The symbiosis between personal and commercial work

Who are you taking pictures for? That’s a question that photojournalists hear a lot. But, I think ALL photographers should be asking themselves that question. In the process of sorting that question out, most photographers divide their efforts into “personal work,” and “commercial work.” I am not so sure about the wisdom of such clear demarcations.

Why do we photograph? Some people use photography for expressing their ideas/opinions. Others want to freeze time. Still others use photography as a way to explore themselves, the lives of others or the world at large. I could not even begin to say why each photographer does what he or she does. I can say that I photograph both as a way to make a living and as a way to explore places and things I might not normally encounter.

When I am photographing, on my own or on an assignment, I use the same basic strategy. First, I look around till I find a situation that looks like it has potential to make good image(s.) Note the plural usage, because I am not the type of photographer who does many one-time grab shots.

I spend most of my time walking around, saying to myself, “no, no, no, there is nothing here worth putting my time into.” I really do put time into each circumstance I hope to photograph. Getting a good photograph of a situation that I like, may take a lot of effort before I even bring the camera to my eye. I often need to chat with people involved. I may have to struggle with cross-cultural or language barriers. I certainly have to figure out how to use the light, set my exposure, get a good histogram, position myself, etc.

Then I organize my composition and wait for something to happen in the frame I have set up. After I have made a few images, I look at them on the back of my digital camera. After getting a good histogram, I try to make my “insurance” shot (the most straightforward one that tells the story efficiently.) I then start experimenting. I move to the left or right, trying different angles, maybe change my focal length, certainly vary my point of focus, as well as experimenting with more and less depth of field while trying faster and slower shutter speeds.

As I experiment more and more, the images becoming more and more interesting, but at some point the image goes over the edge from interesting to flat-out weird. A wise picture editor (Bruce Bauman) taught me that the best image was the one right at the point before the imagery spirals off and becomes weird, obscure or self-indulgent.

So, when I am photographing, I start by photographing for others (clients, stock agencies, etc.) but I work my way towards photographing just for me. Digital technology has only expanded this process for me. It used to be, since I was never exactly sure until I saw the processed film, if I “had it right,” I would put most of my energy and time into the so-called “insurance shot.” Now, I can quickly see when I have what I need for my end-user. Then I keep experimenting until the situation disappears or I get what I want (and know that for certain.) So for me the idea of commercial vs. personal work is a continuum to be worked through rather than a set of polar opposites to be kept apart.

All of the various projects I am doing at a given time are “personal work,” and also are potentially “commercial work.” I admit I do have occasional assignments where, despite my best efforts, the final work never moves beyond the “insurance shot.”

Each photographer handles this personal vs. commercial framework differently, because each one of us is the best person to develop strategies based on our own unique circumstances. But, and here is the point, the best photographers are the ones who somehow master that symbiotic relationship between personal and commercial work.

I was reminded of this when a friend, who is wrestling with this question, recently wrote me:

“I’m still working as a freelance photographer – mainly commercial stuff – studio and interiors etc plus some portraits. I do enjoy it and it brings lots of challenges, but I’d like to have a personal project running alongside – I just have made very little progress in sorting out what I want to do and making a start.”

This note came into my in-box just after another friend told me that after attending a workshop, she felt like she had her “photographer’s legs” back. She told me she was going to block out one day a week in her busy schedule to photograph just for herself. In both cases, the photographers understood their own internal creative need to do personal work.

Some people do that by setting aside a day a week to photograph for themselves. Certain folks do their best work in their own back yards. Others cannot do anything particularly good when they are too close to home and need to travel to do their best work. There is no single strategy, and anyone who tells you so, is only narrowing his or her own options (and potentially yours.)

Beyond the internal, psychological need for personal work, there is also an external need that highlights the interconnected nature of commercial work and personal work. I came to appreciate the importance of doing some kind of personal work, along side my commercial work when I was first freelancing in New York City in the 1980s. At a meeting, one photo editor explicitly told me what many of her peers implied but never said out loud. She said, to paraphrase, “I know our assignment is not that interesting, but try to put some of your personality into it. Also, remember that this assignment is my way of supporting your personal work, which is the work I really love.”

After showing my portfolio around a good bit, I came to see that the most interesting clients were the ones who (of course) gave me work, but were also interested in the parts of my personal work I could bring to their projects. The better editors understood, before I did, that each photographer’s personal work, shapes, influences and nurtures his or her commercial work. End-users of images obviously want to know that a photographer can fulfill their assignment, but they also want to know who the photographer is and so they actually want to see some (not too much) personal work.

Conversely, working for others, helps hone a photographer’s skills, symbiotically improving their personal work as well. Family snaps, school team photos and the like, even if not done on a paying assignment, make us better photographers. In my mind, any photographer who wants to grow creatively needs to be doing both, their own work along side work for others. Despite the fantasy most photographers have of just photographing for ourselves most need feedback, validation, inspiration (and income) that comes from outside of themselves.

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