Building a photo project

If there’s something that connects the various dots of my posts here, it’s my interest in storytelling. I don’t mean the technical aspects of telling a story, although those are important too. I mean the reasons we tell stories, the way they change us, and the roles they take in our lives.

There are many ways of telling stories, some more obvious than others. Telling a fairy tale is storytelling, but so is writing a novel. Or the letters and emails we send to family and friends. Or the photos we take. The books we keep around, the pictures we hang on the walls, and our social media presence are also ways of telling a story about ourselves.

Here I want to focus on photography as a vehicle for storytelling. I am talking specifically about photo projects that build on strong personal interest and that are self-driven rather than imposed by external circumstances.

I haven’t completed a photo project up to now but I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what this entails. So I want to describe the concept of a project that’s already in the making: some planning details but mostly how I approach it and what it means to me.

What I aim to do is document the lives of people with autism and their families. When I say “document” I mean that the photographer should let things happen and take the photos with as little interference as possible. Of course, the photographer cannot be a fly on the wall and his presence (I say “his” because here I refer to myself) will inevitably alter the scene to some degree. But, once the photographer is accepted into the lives of his subjects, there should be no significant change or disruption for the purpose of taking photos. It is the photographer’s responsibility to find the right place and moment to do his job. The subjects don’t owe him anything.

There should be a certain detachment from the subjects, who are shown as autonomous persons going about their lives rather than extensions of the photographer’s vision and wishes. However, this does not mean that the project is a succession of cold, emotionally-neutral shots. It simply means that the scenes are allowed to speak for themselves. Whatever the mood and emotion of the scene, the photographs should try to capture them without altering or manipulating them to conform to a pre-defined idea of how the scene should look and feel.

Building a long-term relationship with the subjects is at the core of the project. The relationship is based on trust, as any relationship is. However, it will not always clear be clear what is the boundary between things that can be shown and things that cannot. This boundary needs to be openly discussed rather than being left in an ambiguity that could turn against the wishes of the subject. There are always things that need to remain hidden, even if some of them would probably make great photos.

As I mentioned, this project is not only about persons with autism but also about those around them: family, friends, carers. I find it important to show the very intricate support network that is built around all of us really, but in the case of autism is more visible and complex, because it involves so many skills and profiles. The stories included in the project would not be complete and truthful without exploring the social environment around the subject.

What I would like to avoid is moralizing or turning the project into an ad for a social cause. Autism can be very challenging for both the persons with autism and for those around them, but it can also be a source of joy and (sometimes unexpected) capacities and potential. The photographer is not a social worker or an advocate for or against something. The project is not about making a point, whatever that point may be. It’s about showing things with patience and empathy and letting the photos do the talking instead. If there’s a message there coming through, it should be about the deep shared humanity of our photo subjects, not about them being heroes, being victims, or being anything else in between.

Beyond the specifics of a project focused on autism, I think there are several elements that, at least in my case, would apply to any photo project involving human subjects:

  • Allow your subjects to be themselves. Don’t squeeze them into your own little vision of what their situation is and what is important for them. Try to actually find out.
  • Don’t try too hard to make a point. If the photos are strong enough, they will do the work themselves. If the photos are not strong enough, pushing the social cause angle and extracting sympathy out of your subjects will come through as inappropriate and potentially manipulative.
  • There are always things that are better off left hidden irrespective of their photographic potential. Photography is about making things visible but there are always choices to be made regarding what not to show. These choices need to be made together with the subject.

What is important for you when you plan or carry out your personal project, be it photography, writing, or any other creative activity?


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