Guest Blog: Travel Documentary Photographer Asher Svidensky
The Rise Of The Photography Project
I can still remember that day back in 2013 when I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I was in my early 20’s working a job I didn’t like, living a lifestyle that didn’t suit me and feeling like I would never get to fulfill my dreams and ambitions. But it was out of that dark place in my life that I took probably the most important and somewhat reckless decision I had ever made – I threw up my hands and said: “The hell with it!”
Almost overnight, I started selling everything I had except for my camera gear and a few sets of clothes, and bought a one-way ticket to Asia. I wanted to set myself off on a unique journey, hoping to find a new path in life and follow my childhood dream of becoming a world-traveling cultural and documentary photographer.
While this might sound cool, or even fun for some of you, this decision was absolutely terrifying for me. I didn’t know what to expect, what might happen, or if this huge risk I took would even pay off in the end. But when I look back at it today, I know that this journey single-handedly started my current career as a full-time photographer. These days I’m working on my own book, have had my images featured in National Geographic, and have even had the privilege of sharing my experiences from the amazing stages of TEDx and Oxford University.
Now while I’m very proud of what I do, I’m not here to boast. What I am actually hoping to do in this blog post is to share with you my “Secret Weapon.” A secret which I use all the time in my own photographic work and, hopefully, you’ll be able to use it for yourself as well! It will help you feel more fulfilled from your photography, getting your images noticed, and, at the very core of things, help you take an extra step towards becoming a better photographer. So… Are you ready??
First, we need to understand that in our modern, and highly digitalized world, photography is literally everywhere. Every minute there are over 200,000 never before seen new images shared online – and those are only the numbers from Facebook! Meaning there are way more new images shared on Instagram, Flickr, and the seemingly endless photography websites and forums out there.
These are ridiculous amounts of photographers trying to get their work noticed, recognized and published. If you wish to give your photographs a chance to stand out in this overflowing ocean of images, you need to do more than just make “pretty images.” What you want to do is to start delving into the world of creating your own personal photography project – and that is the secret weapon I’m talking about.
Now, at this point, I know some of you are either super hyped and ready to take on this challenge, but, on the other side, many of you are thinking “This looks like way too much work and, even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t have the time or means to work on a photography project of my own.” All I ask of you is that before you make up your mind, please allow me to give you 3 reasons why I think you should set aside the habit of occasionally strolling around with a camera and start dedicating your time to working on a personal photography project.
Take Better Advantage Of Your Time And Efforts
For the majority of us, the most important resource in our photography is time. Those of us who are amateur or aspiring photographers can often only dedicate a few hours a week for their passion of photography, and those of us who are professional photographers end up clearing maybe a few weeks out of the year to invest in our own personal work and portfolio. This means that when we finally have free time to do whatever we like, we should use this opportunity for its maximum potential. Unfortunately, in my eyes, one of the best ways to waste that precious time is by aimlessly wandering around, randomly snapping images and hoping something special will come out of it.
When you are working on a photography project, you have a set goal. You are following a theme which is leading and shaping your work as a photographer. This means that, once you have chosen your project’s topic, it becomes much easier for you to recognize in what you should invest the time, energy, and budget that are available to you in a more potent way. This helps you focus mainly on getting the best images and story for the series. This is a highly effective way to make sure you don’t waste your time on fruitless endeavors.
I can easily speak from my own experience. This focus and mindset were extremely helpful for me while I was working on my very first photography project – The Eagle Huntress. Only after I decided what would be the topic of my photographic work in west Mongolia (which was the future generation of eagle hunters), did I manage to dedicate all of my resources to both learning more about the local culture and getting the best images for my photography project; the same images which ultimately ended up catching attention in the world media and helped jumpstart my career.
The Greats Have Always Done It
There is a saying from Bernard of Chartres which, in my opinion, is a great piece of advice for anyone who deals with a creative art such as photography. It goes like this:
“If I have seen further, it was by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”-Bernard of Chartres
When it comes to the topic of asking yourself “Should I start doing photography projects?” in order to find your answer, all you need to do is to look at the work of great photographers from the past and many of the industry leaders today.
A very good example can come from the work of, probably the greatest master of street photography, the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson, who dedicated almost his entire career working on one project which was the city of Paris. Other great photographers, whose work is composed mostly of personal projects, would include photographers like Annie Leibovitz with her beautiful series, ‘Women Who Led,” or Sebastiao Salgado with his fine art book, “Genesis.” And if you wish to look at more modern photographers, who are working in the industry today, check out the work of Jimmy Nelson’s ongoing project “Before They Pass Away,” Brandon Stanton’s internet sensation “Humans of New York,” and the talented Von Wong, who has recently focused his unique talent of creating breathtaking visuals to work on photography projects revolving around waste and its effect on our environment.
Even Steve McCurry, who is one of my personal heroes, managed to photograph his iconic portrait “The Afghan Girl” only through his long term photography project on the Afghan rebels during the ’80s. While the general public might only care for the final famous portrait, we as photographers need to see beyond that. We must understand that it was the process of working on a photography project, a photographer focusing his full attention and working on a specific topic, that had led McCurry to capture probably one of the most well-known images in history.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that photography projects are the only way for making great photographs. But I am saying that it most definitely seems to be a great path to them. A path which many great photographers explore.
It’s One Of The Best Ways To Give You An Edge As A Photographer
As a rule of thumb, photography projects tend to flourish the more you work on them. Once you choose your topic of interest and start working on your project, your first series of images won’t necessarily be any better than anyone else’s. But as we said before, once you’ve decided to invest most of your time and efforts specifically into your project, you will find yourself returning to your subject matter again and again – digging deeper, exploring more unique photographic opportunities and pushing yourself beyond the edges of your comfort zone as a photographer and storyteller.
Many styles of photography can benefit from this! Landscape photographers would be encouraged to explore a more unique viewpoint. This would help them to stray away from the easy to get and well-known spots, exploring the horizon for unique angles of their own which many others have either missed or didn’t bother to look for. Documentary photographers, such as myself, could invest more time into building a deeper personal relationship with the people they photograph – resulting in a better understanding of the culture they meet and even gaining better access to the lives they document.
This mindset of coming back to the same topic, again and again, looking for better photographs, will push you to find unique visuals which have a better chance to stand out and catch attention wherever you may share them. This edge can be the difference between someone investing time out of their day to check out your work or simply stay in their daily routines until something unique comes along and grabs their attention.
As we arrive at the end of this blog post, if you do end up deciding to take on my challenge and start working on a photography project of your own, let me give you another word of advice… You don’t have to start big – you just need to start.
No one is asking you to fly halfway across the world to reach deep into the Amazon forests, or the high Himalayan mountains, integrate yourself with isolated communities and create one of the most unique photography projects ever seen. While you might decide to do something like that in the future, you can start slow and small. In order to start, all you need to do is to simply choose a subject that truly interests you. Something that you would like to learn more about and using your camera, go ahead and explore it. If you do, I can guarantee that by doing a photography project on something you like, you will improve significantly as a photographer and the process will be one of the most rewarding photographic experiences you’ve ever had.
And for those of you who still remain undecided, working on photography projects has allowed me to follow my childhood dreams and become a full time traveling photographer – What is the worst that can happen to you for trying it?
If you want to learn more about doing your own photography projects and starting to get your work published – you should check out my free Ebook “Making a Photo Story.”