There is great satisfaction in landing that amazing shoot with an A-List client, but even the perfect gig can sometimes leave us wanting more. Often the answer lies only within a project of your own conception. Adventure photographer/director Tim Kemple shares with us how he's fueled by personal projects, and why they are often more important than any paid assignment.
Traveling to some of the most beautiful places on the planet, capturing stunning images of athletes as they redefine human potential - it hardly seems possible you could be wanting for anything else creatively. What gaps do personal projects fill for you?
I’ll be honest, I’m very lucky to be able to work with some of the world’s best athletes in some of the most epic locations on earth. I love my job, but most of the time there are companies paying the bill, and that dictates the story you tell or the style you shoot in. What that means, in the grand scheme of things, is that you are translating someone else’s vision – not exclusively yours. Which in turn means success is a happy client not necessarily the best story or art.
Do your personal projects follow any specific subject matter or theme?
Usually I’m playing with the difference between documentation and art. Or craft verses art.
Do you shoot anything personally that is in contrast to the images for which you are widely known?
I shoot a lot of cars and a lot of abstract landscapes when I’m pursuing personal work as a photographer. I’m not sure if that’s a contrast… but my Instagram feed doesn’t exactly blow up when I post cars. As a director I tend to concept ideas that are more pop culture and irreverent.
Are personal projects conceptualized, or do find that more often, they are opportunities that present themselves?
I think it’s important to first define what ‘personal project’ really means – and honestly it’s taken me quite some time to totally figure this out. To me, personal work is much more than just snapping some pictures in your free time and putting them in a gallery on your website. It’s an opportunity to explore a type of artistic expression you can’t find in the commercial work you do and share that with an audience. That means you need to conceptualize, create, AND (most importantly in my opinion) present. Without concept, how will you define what is and isn’t great work? And without presentation and sharing what is the point of creating?
How do you view personal projects - nice when it’s convenient or a creative necessity?
If you want to remain relevant as a creative – personal projects are an absolute necessity.
It could be said that every shoot before your first commissioned shoot is a personal project. Has your approach changed since those early days of your career? Are these now more about fulfilling a creative drive, as opposed to building your book, or do you approach it all the same?
In the beginning I shot a ton of editorial work and that was very creatively fulfilling. Good photo editors want to inspire creativity and they open doors and challenge you as an artist. Working on commercial projects is satisfying in a different way. So yeah, these days I actively seek out personal work that inspires me creatively.
Think of it this way, if all you have in your portfolio is work you were hired to shoot then really what you have is a book of other peoples ideas that you executed not a book that reflects you as an artist.
What advice do you give to aspiring photographer/directors regarding the value of personal work?
I think personal work is the story you tell as a creative and commercial work is the experience you show to get the job. In reality nobody gives a shit when you are #honored or #psyched that some work you shot for company X just came out in a magazine. Tell stories of who you are, what inspires you, and that you had the balls to do, think, or express something in a fresh way.
Do you ever piggyback personal projects on a commercial gig, or do try to keep them separate?
Yeah for sure. If you have a clear concept it shouldn’t matter how you got to the location to shoot the shot you need to get.
Do you view a personal project as an opportunity to strip away all the “stuff”, travel light and work simply - or do you approach these as any other shoot, with a full compliment of gear?
I think gear is just a tool to capture the story. Worrying about gear is a producer’s job, I try and worry about taking pictures.
Are your personal projects clearly defined with a beginning and an end, or is your approach more of one, ongoing body of work?
I think the strongest personal projects have a distinct beginning, middle and end. The end being when you present the work. Sure it will always continue to evolve but you need to share it at some point.
Has your personal work done anything for you professionally? Have you booked any projects or been contacted based solely upon a personal project?
Personal film projects like Cascada (a short kayaking film we made in 2012) have been immensely successful for my production company, Camp 4. And for me personally, yes absolutely. Whenever I’m meeting with a Creative Director or Art Director and we connect we are talking about personal work, never the commercial projects.
What have your personal projects done for you creatively? Have you picked up any skills/tricks while shooting a personal project that have benefited a commercial gig?
Sure I think you learn new tricks whenever you are pushing yourself creatively. But honestly the coolest thing that happens when you are working on personal projects is the relationships you build. Maybe its because the money is coming out of your own pocket, or because people can sense the passion in your voice but personal work opens doors like you never could on a commercial job.
If time and money were no object and access were unlimited, what would you shoot?
I’d travel the world and capture images of the world’s eclectic taxis and taxi drivers. From NYC, to Bangkok to Venice… think about it… that would be an awesome adventure.
Tim Kemple has built a career that reads like many photographer's wish list. He has shot and directed on six continents in over thirty countries, working with clients including RedBull, The North Face, BF Goodrich and Colorado Tourism. He is currently at work on a personal project, shooting high altitude images in Denali National Park. Tim is based in Salt Lake City, UT.
All Images © Tim Kemple