Will You Do Something Meaningful With Your Photography This Year?

Will You Do Something Meaningful With Your Photography This Year?

I'm sure many of us have set goals for 2019 to become more successful in different variations of what the word entails, but have you or would you consciously decide to start a meaningful project, one that is unlikely to give you monetary reward, but a deeply personal one? Would you set time aside for it?

The run-up to Christmas tends to be filled with different charitable initiatives, both from international organizations, as well as from people closer to home. We may be donating gifts or purchasing supplies for those who survive out in the cold streets, but why stop after ringing in the new year? You may say you cannot afford after all the festive spending, especially if you're also experiencing a quiet season in your type of work. But, trust me there is so much you can do, because photographs can bring attention to a story that really needs it, sometimes even more so than words.

Last year, I wrote about an article about photographer Grace Elizabeth, who created a "Gold Dust" project, which documented postpartum scars and stretchmarks to bring attention to the beauty of female bodies and what they go through to create life. Or, just recently, Fstoppers posted a heart-wrenching story about photographer Ross Taylor’s powerful new series which showcased the painful and emotional reality of coping with the last moments of your beloved pet's life. There are so many other inspiring stories and projects that document social history on a small scale, others on a grand one, such as those documenting the realities of wars. 

However, if you want to create a meaningful project this year, start small and personal. You don't need to jump into starting something so exhaustive that you may not be able to finish it due to the lack of resources, time, or motivation. My advice has always been to look closer to home, laying out a plan and setting out deadlines. Trust me, it's better to finish a project and make a small difference in this world than to get people involved, spend money and time on it, but never actually finish it.

A woman stroking a cat on a sofa.

For example, I did a project last year that got finalized just after New Year's. I advertised on social media and through word of mouth that I was looking for participants who have adopted a cat from a shelter or taken one in from the street, because I wanted to create something meaningful to commemorate the death of my family cat and at the same time to promote adopting cats of all ages. I had several participants who took part but canceled our session, others never had enough time to arrange a date, and one of them went well, except for the fact that their cat had a fight with a neighboring one and had been hiding somewhere in the garden on the day of our shoot. Alright, so maybe not so well. But I had a wonderful conversation with the owner about all things photography and life.

A man gently petting his black cat.

Although I spent time and money managing all participants, traveling to them, creating the photographs, editing them, and then designing a printed book, it actually seemingly gave me more purpose throughout the year. In my mind, I always knew I had the mission to finish this project and to tell these fascinating stories of how people from different walks of life had ended up with a new feline family member and how it changed their lives. Yes, commercial projects and weddings paid the bills, but this is something that really pushed me and gave me something to focus on for an extended period of time, which is something not all of us are used to. You may feel that your work will not be powerful enough to positively affect the cause or subjects that you are documenting, but just the mere decision to go and speak to people who you think are incredible or do something extraordinary is enough to give them affirmation to keep going.

A man petting his black and white cat on a sofa.

We have clients coming and going, and the jobs get done and finished, and the circle starts again. However, something like this makes you look at what you do in photography from a different perspective. These projects are what you will most likely remember in years to come, not the different jobs you have done for people or companies. No doubt, you may already encounter this in your paid assignments if you're lucky to get hired to do something life changing, but not all of us get that opportunity.

So, consider the people all around you and the things they do or the stories they may be able to tell to the wider world. Your job as a photographer is to record it and present it back in your style. It can be so rewarding, and it will bring another dimension to you both as a person and as a photographer.

Have you done any meaningful projects recently or are planning to? Share your stories with us!

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Wouter Bruijning's picture

As an enthusiastic hobbyist, I have asked for and been given the chance to photograph the animals in the local shelter that are ready for adoption. I only started a few weeks ago, so I guess it fits your question ;-)

Anete Lusina's picture

That is very nice of you! I have seen articles about how drastically it improves their adoption rate, seeing a professional and flattering photo instead of a bad, phone one!

Owain Shaw's picture

Nice article and good questions to be asking ourselves as photographers. Having years ago decided to stop doing paid work I didn't really like to do "personal work", I only recently sat down to think seriously about what my "personal work" might be besides photographing stuff I see where I happen to be ... there's some value in that but if I'm doing Photography as a hobby and don't need to make money from it. then why not invest my time in something a bit more meaningful.

I've struggled with doubts about the validity of my ideas for projects; or with making a good start by going out and taking some good photographs but then not continuing with the project having got a few good photographs in the bag. Long-term projects in an instantaneous era can be quite the mentality shift. Anyway, recently I've started working on two projects simultaneously, and hope to start work on other ideas I've put off until now. Both are related to rural issues in the area where I live. I'd like to have a good body of work on both completed by the middle of this year to try to exhibit locally and/or (self-)publish a book.

Anete Lusina's picture

Thank you for your comment and I hope you have the strength and motivation to work on these projects. I completely agree about the 'instantaneous era', where we want things there and then, and waiting for working on something for prolonged periods of time may seem frustrating even. But, doing so we're working on improving ourselves in different aspects, and by the end of it we actually have something to show for the hard work.

Owain Shaw's picture

Thank you. So far it's working quite well and I'm the happiest I've been with my Photography in years. Instantaneous habits can mean that the stage(s) between the idea and its realisation can be worryingly uncertain or difficult, but I agree, it's good to work on these skills and develop different, longer-term ways of seeing, thinking and working. All the best, Owain.

michaeljin's picture

Probably not.

David Pavlich's picture

I sell my prints and make enough money to keep me in ink and paper to support my printing habit. :-) This year, I would like to get my prints into a couple of different venues. More than that, however, is to get more of the local images into my print portfolio. I've been in Winnipeg about a year and a half and have some of local stuff, but I need to get more, and that includes local wildlife as good wildlife images sell well. Besides, it's all fun just acquiring the shots.

Deleted Account's picture

A couple of years ago I got involved with a fundraising event for a local cat charity. At the time I was recovering from a major illness and surgery. It was just what I needed to get me fully back on my feet, taxing enough that I had to work at it but not so demanding that it impeded my recovery. At the time of agreeing to do it, I had not considered the possible benefits to me of the photography project, being more focused on what it would do for the charity I wanted to support. The result was that both the charity and I benefited from my decision and I think photographers do have a skill set that can help a cause they are interested in they choose to do so and both will benefit. In addition to the photographs being used to publicise the event, we gained a lot of local media attention because of them, we sold many prints which added to the total raised.