A few months back, I explored the idea of asking for what you want, and the worst that can come from that. We talked about your desire to shoot, and the only thing really stopping you being yourself. The power of letting go of your insecurities, and stepping up to the plate is liberating and will drive changes in your photography that no shiny new piece of equipment can give you. Today, I would like to take that one step further, and explore what it takes to create a significantly large body of work.
The example I will give today is of my first book, "Hmäe Sün Näe Ti Cengkhü Nu - The History and Culture of the Lai Tu Chin People According to the Tattoo-Faced Women." Throughout the promotion of this project, time and time again I have heard the same words uttered: "I'm so envious of what you are doing, and I wish I could do something like this." These words bug me every time I hear them. Without fail, they come from a well meaning someone who has the ability to do what I did, but cannot make the decision to do it. Spoiler alert: that is the crux of this, if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen.
I wanted to create a body of work I was proud of about a minority people who get very little support. I wanted my work to become a form of support for them. I wanted to change the world in some small way for others. I wanted to create art with meaning. I wanted to create art with purpose. So, I did. I found a way to make it happen. It wasn't easy, but it was completely worth it. I will share today some of the things I discovered along the way.
Change Your Mindset
This is the biggest step. It is also one of the hardest, because only you can do this. Only the force of will can change this. Go full time, I thought, then you'll have extra time to be shooting when you want to. You won't have to look out of the window wishing you were somewhere else. This is what I had dreamed of when I got into photography. How wrong I was. Now, I have invoices to send out, post-processing to do, deliveries to make, and backups to run. I find myself responding to emails while the most beautiful sunset of the year is dancing outside my window. I was so wrong about having all that extra time.
No, I wasn't. Not at all. I get to choose when and what I shoot. I also get to choose when I sit in front of a computer to respond to emails or post-process. Isn't that why I decided to get into this in the first place? So that I could flex my creative muscles, do things my way, and take the time I need to improve myself. I got into this so that I could set my own hours, create things that mean something to me, and make a living with a smile on my face. Everything we do is a result of a decision, and making the best of your time is just another part of that.
There it was, I had decided that I had control of my situation. I blocked out a couple of months in my calendar, and pressed hard to get some more work before I began the project so I would have a buffer. In fact, this wasn't the first time I'd done this, I realized. When I first made the decision to go full time, I quit my day job and went traveling for six months. That, too, was a decision.
Quiet the Voices of Insecurity
When I started forming the idea for my project last year, I knew I wanted it to be my biggest project yet. I wanted to make a book, have an exhibition, and involve other artists. Most of all, I wanted to make a project that would make a difference in the world. I started drafting my emails to the people that I knew could help, and the self-doubt kicked in every time I was about to hit send. I would sit on emails for days, or weeks, before sending them. Was my work good enough? Would anybody honestly even care? Did I need to just keep it quiet and make something for myself?
But, I hit send. I quelled the demons, at least for a while. I sent the feelers out. I had followed my own advice. The responses were positive. People were interested. So, I got to planning. I put together a potential itinerary, a budget, a game plan, and finally chatted to my wife about it. I got the go-ahead. I figured she would like the house to herself for a month anyway, so it wouldn't be a problem. I had started my project. I had taken the first step — I had quieted my insecurities. I decided not to care what people thought about it, and just make something for myself.
I've never been one to take no for an answer if I cannot see why something can't be done. In secondary college, I pushed my way into studying abroad and having my exams sent over to me registered post because I wouldn't be able to be present at the required times. In university, I had the department create a whole new major, and a series of codes to allow me to study abroad again because I felt parts of my education could be better done elsewhere.
I have carried this philosophy on into everything I have done to date. As an educator, I upended my institution's teaching methods; taking it from a rote-learning machine that children loathed coming to into a place of joy and desire for learning. With a desire to do something, we can achieve so much more than we think we can. Just remember not to be a nuisance. Understand what you want and bring people onto your side. Be creative and find ways around obstacles, show others that there is a way.
Quit With the Excuses
Excuses can be the death of any new beginning. They can put a project to rest before it ever gets off the ground. That has been the case with countless projects I have tried to begin in the past. This was no exception. It has always boiled down to not having the right equipment, not having the time, having another commitment, not having the right contacts, or not having the money. The reality with all of these things is that they shouldn't stop you. You just need to change the way you look at things.
The excuses above are all better viewed as stepping stones than problems. They'll only remain excuses if you don't really want something. If you want it badly enough, you will find a way to make it happen. Time can be made, as can money. Take a second job for a year, or set up a latent income stream with your current work. That will, over time, solve your money, time, and equipment issues. While you do that, reach out to people you think might be able to help you with your work. Set up a test shoot with models and makeup artists. Get coffee with an artist whose work you admire. Maybe send the kids to their grandmother's house for the weekend so you can focus on developing your skills for a few extra hours. Put the pieces in place, and then execute.
Take Care of Your Responsibilities
Of course, not all of us are free to simply walk away from some of our responsibilities. I have a notoriously understanding wife, and that makes this is a little easier for me. We have an agreement that we both have lives outside of our commitment to each other, and that sometimes we need time to focus on our own developments. Even so, this was something that needed to be discussed. I would be away for a little over a month. Planning, editing, post-processing, designing, and promoting would take much longer than that. Of course, I also needed to OK the expenditure. This wasn't a project I could simply put into the calendar.
Maybe you don't need a full month away. Perhaps just a day or two here and there. However, it's still important that if you have responsibilities involving other people, they should be involved in the decision making process. The last thing you want is for your own personal photography to come between you and your people.
Just Do It
In the end, you just have to jump in the deep end. I prioritized this personal project. I decided to make something I would be proud of. I took work I wouldn't normally take. I hustled. I did my post-processing in the middle of the night. I called in favors. I cold-called people I thought might be interested. I pushed my way into getting to areas of Myanmar not normally open for foreign visitors. I solved countless problems every day during the trip. I brought people together to work with me. And here I am, running a Kickstarter to fund the publication so I can take the final step and use this project to do good.
The point here is that we can all do this. Envy is a poisonous emotion. If you want to change the way you live and the way you produce art, you need to take actionable steps to make it happen. With a combination of self-confidence and practical preparation, we are able to achieve things well beyond what we may think. Of course, this is just my story and my experience. We each have our own situations and sets of restrictions. It would be great to hear from our readers on how you make your personal work happen, and what difficulties you have overcome.