When I first started looking at photographer’s portfolios back in 1987, I would see a mix of work created for clients and’ tear sheets’ (pages torn from magazines that featured the photographers work). If the photographer was successful they would probably have a separate ‘tear sheet’ portfolio and a large heavy box of prints thickly laminated with a black felt backing. The purpose of such a presentation was clear, it said “you can trust me, others have!” The showing of previously commissioned work was meant to install a sense of confidence in the person viewing the work.
I cannot remember seeing very much personal work. The odd project or a few frames may loiter towards the back of a portfolio but it was always presented as an after thought. The cost of creating personal work was prohibitive to most and therefore rarely undertaken by photographers whose intention was to get commissioned. Many personal projects were being undertaken by those photographers supporting their practices through teaching but not in the advertising and editorial sectors.
There are some of you reading this for whom I have have just let out a whiff of nostalgia, those who still have portfolios such as this sitting in attic rooms, garages and storage facilities. Tombstones to a lost age.
There will be others to whom this will be like reading history, learning about a time about which they have no knowledge. To these people such a portfolio will seem as strange a concept as not being able to leave a message on a telephone. But believe me there was a time when both of these things were true.
Today the requirements of a portfolio are different. With a downturn in the amount of work being commissioned the photographer wanting to be commissioned cannot rely upon work published to install confidence. The personal project is now to the fore and evidence of commitment and engagement with photography. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate a sense of inquisitiveness, adventure, empathy and problem solving. If that project takes the form of a book, all the better and there is no longer a stigma attached to that book being self-published. Where once it could be seen as being an act of vanity publishing, today especially if crowd funded it can be seen as proof of interest in work by a supportive community.
Now you can photograph what you want to and this should be perceived as a good thing, however with freedom comes responsibility. It is this responsibility that can weigh heavy on the shoulders of those who find it difficult to find projects they wish to pursue and those who pursue projects without understanding where their projects will take them within the commissioned environment.
If you have no expectation of where the work will take you, then you need not worry, but if you want that work to gain you commissions then you may want to consider if the project you are about to embark on is going to be relevant and of interest to those you wish to show it to. Every project evolves as it progresses, but having an idea of its outcome from the beginning does not have to restrict the projects creativity or parameters.
Of course whatever you choose to do has got to be creatively and possibly intellectually fulfilling but it is a mistake to set out with the hope of gaining online likes or positive feedback. That may come in time but the need for approval is a dangerous driver for a project that may take months or years. The serious project takes serious commitment and cannot be rushed.
You will have to live with the project and the work that you produce for some time and therefore research before you start is essential. Research of the approach and the subject you intend to document. Many photographers find this a highly enjoyable part of the process, going deep into the multi-faceted aspects of a project and exploring the history, the reality and the possibilities that a visual story can offer. Too often a lack of research can lead to an unresolved body of work, so you ignore this at your peril.
The personal project can open doors, raise your profile, instigate conversation, help you gain commissions, develop you as a photographer and provide you with a portfolio of work to show, discuss and promote. Today it is essential for the professional photographer to be evolving and developing their personal work to be seen as an engaged photographer. It can be challenging, frustrating, time consuming and draining to your mental and physical energy. However, rather like the laminated portfolios of the past it is expected and therefore not a ‘do’ or ‘not do’ option.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a podcaster, BBC Radio contributor, filmmaker, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021