Project thinking

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From Paradise Lost – the former forefront of military hardware in old age and thinking about better days

It is quite common to hear a photographer or artist talking about work on ‘x project’ or ‘y project’ – in practical terms, it means that images are being made to fulfil a certain objective or idea. For the longest time I’d stayed away from doing this because I felt frustrated at the limitations it would impose at the least expected of times. I also didn’t feel that I had the time to commit to pursuit of a single idea. But at some point in 2013, that all changed for me for various reasons. Outside commercial work, I now find myself working in a few major themes.

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From The Disorientation of Night – when false colours and odd shadows confuse us and make things other than what they seem during daytime

I think thinking in terms of projects is useful at two stages in one’s creative evolution: 2 and 4. In the very early stages, it’s necessary to impose some constraints to build the discipline of curation: you can, and want to take photographs of everything, but not all of them will ‘work’. By imposing a simple limitation around theme or subject, a photographer is forced to more extensively explore that theme before moving on. This fosters creativity, assuming you have some degree of discipline: once you run out of ‘common’ angles and perspectives, you have to find new ones.

One of two things can happen now: the photographer stays in stage 2, and lands up doing the same with other subjects; or the photographer develops their skill set and moves to stage 3. Recall this is the point at which they have enough control to actually produce the intended images; the only way to develop that skill is shoot, and shoot plenty. Experimentation is critical to development because it establishes boundaries and workflow and an understanding of the limitations of one’s own ability and one’s own equipment. Stage 3 is initially more about developing technique and control than creativity; without it, it’s impossible to express one’s ideas fully. It therefore doesn’t make so much sense to impose the curative limitations of a project until 3b or 4.

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From Only The Clouds Are Truly Free – a tribute to wistfulness, escapism, and the green grass on the other side (or sky)

Stage 4 photographers have the opposite problem: no issues whatsoever with execution, but a problem of what to execute: if you can see the world with subject-independence and decomposed into pure color and shape, there are almost too many photographic opportunities to work with. The result is a bit of everything and a lack of focus. Conversely, it’s also possible to be quite jaded after 3b: it’s easy to fall into the trap of making the same kinds of images you’ve made before, even when you are consciously trying to avoid it. I have the same problem occasionally: after framing up, I’ll realise that I’ve made an image with identical structure (and sometimes even identical subjects, if there is a long interval between viewings) to one or several I’ve made before.

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Forest IV – a large Ultraprint series using the transparency of resolution to challenge the boundaries between image and reality and place the viewer in the forest

There are two choices at this point: keep going, and make similar images, or try to compose differently. The latter is much more difficult, and may easily result in no image at all. The former only makes sense if there is something unique about the new image that is not in some way already represented by the previous ones. If it sounds like the beginnings of a project, that’s because it is: but in reverse to the conventional order. Instead of starting with an idea before shooting, we are curating an idea from the material already shot – or properly recognising one that was up to this point present only in our subconscious.

The curation proces plays a critical role in execution of a successful project: one needs not just a clear definition of the underlying theme or idea behind a project, but also the ability to objectively assess whether or not an image conveys the intended ideas. Sometimes, this may not be evident until well after the normal workflow has ended. The challenge of curation is always trying to balance objectivity and emotional involvement: if one is too close to the action, it is difficult to select a strong set that isn’t heavily personally biased. If one is too objective, the personality may disappear.

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From Dreamscape – clouds are like daydreams

Though it may appear that longevity of an image is a greater consideration for ‘serious’ work, I’d actually argue that it is a consequence of such tight curation rather than a prerequisite. Work that is not thoroughly vetted cannot last because the additional audience and detachment brought on by time will result in more of the work’s flaws being exposed. As always, the best form of curation is both to firstly decide if the images are worthy of being printed, then leaving them hung on a wall (a real luxury of space) for a long time – I’ve personally seen my preference shift away from the ones of immediate impact (but less encouraging of contemplation) after just a few weeks.

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From The Idea of Man – observations on human nature

Each image used to illustrate this essay are from personal projects that I’ve been developing mostly for several years. In some cases, the projects were developed from ideas that were seen in the field and then ‘stuck’ some time later – The Idea of Man, Verticality and Dreamscape are of this category. Others were conceived first and then executed – Forest and Paradise Lost. Others still are in the infant stage – Only The Clouds Are Truly Free for instance – they are impossible to stage and suitable conditions are so fleeting that I may make one image a year. However, having the ideas circulating when I shoot makes my mind consciously aware and looking out for them in the field – even if I happen to be shooting something else at the time.

Given the long gestation period of some projects, it makes sense to show an image or two along the way to gauge audience reaction – and to see if you have missed something that might make for a stronger image. I wouldn’t show the whole set piecemeal because that obvious diminishes the impact of the series when you do eventually exhibit or present, not to mention potential value to galleries or buyers. This brings me to another important consideration: the images should have a presentation mode already clear before you start shooting. For obvious reasons, if the output is not considered – you may well lack the type of material you need (e.g. web showing is very different from large print). There is a difference betweens the photoessays I present on this site (I would consider these mini-projects) and the kind of thing I pitch to galleries.

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Verticality XLV – intended to be exhibited large and above head height to retain the feeling of individual insignificance against what man built

I actually think the toughest part of project work is knowing when to say ‘it’s done’. There is a point where there are enough images to make a presentation with a strongly coherent theme and outlook, there is a point when you have captured all you think you need to fully embody the idea (if that exists for your given project) and there is a point beyond which you cannot shoot anymore – you’re tapped out. I think working til the last level is both difficult and not recommended; the second cut point is difficult because I don’t think there’s a clear line for most projects that do not have fixed shot lists, and the first limit is probably the bare minimum. I doubt I will ever reach even the second limit for my own projects; my restrictions are very much time and budget dictated. But I suppose that’s one of the positive things about photography in a nutshell: the limits are whatever you choose to set. MT

Curation is covered in further detail as part of Photoshop Workflow II.


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  1. From Paradise lost…. the plane reminds you on Sam, the old eagle from the muppets show -with his negative vibes, doesn´t it? 😉
    You have a pretty good eye for those things…

  2. I am still in phase 1, tentatively pushing at phase 2. Part of what holds me back may be that I am doing mostly nature photography, and tend to do “phase 1 projects” – portraits of sites, ecologies, organisms – in which aesthetic considerations often take second place to didactic considerations (demonstration of organism in its ecologic niche). I do my best to make the photos attractive and to have them convey a “point” in a straightforward manner, but this tends to result in simplified “guidebook” images without much emotional content. “Please note the substantial length of the bumblebee’s mandible that allows it to successfully access a wide range of wildflower nectar-containing structures and thus pollinate a large number of species” – didactic! Plus, a big part of my motivation for nature photography is to learn more about the subjects and teach what I learn about the subjects to other nature lovers – photography as tool, not art. I think that finding and implementing projects that are based on aesthetic and emotional content / reaction to a subject is a harder task by far than “make it look good, and show the pertinent detail”.

    • I don’t think there’s any other way to do what you’re trying to do, though. If you start introducing emotional elements then it becomes impossible to be objective, and that’s no longer scientific…

      • Yes, my visual training for the past 31 years has been scientific in mode, because I am a pathologist. Pattern recognition and disease classification are the basics of my day job. And my beloved day lenses are called “objectives”, generally more expensive than usual camera lenses, though much much smaller (however, still attached to a CCD camera sensor at the end of a split prism on the microscope, for teaching photos). My original studio macro photography experience has been in photographing surgically removed tissue for didactic purposes and for medical publication. So, contemplating a non-didactic project is working in an unaccustomed mode. At the same time, I am very attracted to surreal constructed images (Uelsmann) and “straight” abstracts (eg, that selection above from your Disorientation of Night; distorted reflections, macro “what-is-it” shots, etc).

        • I can’t help but think there’s a whole creative/artistic universe to explore in the micro world too – the Nikon microscopy awards helped that too…

  3. René Sterental says:

    Thanks for this series of articles, Ming. Very thought provoking and always resonating with what I’m trying to figure out in my life and my photography. I had never thought about the concept of a personal photo project in a rational way, and when I was asked to do one for a local workshop/club I got paralyzed. “You think too much” I was told. Then, after a year of “thinking about it”, I read your essay and wow! I get it, couldn’t articulate it, didn’t have enough time to figure it out on my own, but that’s where I really appreciate the thoughtfulness you bring with your unique way to look at photography and life. Thank you for all the work and effort you put into it, some may not appreciate it, it may not always be loudly appreciated, but you are indeed making a difference for some of us. Have you ever thought of compiling these deeper and thought provoking essays in book form?

    I think I’m feeling ready to tackle my projects. And not be paralyzed anymore.

    • Thanks Rene.

      Book – yes, but it would be a labor of love and completely uneconomical to produce. Perhaps an ebook at some point…

      • Exactly. That what I’ve always thought you should do and an e-book is probably the best way theses days. Knowing how busy your life is though I can only see it coming together if you create it by selectively editing a compilation of existing work with perhaps an indexed introduction that pulls all the material together 🙂

  4. You’re still a race car, somewhere way ahead in the distance! (But then again, the only pitch I’m likely to make to a gallery is that its ok to let my toddler in, she won’t be any trouble. Promise.)

    Off the back of your blog, I am doing my own project though, have been for a few months now (need to get back to it actually). It’s actually been really liberating, to impose a self restriction, if that makes any kind of sense?

    I hope you know how much you help people Ming (and I say that from a hobbyist with no delusions of grandeur point of view). I really do.

    • Thanks, but I don’t honestly know about that. I feel as though I’m writing about things very few people find interesting at times (this article being one of them, judging by the number of responses).

      Self-restriction is liberating because it forces you to get creative in situations where you might otherwise have gotten lazy – e.g. zooming with your lens, instead of physically moving and recomposing. It also forces you to ignore all the ‘what-ifs’ and concentrate on what you can get.

      • Well, if you’ll pardon my indulgence..

        I find you interesting and helpful because of what you articulate.

        There’s plenty of places to learn how to use a camera.

        imHo a person can’t really be taught what to take shots of unless their reason for shooting is pretty concise and tight (watch shots maybe, or moon shots etc), they can be spoon fed compositional tips etc and hopefully learn to run with it… But a person needs to put their own ideas into practice.

        So with photography we get this fantastic juxtaposition… All technical with the tools, but all aesthetic with the output.

        For me… You put the technical into the mind set that leads to the aesthetics, that’s where the help comes from, and you do so without sounding like a mystic or a guru, and where’s I think ultimately the pros that follow you can take the biggest profit (I’m not talking financially) the fact it can be applied at all levels is where your rhetoric (for want of a better word, it’s late here) really comes into its own.

        My 1st (& so far only) project helped me, because I forbid myself from taking any shots that didn’t fit my brief, and my brief centered around mood. So I still had the amateur love of looking for shots to take, but it tied together in my brain the technical part and the aesthetic parts of photography.

        Erm… My project… It’s all still amatuer hour stuff though, I don’t want anyone reading this and thinking that I think I turn out anything wonderful!!

        • Perhaps it’s because the image has always been the end goal for me; everything else – technique and hardware – are just tools, and only useful if properly deployed. If not, they’re more likely to be a hinderance than anything. Having a specific direction/idea – ‘a project’ – is a good way to focus one’s curation and creative problem solving, I suppose. But if the image doesn’t come first, or the gear obsession rules…then I suppose I can be interpreted the wrong way, too.

      • This article is very interesting. I really enjoy the insights. – Eric

  5. Kristian Wannebo says:

    By the way,
    I find “From The Disorientation of Night” an interesting example of creative perspective correction.
    ( – thinking of your article on that subject.)

    Necessary for the composition to work.
    And at the same time just enough to give a feeling of the buildings becoming wider towards the top which very much (I think) supports the “Disorientation”!

    • They’re actually the same width the whole way through; I think the ‘wider at the top’ perception is because the relative luminance relationship of top/bottom has changed, and in turn created an optical illusion based on visual weight…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        The “wider at the top” perception I mean is just the effect of perspective.
        ( The way the images of in reality horizontal lines converge to the right means that the bottom part of the image is at eye level and that I’m looking a bit upwards, and the eye – and mind – then expects the images of vertical lines to converge upwards, but here they are all parallell to the edges of the photo – as they would be with an unshifted lens if the building in reality was widening a little upwards. )

        But I don’t doubt your explanation, that effect probably enhances the effect of the “unexpected” verticalness of the vertical lines.

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Thanks for another of your spot on summings-up!

    And I find all the photos great, both individually and as part of your mentioned projects.

    They might even all be part of a special project – they all contain the sky or reflections of it, all the time in new contexts all related to man…
    ( All? Also the open window on the left in “From The Disorientation of Night”?)

    • Thanks. I don’t see how this particular group of images hangs together – they were all executed with very different ideas in mind at the time of capture, so I suppose I’m biased by associating them with a certain concept to begin with…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        No, not biased !

        My association is probably a bit too philosofical…
        Looking through the photos I was just a bit jolted by the way the sky managed to make itself known in all the images, somehow as a reminder even when we try to avoid it or hide from it or just take it for granted.

        But I can’t imagine how to make a collection to show the idea of the sky (or nature) penetrating all “unnatural” things we do, or of it illuminating our confusion of living both in nature and in our own artificial world … we usually take it too much for granted to do more than notice it.

  7. Seems to me this article and your similar one on the four stages also resonates with research work like Dreyfuss’ Five Stage Model of Skill Acquisition ( and the more popular Conscious Competence Matrix Model ( ) and the amusing but still relevant diagram popularised by John Fisher ( ) – all of which can leave one scratching one’s head. Ming helps by making it relevant to our photographic aspirational journey. Good Stuff.

  8. Excellent article, really thought provoking. I think many projects don’t end, one either chooses to end them or put them on pause. Thank you for posting this. Like others, I’m sure I will return to it again.

    • Good point: it’s actually far harder to define an end point to a project than it appears, especially if you’re not documenting something that has a natural lifespan like an event. I’m not sure I have an answer to when a project is ‘done’, other than either when you feel you’ve covered all possible interpretations, or perhaps when you run out of variations to photograph.

  9. Interesting article… This one drew me back to The Four Stages, which took me back to Defining Style.
    All of them tend to guide my eye towards me and my photography.
    Always a pleasure!

  10. Concept, execution, curation, and living with the work. Oh the luxury of having wall space!!! And good light!

  11. A very important contribution indeed, as the contributions on curating etc. as well. How to make photographs, technically seen, you can learn in many places. The big idea behind it, the structures, the message, these are the things, where our reflections should go. And here, your articles are very, very helpful. Thank you very much!

    • You’re welcome. The challenge isn’t so much how to execute or make the photograph as what you want the photograph to say in the first place – and here the concept of the project gives the body of work some overall focus…

  12. John Nicholson says:

    I’m saving this for further reflection. Helps me to identify where I’m at in my own work in relation to creativity and “stuckness”. Thanks for your clarity and refreshment!


  1. […] probably useful to discuss the creative process, because it’ll make a good follow on to this post on projects in general and because I have honestly no idea if or when I’ll ever be able to complete this set. The […]

  2. […] on from the previous articles on curation and how to approach a project, I thought I’d conclude with a slightly different look at the same thing: the portfolio. We […]

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