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Keeping it personal: The importance of personal projects

For myself as a professional photographer, but also for many of my amateur photographer friends, I can’t over-state the case for personal photography projects. In my case many of these personal projects, done in my own time, eventually make it into print and earn me some money or at least manage to cover my expenses.
Some of these projects are long term- things that I find interesting and which develop over the years like my ‘Discarded’ project.  Amusingly this was something I started doing for a regular slot in The Guardian ’s magazine,( I think it was called ‘The Big Picture’). Just when I thought that I had enough pictures to submit my idea, the newspaper pulled that particular feature in a revamp of their Saturday magazine!
I still carry on with the ‘Discarded’ set though because there is always something new. Last week it was a discarded and ‘fly-tipped’ toilet in a ditch. Who knows what it might be next? I find these things all over the UK when out working or just on days off-once a whole Mercedes sports car entombed under a covering of blackberry bushes, often amusing little things like a Lego ‘Marge Simpson’ I discovered in Shropshire. The photos look great together as a set, but out of context on their own maybe not so interesting. Some of the items are thrown out, some seem to have been lost by accident.

‘Marge Simpson’ Lego figure found abandoned in a Shropshire field. Photo by John Robertson.
From my ‘Discarded’ series. An abandoned dolls house, a sofa in the snow,a sky blue wool hat on Cannock Chase, a ‘Little Britain’ DVD amongst spring cowslips the hidden treasure of a paintbrush ferrule amongst seaweed in Cornwall and a bow tie outside a Leicestershire hotel- just a few of the things I’ve seen ‘discarded’. Photos by John Robertson.

Often an idea for a personal project will present itself to me without much actual thought from me! For instance one day I was reading a newspaper looking for interesting photo ideas. A ladybird landed on the paper and crawled down it in front of me. The Spring weather had brought it out of hibernation in our house and it occurred to me that as I had no work on that day I could take some macro images of the little beastie. A plain white Colorama background kept it simple and I joined several photos together as the ladybird performed a takeoff and crash landing in front of me. As I’m an animal lover, of course he or she was carefully placed in my garden afterwards to munch on some aphids.
These photos were shot on a Nikon 70-200mm lens with PK13 extension tube attached and make the composite you can see in the cover image of this article.

Why bother taking personal project photos? Well, sometimes I may have had a week when I photographed things professionally that were not that exciting. Maybe a ‘doorstep’ for a newspaper where I have to wait ages outside a house or office to photograph a person for whatever reason. Usually somebody who has done something naughty! Perhaps I might have had to photograph a rather boring commercial job like taking pics of tins of shoe polish!
The personal project will restore my ‘creative mojo’ in these circumstances.

I’ve always shot personal projects alongside my professional work. Some of these never see the light of day and are basically to please me. They tend to be on things that interest me- so it could be animals as mentioned above. Or portraits because I love photographing people. The same goes for travel and I very much agree with the old saying that ‘travel broadens the mind’.
One of the earliest personal projects I shot was eventually used as a spread in The Guardian. Back in those days most photos for press use were shot in black and white, so the entire project was shot over several weekends on Ilford HP5 film. The subject? Again, something I was curious about- here where I live in Northamptonshire, I would often see vans with the logo ‘Jesus Army’ on them. Inside would be people in multi-coloured army-type camouflage jackets.
They belonged to a community based on the Oxford/Northamptonshire border and many lived in an old rectory at Bugbrooke where I took many of my photos.

The Jesus Army is an evangelical Christian movement founded in the UK in 1969.
Initially the leader of the community and it’s members were very suspicious of me. They had received a lot of bad publicity in the past and were afraid of more of the same.
Gradually, little by little, they got to know and trust me.
Once this happened I was then able to get better photographs of their everyday lives and activities.
These ranged from picking apples from their own orchard, praying several times a day, looking after their farm and animals. The young man I photographed feeding the pigs had been a ‘twoc’er’ in Northern Ireland. That is police slang for taking a car without the owner’s consent and driving it before,(usually), setting fire to it. He loved his new life working on the farm and whatever your thoughts on religion or communes- that has to be a result for society.

A personal project taken way back in 1991- A project on The Jesus Army-used by The Guardian newspaper. Photos by John Robertson.

All the Jesus Army photos were taken on just three prime lenses with a Canon F1 camera- all I had at the time. A 50mm, a 100mm and a 28mm lens. I used to develop and print my own black and white negatives and then they would be driven down to The Guardian which was in those days in Farringdon Road, London- a round trip for me of around 170 miles.

A recent personal project that ended up getting published in The Daily Telegraph and The Times was a local slate mine not far from where I live. The 600 year old Collyweston mine has been closed for nearly sixty years and has only re-opened this year, in order to supply roofing slate to buildings such as the famous King’s College in Cambridge. The owner even has this photo of his Great Grandfather at the mine in 1913.

COPY PHOTO of ‘Willie’ Smith, 2nd from left on back row, the Great Grandfather of mine owner Nigel Smith, with other miners at Collyweston in 1913.
The mine dates back over 600 years but was last open and working nearly sixty years ago.
Photos by John Robertson

Working underground sounded like fun, but the reality as often happens was rather different!
Nineteen centimetres of mud to wade through where the caterpillar tracked robot drilling machine and the shovel had churned through. Plus water dripping through the slate roof, muddy and slippery rocks to trip over and dark unlit corners for the imagination to play tricks with.
It was a great testing ground for my 055 tripod too- essential for the long exposures needed, but requiring a hose down for me, the tripod legs and my Manfrotto backpack afterwards.

Nigel Smith inspecting a seam of slate in his newly re-opened slate mine at Collyweston in Northamptonshire.
Photos by John Robertson

Personal projects can be really enjoyable and you can even make new friends that way- like I did with William Pinchers, a worker in one of the UK’s last hand-rolled steel mills and an interesting man whose hobby couldn’t be more different from his work- rearing and flying falcons, including a Golden Eagle.

William Pinchers at work in one of the UK’s last hand rolled steel mills in The Black Country, UK. Photos by John Robertson.
A Gyr falcon owned by falconer William Pinchers in The Black Country, UK. Photos by John Robertson.
Evening falls over the Black Country, UK as William Pinchers gathers in his falcons for the night. Photos by John Robertson.

My latest personal project is based on the people I meet in the town of Market Harborough where my wife works. It is a quintessential little English town with all sorts of interesting characters to photograph. Whilst waiting to pick my wife Suzy up from her shop at the end of the day, I often notice the people walking past. There is the barefoot runner. The ageing punk rocker who still dresses the same way he always used to. A Salvador Dali lookalike with superb moustache. Tweed-dressed country types, a traditional butcher and fishmonger,( rare to find these in UK towns these days as the supermarkets run them out of business). Many interesting personalities and my idea is to photograph them in the style of Irving Penn- against a similar backdrop to the type he used. Penn used daylight for many of his photos-north light. I aim to replicate this as far as possible with a simple one-light setup using a big softbox, plus a large Lastolite reflector to throw back some light opposite that and act as a ‘fill light’.

I asked some friends if they make personal work and projects and the results were interesting!

  • Graham Trott’s cider makers,
  • Charles Kenwright’s lost soles- abandoned shoes!
  • Bob Collier’s work in progress-faded hand painted signs advertising long forgotten household brands on the sides of buildings.
  • Greg Locke’s musicians
  • Stewart Weir’s beach series, and Guido Van Damme’s ‘Reserata’ amongst many others.

Amateur or pro, personal work and personal projects will keep you interested and involved in creativity. If you don’t have anything on the go at the moment, why not start right now? Wherever you live, whatever interests you, there will be a project you could be documenting.

John RobertsonOther articles by author

John Robertson is a Manfrotto Ambassador and freelance photographer with the UK National and International press. He also works for commercial clients and produces both editorial and commercial videos.