PERSONAL PROJECTS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF STAYING CREATIVE

Hi, Kersten here. You may not know me (yet), unless you’re one of the tens of people who listen to my podcast, the Camera Shake Podcast, in which case – well done! Nice to meet you!

Now, I mention this not to callously promote my ‘cast but because it’s strangely relevant to today’s topic: Personal Projects and the Importance of Staying Creative.

In this blog, I’ll be telling you about two of my own projects which have both changed my creative thinking, broadened my horizons as a photographer and helped me overcome one of the most challenging times of my life.

HEADS UP

Ok, let me explain. I live in the UK and the past 18 months have been, shall we say, challenging. As if you didn’t know already, there’s been a global pandemic and our government decided to shut down the country completely. 

But let’s roll back a few months. In late 2019, when life still seemed normal and the idea of a global virus pandemic was largely part of science fiction lore, I was in the process of updating my website and as such needed a new headshot for the ‘About’ page. I wanted to create a casual, yet stylish self portrait, that showed that I was serious but didn’t take myself too seriously. Thinking up a number of different scenarios I decided on a particular style of image and went to work.

What was needed was some kind of table top, beauty lighting and a neutral black backdrop. My table didn’t make the grade, looking dull and uninspiring. However, some time earlier I had come across a wooden oak board with an interesting grain and just the right amount of gritty ruggedness around the edges. I had previously used it as a backdrop for a range of different images, from flat lays to YouTube thumbnails and it had always delivered the goods. This, I gathered, was going to be perfect as a table top. Add a few props to illustrate what I’m all about (like a camera because no-one, absolutely no-one could guess that I’m a photographer, right?) and Bob’s your uncle.

So I set up the lights, installed the backdrop and got into position. Taking elaborate selfies using anything other than a cell phone turned out to be more complicated than it needed to be. Firstly, the shutter had to be controlled remotely with several seconds of delay so I could drop the thing and act natural. Next, some immediate feedback was required, which made tethering essential. But once the Gremlins had been eliminated, I was ready to get started. I tried out a range of different poses and all was going well. All I had to do was hit the remote, drop the thing like a hot bun, get into position and 2 seconds later – flash bang wallop. Shooting tethered and being able to see the images coming through on a laptop screen really helped dialling in the posing. It all seemed to go well until I pressed the remote, got distracted by something and the camera fired, catching me by surprise in mid move, hands flailing with a not-so-flattering deer in the headlights expression on my face. 

This, I thought, wasn’t going to make it as my profile picture. But on closer inspection, the shot had something. Not the serious, Clint Eastwood-esque cool of the professional I wanted to convey of course, but rather the depiction of a bumbling idiot, too dense to take his own passport photo and utterly bewildered by his own reflection in the water. 

Loved it. 

My wife, always happy to critique my latest creations, agreed that this outtake represented my personality much better than any serious portrait ever could. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still managed to create an image for the ‘About’ page – but I kept thinking about this absurd and comical, yet slightly bemusing mishap of a photograph. It was engaging and immediately made me want to see more. How much fun would it be to photograph other people like this? And who would willingly subject themselves to complete and utter photographic ridicule? Well, all of you who have kids will know what happened next.

And thus, the idea for a personal project was born. Several beverages later I had come to the conclusion that what needed to be done was to create a triptych, or series, of three images in which the subject interacts with personal objects of their own choice. We all own things that are dear to us, maybe for some sentimental reason or another or just because it exemplifies our character, personality or career choice. Also, this would give me plenty of ammunition for conversation and a chance to get to know the subject a little better, essential when pushing the envelope toward the farcical, especially when you’re photographing people who are not used to having a massive lens stuck in their face. 

I called it ‘Three Heads in a Row’ and seeing that Instagram’s grid allows for three posts in a single row, it made for the perfect platform to display the images. Something I loved and still love about this project was the connection you’re able to establish between photographer and model. 

This was fast becoming my number one personal project for 2019/2020. Little did I know.

And then…Covid happened. 

SHAKING THINGS UP

I remember the day well, back in late March 2020. The phone rang and one of my shoots got cancelled. It rang again and another shoot bit the dust. By that evening I was looking at a completely clear diary for the next 4 months. After the initial shock, panic and a little self loathing I thought it was time to drown my sorrows with a healthy dose of Netflix. To top things off, Disney+ had just launched and I decided to use my new found free time wisely, investing into detailed research of Marvel’s cinematic universe. 27 movies (yes, I did the complete Marvel movie marathon) and several discussions about whether Ant-Man could kick Thor’s butt in a bar brawl later, I knew something had to change. Drastically.

I needed to do something. Flex the creative muscle, wreck that creative brain and hone da skillz.

But what? I knew I didn’t want to shoot flowers. Nothing against flowers but I love the chit chat during a portrait shoot and flowers are notoriously bad at keeping up with the conversation. Animals too, I thought, were unreliable. They never show up when you want them to, neither do they hold still ever and if my dog is anything to go by, are utterly disinterested in becoming the subject of one’s creative endeavours.

If it was ever time to call a friend, this was it. My friend and frequent collaborator Nick Kirby was, unbeknownst to me, experiencing the pandemic in a similar manner. A videographer by trade and living on his own, he was stuck in his apartment during lockdown and it was starting to get to him. We’d spend hours every day on the phone or FaceTime discussing the latest photographic kit, pouring over new camera releases or debating the ins and outs of lighting diagrams.

That Friday afternoon we concluded that what we needed was a personal project to get our teeth into. Something that would keep us busy and keep our minds off the impending doom and gloom our news outlets were feeding us on a daily basis. 

Something like…a podcast.

Surely there would be other nerds out there, eager to geek out over anything from megapixels to golden ratios? But where to start? We knew nothing about the weird and wonderful world of independent broadcasting. Where do podcasts even live? We spent the next few hours deliberating and problem solving, but every time one solution was found, another issue arose. Several hours later and Nick, by far the more organised of the two of us, was probably ready to tear his hair out. If we wanted to avoid dying the slow death of paralysis by analysis we had to stop overthinking and take action. Hence we decided that 4pm on Monday afternoon was a good a time as any to record our first episode. We would have to figure it out along the way and get better at doing it over time.

That Monday, the Camera Shake Photography Podcast was born. We called the first episode ‘Done is better than perfect’ because sometimes, you just have to get started. Don’t get me wrong, planning ain’t a bad thing. But it’s very easy to get dragged down one rabbit hole after another trying to figure things out, never to get your project off the ground, never to take the first step. 

As I write this, we’re 64 episodes in. That’s 64 weeks with a structure, record on a Monday, release on a Thursday. It’s also 64 weeks since this whole pandemic thing started.

It’s helped us stay sane, creative and productive during a time when everything else seemed to have stopped. It’s made us better photographers, not only because of the research we have to put in every week but mainly by talking to other photographers on the show. Our guests have been amazing in offering us and our listeners their insights, know-how and the take aways have been huge. We’ve learned a ton, had wonderful discussions and realised that although we’re all facing the same thing at this difficult time, we can learn from each other and benefit from each others’ experiences.

And it’s exactly that outcome that drives us on to making more episodes.

Now, why am I telling you all this? Because personal projects are the key to our growth as picture takers. They allow us to figure things out with our finger on the button. Want to learn how to do Rembrandt cross lighting like Joel Grimes or take headshots like Peter Hurley? You can watch all the videos or read all the books you want – but there’s nothing like getting behind the camera, setting up some lights, moving stands around, experimenting with apertures, lighting ratios and modifiers until you nail it. Can I learn the theory behind taking great landscape pictures? Probably, but nothing does it quite like swinging your butt out of bed in the dead of night, dragging your sorry self into the middle of a field at 4am and waiting for sunrise. 

The penny really dropped for me when during one episode, Joel told me that he had been doing a personal project a week for the last 40 years. Still wonder why he’s as good as he is? When you look at his portfolio, you quickly realise the range of skills at play here. From technical command over lighting, expertly posed subjects, superb post production to the influences of the great painters of the past, it’s all there. The creative thought, the technical proficiency and the flawless execution. All built over time, one personal project at a time.

We’re not growing as creatives by doing the same thing over and over. We just get better at doing the same thing.

If growing as a creative is your thing or if broadening your horizon and skillset is what you strive for then finding personal projects to pursue is the key.

There are plenty of websites that offer advice on ideas for personal projects and it’s worth having a read. But look out, because sometimes the initial spark may come from a happy accident, like the ‘Three Heads in a Row’ project or are born out of necessity, like the Camera Shake Podcast. 

Personal projects however, can also serve another, yet equally important purpose. As photographers we know that an image can speak a thousand words and if you have an important message to convey, choosing a personal project could just be the perfect vehicle to bring it to your audience’s attention.

There are two projects of this kind I like to mention here, of which I have learned through talking to two very special guests on the show in the past year, Glyn Dewis and Alex Benyon.

Glyn’s 39-45 Project is a timeless portrait series of surviving World War 2 veterans and is aimed at honouring and remembering those brave men that fought for our freedom, as well as educating the current and future younger generations of those who served, survived and were lost.

Alex Benyon’s Portraits of Mental Health is an ongoing mental health awareness photography project with the aim to end the stigma attached to mental health issues by sharing inspirational stories and portraying the real people behind the lens.

Both of these combine the creative visions of their makers with a thought provoking message that makes us stop and reflect. I highly suggest you check them out, be inspired, and let me know what you think.

Of course, personal projects require time, commitment and occasionally even financial contribution. Why should we, as professionals, invest the time and potentially money into projects that offer little to no monetary return? I think that investing in yourself can never be a bad thing. Surely, the more you sow, the more you will reap in the future and enhancing your skills in one area can only benefit your work in another. In the long run, it will make you a better photographer.

And as always, if you have any idea for personal projects or want to let me know of work you have already undertaken I’d be thrilled for you to get in touch.

You can see more of Kersten’s work on KerstenLuts.com, check out his podcast, Camera Shake, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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