I love making images, but sometimes I have to ask myself why I’m making them. What’s my purpose in photographing? Will anybody ever see my photos? And am I simply shooting to be shooting? When I start to question myself like this, it sometimes becomes hard for me to find the motivation to keep shooting.
To solve this problem, I try to create projects that have a purpose to them. Then I have a reason to shoot, a goal to achieve, some guidelines to shape my photo explorations.
William Neill, in his recent Light on the Landscape, speaks about his practice of building collections—groups of photos around particular themes—that he’s added to over a period of years as he seeks out fresh subjects. His themes reflect subjects he finds personally interesting, such as “landscapes of the spirit.”
I try to do this as well, and I’m building collections of my best photos in a series of categories. Among my thematic categories are fences, abstracts, macrophotography, intimate landscapes, and nostalgia. Adobe Lightroom makes it easy to group and select collections for later use. But having a set of themes and collections still begs the question of what to do with the photos once I’ve got them. It may answer the “what” question, but not the “why.”
The answers to the question of why photograph will be individual. In my case, I’ve done several things. I’ve created calendars for friends and family that reflect some of the themes I’m working on, be it a particular vacation trip or, as I did last year, a photo essay on local fences set in scenic situations. I’ve written books on photography that use my photos, such as my Creative Composition for Landscape Photography or Shooting Iron Horses: Photographing Your Model Railroad. And currently I’m working on building sets of note cards that incorporate some of the themes in my collection. My plan is to give them to friends and family and then, if it seems feasible, offer them for sale on Etsy and other sites.
But the ultimate importance of these activities lies not in the products, though they can be significant in their own right. Instead, it is the purpose and direction a project gives that provides a definitive answer to the question of why I’m making the photos at all. Then, once I’m satisfied that my images will have a landing place, I’m freed up to feed my soul with image making. And that’s what makes it all worthwhile.