Claudia Paul Committed to Shooting a Unique Portrait Weekly for a Year

All images by Claudia Paul. Used with permission.

“My personal trick to keep me on track was to use Facebook as a tool for accountability,” states photographer Claudia Paul about her Wednesday Portraits series. “I publicly announced the project and the goal to post a new portrait every Wednesday. This way I would feel like a fraud if I didn’t deliver.” Claudia Paul is a German artist working and residing in New York City as a commercial photographer. She frequently dedicates herself to non-profit work, and is always developing new personal projects independent of her paid client work. She created a year-long challenge for herself: create a new portrait every Wednesday. In the process, she developed a beautiful collection of images while exercising and strengthening her creative muscle and expanding her skills as an artist. Below we explore the project, Wednesday Portraits.

“I definitely had some ‘WTF can I possibly do this week’ moments.”

Phoblographer: What initially inspired this project for you? Where did the motivation for it come from, what made you feel compelled to take on a weekly project for a year?

CP: As silly as it sounds, but it was actually a New Year’s resolution – get off the computer and get out to shoot more! I had heard about people doing these “one image a day” kind of challenges and I felt that I would put too much pressure on myself trying to do that. Giving myself one week felt like it was more realistic. I wanted to challenge myself outside of my commercial work – it is so easy to just get lost in making a living and surviving in New York. Doing personal projects keeps your creative muscle going and I always find them rewarding.

 

“I remember getting a cute red point-and-shoot film camera in elementary school as a gift from my parents. I loved that thing.”

 

Phoblographer: A weekly, year-long project is a substantial commitment, and hard to anticipate/plan for. How did you maintain that commitment and keep yourself true to your resolution? Did you have any tricks/motivators that helped you push through on tougher days?

CP: It was tough at times, I’m not going to lie. However, I tried to be kind to myself and allowed for a “carte blanche” here and there if I was swamped with work or if scheduling with a specific subject just needed more time, etc. My personal trick to keep me on track was to use Facebook as a tool for accountability. I publicly announced the project and the goal to post a new portrait every Wednesday. This way I would feel like a fraud if I didn’t deliver.

Phoblographer: When trying to come up with new ways to approach something as time-honored as portraiture, how did you keep yourself inspired, and what did you do to avoid or get out of creative ruts?

CP: Part of the motivation for the project was to try some new approaches. My personal challenge in photography is in fact not always feeling creative. I think it’s a struggle for me since I have a perfectionist mindset and that sometimes stands in the way of being creative. With the Wednesday portraits, it felt like it came easy for the most part. Each subject had such a different story and each environment forced me to think on the spot to come up with a great photo.

Phoblographer: How did you find the subjects for your project? Were they people you knew, or was part of this self-initiated challenge finding new people to photograph outside your personal circle? If the latter, what was your thought process behind that choice, and how did you find your subjects?

CP: A lot of times I start personal projects with my personal circle, there is mutual trust and it’s just easier to convince people to participate. Once I started, my subjects would often suggest someone from their circle who they thought might be a great fit. I made my decisions based on how interesting I found the person to be, sometimes they would have a great look or a compelling story.

Phoblographer: Did you pre-conceptualize portions of the project, or was that a ‘figure-it-out’ part of the day-of element? Were you pre-planning at all, or each Wednesday was, “What the hell do I do this week?”

CP: Both!! I definitely had some “WTF can I possibly do this week” moments. With some subjects, I pre-planned and had a very specific idea of where and how I’d like to photograph them based on their story. Others I just met with and figured it out there and then. I often went to their neighborhood/home since I felt like it made more sense from a storytelling aspect.

“I made my decisions based on how interesting I found the person to be, sometimes they would have a great look or a compelling story.”

Phoblographer: How did you approach the process of lighting this project? Some feel all-natural light, others are clearly more intentionally styled. What determined how you decided to approach this varying aspect?

CP: Very true. It is a mixed bag. For the most part, when I went on location I would try to find interesting existing light. Partially to challenge myself but also to make the whole process more sustainable. Lugging a lot of equipment and lights around for a personal project once a week is just more exhausting. I did shoot a few portraits in a more studio-like set up when I felt inspired to light them in a certain way. And because this was a personal exercise, I didn’t feel like I had to follow the same style/aesthetic each week. The images were supposed to exist in a series but not necessarily connected if that makes sense.

Phoblographer: What are some of your favorite images from the project, and what makes them hold that place for you? Are there certain portraits you personally connect more with, and if so, why?

CP: I’m attached to a few of them. To be honest, I hold a special place for each of the photos from the series. But of course some always stand out, and this might change over time as well.

  • Gerri (who’s an incredible artist) just blew me away with how she was able to drop in and connect deeply with the camera. As an artist, she understood my vision right away.
  • Angelo is a fellow photographer who beautifully documented his late wife’s battle with breast cancer. I followed his work and was so moved by it. So I took a chance and reached out to him to see if he’d let me photograph him. He said yes and we became friends. I just loved his positive energy even after going through so much hardship.
  • Angel worked at a local supermarket at the time. I was intrigued by his personality, pride, and dedication to his work. He opened up to me and the camera immediately.

Phoblographer: There’s a consistent thread of neutrality throughout the series; no one is looking particularly happy or sad, no smiles or frowns. Clearly, it’s not coincidental. What was the motivation and intention behind this commonality? What did you do to help your subjects get there (since most people feel compelled to smile in front of a camera)?

CP: If it’s in my control, I generally love photographing people in a more serious way rather than smiling. I always find that there is more depth, more character, more soul when a person drops in and doesn’t try to look pretty by smiling. It wasn’t too hard to get people to do this – I usually have a conversation with my subjects about what I am looking for. And for most, it’s actually relaxing to not have to think about posing and just being their true self in front of the camera.

Phoblographer: Most of the portraits are color, but a handful of them are black and white. How did you determine where and when you wanted to include or remove the color?

CP: I usually decide that once I am shooting. Some scenes and characters just make more sense to me in Black/White. You simplify the scene, remove distractions, focus attention.

Phoblographer: How did you determine the locations for each of these portraits?

CP: I touched upon that in your earlier question. I wanted to make it easy for my subjects since I very much value and respect their time and willingness to support my personal project. So, for the most part, I had a chat with them about their neighborhood to see if they have any favorite places there that they feel connected to. For some subjects I chose their workplace to tell the story. For some I suggested a place based on a hobby/passion they had.

“It’s all about people for me. I need the human connection, interaction, exchange. Really, my love for people was the reason to pursue photography.”

Phoblographer: How did photography find its way into your life?

CP: I was one of those early starters I guess. I remember getting a cute red point-and-shoot film camera in elementary school as a gift from my parents. I loved that thing. Spending a year in NYC after graduating from high school in Germany really made me understand that photography is more than just a hobby for me. That kind of planted the seed that I could pursue this as a career.

Phoblographer: Was there anything you wanted to convey with this project, or was it a simple, beautiful demonstration of a self-motivated personal project?

CP: It really was an exercise – I didn’t know where it would take me. I am happy though that it let me create some portraits I feel very connected to and proud of.

Phoblographer: Why portraits, specifically? Why not landscapes, still-lifes, etc.? I’m curious what made you select this particular focus.

CP: It’s all about people for me. I need the human connection, interaction, exchange. Really, my love for people was the reason to pursue photography. I didn’t know this when I was younger, but now it is pretty clear to me. I just don’t have the same feeling when I photograph “things”.

Phoblographer: What did you ultimately learn or discover through creating this project, both about other people and yourself?

CP: I learned that I can always find the time to create something, even if I feel I am too busy. I found that the more I use my creative muscle, the easier it gets.
From the people I photographed, I learned that we all have a longing to be seen and heard as who we really are. I am very thankful to everyone who participated in my project and had the courage to be themselves in front of my camera.