run them.
See where I’m going here?