Make It Personal - Business Coach #5

Another Step Along the Path to Creating Unique Work

When you last heard from me, I wrote about how the process for creating unique work starts from within and by an understanding of one’s self as an individual. That may sound well and good, but the questions become, “Just how do I go about doing this? How does one take these abstract and sometimes messy thoughts and create a meaningful image from them?"

The answer lies right here under our noses. It’s something we all would like to do more of, but rarely find the time for. That something is personal work.

Before we go on, let’s be clear on what we’re talking about here. The personal work I’m referring to is not the fun shots you take at a wedding, it’s not the random photos you shoot with your iPhone, nor is it taking pretty pictures of your child, dog, cat or parakeet. Personal work is purpose driven work for which there is no client nor other external influence guiding the outcome. It is work where you are free to create and explore without consequence (other than your own satisfaction). 

Let’s dig into my definition here. First, personal work cannot be created for a client nor to fulfill an assignment. Whenever you’re creating work for a client, it’s impossible to have that complete creative freedom to explore and create work that speaks to your deepest desires and motivations. Second, personal work of the sort that I’m advocating is purpose-driven in that you’re seeking to express your vision of the world through the finished image (even if you’re not clear on your vision, you’re at least seeking it). Personal work is research and development for the creative mind.

More Than Snapshots
Now into this mix, there are also images that I refer to as snapshots: the pretty pictures of kids, dog, cat and parakeet. I differentiate snapshots from personal work because, to me, there is no deeper vision behind the snapshot. Family photos, travel images, photos with friends etc serve the purpose of casual documentation, not advancing your personal style. There’s an important corollary here though; snapshots can inform our personal work as we look at what we shoot and then decide to investigate further. 

For example, snapping family photos may lead to a personal project documenting individual family members. Or, in my case, taking photos with friends during a visit to the beach on the Fourth of July has led to a nearly decade long personal project that I’ve entitled “Life of the Party.” 

Personal Work in Action
Talking about this in the abstract is a bit challenging, so I’ll share with you an example of my own work that illustrates the points I’m trying to make here. The above image was taken by me several years ago as part of a personal project. I personally love this image and have received many compliments on it. It’s more than just a pretty photo though; it’s actually a deeply autobiographical image that speaks to my own upbringing and formative years.

The setting for this image, a midcentury suburban neighborhood is reflective of my childhood growing up in the cookie-cutter suburbs of Los Angeles. The flag and red, white and blue colors are reflective of the deeply patriotic atmosphere that was pervasive a the time. I attended Catholic school where any hint of female sexuality was discouraged and even denied. Yet, this woman’s look and pose consciously flaunts that notion. The plastic lawn to me symbolizes the desire for external perfection that I saw valued so highly by my neighbors.  

In creating this image, I directly drew from my own life experience. Someone who grew up in different circumstances would not even think to create a setting like this. Indeed, most people would drive right past this house without giving it a second look. Though I desired to create a pretty picture, my primary motivation was to explore the forces that define who I am today.

If this process sounds a bit messy and nebulous, it is. There’s no wand that I can wave nor even a set of clear instructions that I can share to tell you exactly what you need to know about yourself or how to bring it out. As we go forward, I’ll talk about how to get this internal dialogue going and then how to take it from an idea to a portfolio or client image. 

In the meantime, consider the moments and themes that made you the person you are today. How can you draw upon them to create images that speak to your uniqueness as an individual?

John Mireles
Photographer's Toolkit

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