The following is based on information from a discussion between Magnum photographer David Hurn and Bill Jay (author of 15 books on the history and criticism of photography) in their book On Being a Photographer.
I found their discussion on the thought process for choosing a photography project very interesting and thought I’d share it with you. There is a lot of very good information in On Being and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.
Your first decision must be “what to photograph?”.
The photographer must have an intense curiosity, not just a passing visual influence, in the theme of the pictures. This curiosity leads to intense examination, reading, talking, research and many, many failed attempts over a long period of time.
Carry a notebook and during quiet times or as the though occurs to you, compile a list of anything that really interests you. In other words, write a list of subjects that fascinate you without regard to photography. What could inflame your passion and curiosity over a long period of time? Be as specific as possible. After you have exhausted the list, you can begin to cut it down by asking yourself these questions:
Is it visual? You can safely eliminate such fascinating (to you) topics as existential philosophy or the Old Testament or the existence of life on other planets.
Is it practical? You can cut out topics which are difficult or impossible to photograph at your convenience on a regular basis. For example, if I were a photographer of limited means living in, say, Denver, I would have to eliminate the topic of Japanese pagodas, at least as photography is concerned. Or I would cut out an interest in famous film stars – the subject must not only be practical but continually accessible.
Is it a subject about which I know enough? Eliminate those subjects about which you are ignorant, at least until you have conducted a good deal of research into the topic. For example, you are not contributing anything to the issue of urban poverty by wandering back streets and snatching pictures of derelicts in doorways. That’s exploitation, not exploration.
Is it interesting to others? This is a tricky one, but is worth asking yourself: if you have several remaining topics all of which are equally fascinating, which one is interesting to others? This is tricky only in that it ignores the issue of your intended audience, which might be a small, specialized one, and the issue of pandering to public appeal.
Make sure you take on a project that is containable, and can be completed within a reasonable period of time. Also the more precise the topic, the easier it is to conduct research. Let me give some general examples. If your list contains an interest such as ‘education’, make it ‘my life as a student at so-and-so campus’; ‘flowers’ becomes ‘plants that relate to architecture’; ‘portraits’ is reduced to ‘Cleveland sculptors in their studios’…
Why the pictures that run through this article? Well these are from one of the projects I am currently working on based on the approach given by the book. One of the themes that fascinates me is that of mortality and more specifically the way that we can leave a presence after our deaths. I had spotted several bunches of flowers and tributes left at the roadside near my home after a spate of fatal road traffic accidents. I went out early in the morning in spring last year and took pictures from three different sites (although the pictures here are from two sites). To continue to project I went out at the same date and time this year and shot from the same locations to see what, if any differences had occurred. I intend to continue this project for at least another year before I can put the images together in a short book. I feel that I could answer all four of the questions raised in project selection, it is visual, practical, I knew the locations well and, hopefully, it is interesting!