A simple local documentary project can help you return back to enjoying your personal photography, even after a long break.
There are plenty of photographers who haven’t picked up their cameras for months due to the unforeseen long-term break imposed by COVID-19 restrictions and the impact this global pandemic has had on people’s mental health, including their relationship with personal photography.
Photography, which is produced with the primary intention of personal consumption, can be both a soothing process that helps to compartmentalize one’s emotions and thoughts and then express them into photographic work, but it can also be a mentally loaded activity because it requires a strong sense of self-motivation and purpose.
This is one of the reasons why many photographers have felt unable and uninspired to pursue photography to the same extent that they did prior to the pandemic, especially when new difficulties are added to the mix, such as stress about the employment status, health, family worries, debt, and more.
However, I believe that taking small steps in the right direction can help to reintroduce photography back into your life to reignite the passion for creating work and self-satisfaction. Even if photography is just a temporary part of your life, anything you create still contributes to a portfolio of memories of who you were, what you found interesting, and how photography helped you express that.
Why Choose a Documentary Project?
If you have gathered the motivation to return back to shooting personal photography, it’s still beneficial to give yourself structure and a theme for your work, as small as it may be, which will help you not only manage your time spent on this but also give you a better chance of finishing your project.
Pursuing a local documentary project can give you just enough of a push to return back to photography while still incorporating your personal interests both in photography and in life, limited travel, small to non-existent budget, and a set timescale that gives you a deadline and focus throughout. You don’t even have to liaise with anyone if you don’t want to; the project can be fully on your terms.
Deciding on the Project Idea
Before you reach for your camera, it’s important to brainstorm what you want to photograph in the first place. Heading outside with no intentions or purpose can quickly leave to feeling overwhelmed and you can end up coming home empty-handed. There’s nothing wrong with snapping images when you head out because they can build into a larger life’s work or portfolio, but if you want a definite end to a project, you need an idea first.
Documentary projects are all about, as the name suggests, documenting an event, a place, subjects, or a particular theme that links together images from different locations. You can do a documentary project as short as one day but devoting more time to it, such as one to six months, will give you a more in-depth look at a particular topic of interest.
The more time you spend on this, the more information you’ll have. But, don’t underestimate the challenges that come with finalizing long-term projects, because even though you could do a 40-year long photo project, it doesn’t mean you should. Picking a reasonable time limit, such as two or three months, can be enough for a small documentary project that eases you back into photography.
It’s also important to find something that is likely to hold your interest, especially if you do it for several months. Same as with timescale, don’t give yourself a theme that is too elaborate or too open to interpretation. Simple ideas work best because they give you a clear goal.
If you don’t want to shoot outdoors, here are a few documentary project ideas that might inspire you:
Family and rituals
Each household has a different way of life, which is something we become accustomed to without even noticing. Taking a step back and seeing your family life from an observational point of view, even if you house-share with friends, can provide you with interesting moments. You can document certain events over a period of time, such as working from home, morning routine, weekend relaxation, children’s play or study time, food preparation or even a simple “a day in the life of” project. For inspiration, view Kevin Mullin, Kirsten Lewis, and Caroline Ghete’s family work, or Masaki Yamamoto’s heartfelt photographs depicting his family’s experiences in a one-room apartment.
Our lives revolve around our homes more than ever before. Whether you live by yourself or share your space, you can document certain aspects of your surroundings, such as following where the light falls throughout different times of the day, your point-of-view through different parts of your daily routine, a visual story of what home means to you, and more. Get inspired by Jayne Lloyd’s home project, Pete Kiehart and Kasia Strek’s self-isolation story, and Carol Hudson’s photographs of her late husband’s belongings.
You are never without a model if you’re a photographer because you can always turn the camera towards yourself and start creating self-portraits. For most, self-portraits are an intimate and slightly daunting experience but the absence of any audience can be liberating. Documenting yourself through a certain period, either using set themes or improvising based on your mood and feelings that day, can create a body of work that will only grow in meaning as you get older.
The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to look a certain way to step in front of your camera; express yourself through body poses, movement, and interesting compositions instead of focusing on your appearance.
If you feel more artistically stimulated by heading outdoors to shoot, here are some ideas that you can try for a documentary project in your local area:
If you enjoy ordering a cup of coffee and watching people, you can add photography to the mix. You can pick the same time and day of the week or choose your shooting days at random to document the local patrons and what you see around you. You certainly don’t need to rush around your city or town and can instead enjoy observing people and moments and let them come to you, not the other way around. You can also do the same in a park, on the beach, or anywhere else that you have access to. Valerie Jardin’s street photography style is a great inspiration for all of these themes.
Details on the Street
Documenting small details on the streets, especially the ones you are so used to walking, can be a way of giving yourself a new perspective on your local environment. All too often we pass by interesting details without noticing but the moment you start looking for them, it can be a solid basis for a project that visually explores your area in a way that nobody else has done before.
For example, you can photograph a collection of windows or doors, inspired by Jean-Luc Feixa’s collection, small discarded items, like David Joseph who photographed coffee cups left in the streets, or look at the street through abstracts of color and shape, such as those by Ralph Gibson.
Anywhere you go in the world, there’ll be animals around. It’s easy to not notice them but when you do, they can provide you with plenty of photographic opportunities. Whether you capture local dog walkers, cats going for a stroll, or look up to see birds creating shapes in the sky, this can be a documentary project you can easily combine with your walks through the neighborhood.
Take a look at Allan Schaller’s work on dogs and birds to give you an idea on capturing animals. If you have your own pet, creating a documentary on their daily life — such as the work by Miyoko Ihara documenting her grandmother and her cat in the book titled “Misao and Fukumaru” — can give you a collection of images that will be cherished for years to come.
Complete Your Project
There are as many documentary project ideas as there are people’s interests. Regardless of which theme you pick, it’s important to give yourself a reasonable timescale and a finished product to look forward to, whether that is a blog post, an online gallery, a selection of prints, a book, or anything else. Knowing what your output is makes shooting and editing easier because you know how to combine it all together.
Don’t underestimate the effort required for complex projects or ideas, and instead, pick something that is realistic. Although the process itself is satisfying yet challenging, getting to the end of it is even more so. Make sure you have given yourself the chance to arrive at the finish line because even if it’s a simple one-day-long project, it still contributes to filling you with creativity and satisfaction.
Image credits: All photographs by Anete Lusina