Welcome to the first edition of Inside Street Photography a bi-weekly newsletter from Street Photography Magazine.
While the magazine primarily publishes articles, projects and photo stories created by street photographers around the world, this newsletter is more personal. These articles are personal experiences and lessons learned, observations by either myself or our editor Ashley Riffo. We are just sharing the things we learn from working with the amazing photographers we meet through our daily work.
I’ve been stressing about my own personal work lately (well, actually longer than that). I feel as if my work is fragmented, random, unfocused and at the same time all the same. I felt limited in my personal vision.
I work with many people who are talented, focused and create a steady stream of compelling work that I catch myself comparing myself to them. Even though I know better intellectually. Don’t do this at home.
I’ve had a desire to begin a long-term project for quite a while, but I couldn’t think of anything that resonated with me. I began stressing out over it without a solution. Then something unexpected happened that create a guidepost.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears
In early June of this year on the spur of the moment, I decided to drive up to Washington DC to attend the Focus on the Story Festival. Like everything else this annual event was forced online by the pandemic. Finally, this year, they were able to do it in person again. I’ve wanted to attend for several years so I was really happy to be able to attend. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to meet other photographers face-to-face again. I live only a couple hours away, so I made it a day trip.
I arrived early to spend some personal time on street photography. Washington in June can pretty hot but I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be in a “real” city again (as real as Washington can be) and covered several miles photographing in some of my favorite spots. I even made a few good photos before retuning to the hotel for the afternoon presentations. I was tired and didn’t feel like siting in a conference room all afternoon. But it paid off.
DC based portrait, lifestyle and sports photographer Jared Soares gave a presentation titled “Community Identity and Finding Your Voice in Your Art.” I’m not a big fan of sports or lifestyle photography but the title caught my attention. It caused something to resonate in the back of my mind so I sat in.
Jared didn’t set out to be a commercial photographer. But he has a deep personal interest in sports and storytelling. After moving to DC he decided to begin a personal photo project that involved sports. It’s called The Farms which is Washington DC’s longest running adult summer basketball league.
It wasn’t easy for a stranger to make the right connections to gain access and the trust necessary to get to know the players and fans in such a tightly knit community. But Jared persisted, made friends and earned acceptance. As a result he created a remarkable piece of visual storytelling and portraiture.
Since publishing that project Jared began receiving invitations to make portraits of amateur and professional sports figures, business leaders and even members of congress. In his portfolio you will see portraits of Jeff Bezos, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin Durant and many others. His commercial and editorial clients include, Adobe, Airbnb, Apple, Bloomberg, ELLE, National Geographic, The New York Times, TIME and more that I have space to list here. You get the picture.
He’s soft spoken, humble, introspective and highly talented. And he uses his talents to create portraiture and long-form projects to create projects based around community and identity (I borrowed some of that from his website).
The “Ah-Ha” moment
After showing his work Jared shared his perspective on how to look inside ourselves to help identify subjects for personal projects. It was a wakeup call for me. The slide is a simple list of questions to help clarify your interests, things you care about, don’t like and motivations. Basically to define who you are.
Here’s Jared’s list:
- What are your interests?
- Who and what do you care about?
- What do you love?
- What do you hate?
- What moves you?
I took the liberty of adding another question which is:
- What are you afraid of?
I included this one because our fears often hold us back and sometimes we often must to face them to make progress.
My takeaway is that your personal interests, culture and values that you’re connected to, are the gateways to tell the stories of things that you really care about.
I’ve heard this said many times before, but at the time it was only words, in one ear and out the other. On this day it hit home. And I think I get it.
Putting it to use
I used Jared’s list plus my additional question then sat down in a quiet place and began to answer them as honestly has I could. I let my answers cook and review them after a few days. I know this sounds a little hippy, but for me it was a valuable exercise.
With these insights in mind I took Harvey Stein’s advice and reviewed my past work. Harvey often says that your work will lead you. This was a good time to put it into practice.
While reviewing my work I remembered a comment Gregory Heisler made about style during a recent episode of The Candid Frame Podcast “you can’t make an authentic photograph it doesn’t come for your wrong from your own experience.”
Then I followed the Don Draper approach from the TV show Mad Men “just think about it deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will… jump up in your face.” So I put it aside for a few days then, when I was ready, I just sat quietly with an open mind (something I rarely do) to reflect on the things I uncovered about myself and how it relates to my work.
Several interesting projects came to mind almost immediately. They we all obvious choices but for some reason I hadn’t considered them in the past. As a result, I decided to do an in-depth photo story about the people and events around the Foxfield Races, which has been held in my area for over 40 years. I realized that the story is much deeper than the small slice I photographed in a single day. The horse culture in our area is deep and spans almost 3 centuries. The photos included in the article are from one day in a small section of the of the event. I use them here because they inspired me to go back and find the deeper story behind this culture.
If it wasn’t for making the decision to drive to DC to connect with other photographers I would not have come upon the simple insight shared by Jared. Instead I’d be stuck in the same decision loop that caused my frustration.
Serendipity? Yes, I think so. The lesson is to keep learning, reading and connecting with others. Be curious, remain playful and keep an open mind.
Are you stuck looking for a personal project?
If so, take some quiet time to answer Jared’s questions. Then study your past work and see what jumps out at you. you will be surprised.
I made this photo during a day of shooting at the Foxfield Races in Charlottesville, Virginia this past spiring. It is heavily attended by college students from the Mid-Atlantic and South.
It was my own personal experience waiting for the women in my life that caused me to notice the lone guy on the left side of the frame waiting for his girlfriend. I thought it was funny which is why I made a few frames before moving on. He looked sad and confused and most likely destined to stand there for a long time.
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