The Power of Personal Projects

[This is one of series of blogs to promote my campaign to produce a 30-year retrospective book.]

I’ve been a photographer for 30 years this month. I guess that qualifies me to offer some tips. This post, then, is for fellow creatives and my advice is about personal projects.

A personal project is just that. Using your creativity to do something that isn’t commissioned or directed by anyone else. It’s your brief, your timetable and, most probably, your budget.

There are good of reasons to always have at least one personal project on the go. They get your name out there; they allow you to experiment; they help to change direction; and they keep your ideas fresh.

Early on in my photographic career I started a project that combined my interest in portraiture with an interest in Manchester’s regeneration. I set about photographing the movers and shakers, the business people – public and private sector – who were making decisions on our behalf. ‘City Shapers’ was launched in the hotel that’s now called The Refuge and toured to Central Library, the Arndale, a theatre and a bank.

Lesley Whitehouse, Chief Executive of Hulme Regeneration, 1992

Some said I was shrewd, getting in front of all those potential clients. To be honest, I was a bit naive, it wasn’t that calculated. But, in retrospect, it got my name out there at the right time, to the right people. Quite a few subjects did become clients.

That’s not to say your project should be a blatant profile-raiser. Some years later I eventually completed a personal project about people working in the funeral industry. It was exhibited at a couple of galleries and I paid for the production of a book. I so enjoyed the process of making that work – process always before product, I say – but I don’t recall any spin-offs. It was a difficult subject.

‘A Way of Life: Portraits from the Funeral Trade’ at Viewpoint Gallery, Salford, 1999

My business card hasn’t always said I’m a writer. It took an evening class and some courage before I added it to my photographer tag. But once I had, I wanted to get commissions to both write and photograph. And I wanted to write in the first person, putting myself in the story.

I was also keen to show the flip side of my commissioned regeneration images. There were, and continue to be, people who were not benefitting from the ‘new Manchester’ and I had a desire to tell their stories. That’s how I found myself in an addict’s living room, photographing him injecting heroin.

The addict was joined by a homeless alcoholic and a failed asylum seeker in my self-published book, Billy and Rolonde. It was a big departure for me but one that opened different doors as the 2008 crash was closing others. I’d moved into social documentary storytelling.

Allan, homeless alcoholic: “This is where I sleep.” 2008

That worked and a year-long commission from a local charity followed. After another personal project, this time about a teenage mum from Moss Side, a second long-term commission. One thing leads to another.

‘Her First Year’ 2011. An award-winning blog about a teenage mum from Moss Side

Generally I’ve been fortunate, most of my commissioned work has been really interesting. But personal projects can also keep you going creativity when the work that pays the bills is a bit dull. Having a ‘side project’ is good for your creative soul.

Yes, there are some downsides. The freelance pendulum will ironically swing back to ‘fully booked’ as soon as you have time to start a personal project. The project gets shelved and it can take a big effort to get it finished.

‘The Rusholme Sketcher’ 2018. Another personal project and another change in direction

And then there’s the cost. Few projects are expense-free and often they’re initiated when money is tight. Consider grants and sponsorship to balance the books but remember, the benefits will come, but later.