The Long-term Project

For any serious photographer nothing is like working on a personal long-term project. If you want to develop your photography, make your creativity bloom, increase your energy and boost your self-esteem and confidence as a photographer, a long-term photo project will do all that for you. Such a project doesn’t have to be exotic at all or take place in a far-away-country. In fact the closer to your home-base the easier it is to follow through and use spare time whenever there is a chance. A personal long-term project can be grand and it can be small. It can be limited to your own backyard, like the project I have described before in the post Out of Comfort Zone, or it can be a project about the world’s manual labourers as the famous photographer Sebastião Salgado has devoted a life time to.

The important thing is to devote yourself to a project you feel is important or speaks to you in some way or form and then stay devoted over a longer period of time. I mean keep going back, keep shooting, keep finding new ways to express the theme you have chosen, keep adding new images to the story. And keep doing it consistently even when at times it feels exhausting and nothing comes out of your attempt of shooting. Gradually you will merge into the project, it becomes you, and that’s when things start to take on a development of its own. By devoting yourself to a project over time you start to feel real ownership for the project, you will gradually relax with the subject – and the subject will relax with you, you lose all pretensions and any performance anxiety you may have. It all becomes about you and the subject and expressing that relationship.

«Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or hate.» This is according to another famous photographer, Dorothea Lange.

For a professional photographer as myself, long-term personal photography projects are the spice of life between the humdrum of every day life and shooting. It brings meaning and joy into my work. I can only recommend any photographer to devote time to a long-term project that feels important or inspiring to you – and it probably works the same way in any of the other art forms, too. The important thing is to start – now. Not keep planning it in your head and saying I’ll do it when I have time, or I just need to plan the project a little more. No, just start.

How long is a long-term project, then? There is no telling what is right when it comes to the time devoted to a long-term project. It can be months or it can be a life time. Only you know how long your project takes, and you probably don’t even know before it’s all done. One of my long term projects have been going on for more than 20 years – and still going on. In fact as you read this I should be on my way for the next encounter with the project. Yes, I am on my way to Cuba, and as such Cuba has been my longest personal photo project to date. Not many posts ago I mentioned the farm I keep visiting in Cuba, where the members have become My Second Family. The farm is but a part of my project. Over the 20 years I have been returning to Cuba, I have tried to portrait and captured the changes is this contradictory country.

Anyway, while under way, what is more appropriate than post some photos I have taken over time previously in Cuba? And with that I will probably be out of the loop a bit the next couple of weeks. Internet isn’t the best developed feature in this Caribbean island. But I’ll try to be back whenever I get a chance.

112 thoughts on “The Long-term Project

  1. This is a very exciting challenge, Otto. First, the photos you’ve shared in this post are really exceptional. They are exciting as topics, and very beautiful. I find your enthusiasm and love for Cuba, and the Cuban people, rich and satisfying to you, but interesting to observe and be part of through your reporting. Like many, if not most Americans, I have a really strong interest and fascination with Cuba. I’ll look forward to your return. And per your challenge, I’m very interested in defining my own personal project. I’ll be thinking about that. D

    1. Cuba is indeed a very special country – and of course with a special relation to USA – and visa verse. Hopefully one day the relations will be normal…

  2. Wonderful advice, Otto, and really nice work! I’m currently working on a couple of personal projects. One has been a very long term project, and the other two are more recent. I’m sure you’ll make some really great images on your trip. Have fun down there!

  3. Such wonderful photos, lots of emotion going on there. I have never thought of a long term project! It is an inspiring idea, always inspired by your blog, thanks again for another way to think. Have a safe trip and a splendid time.

    1. No, I did not know about her and her blog. But I have look it up, so far only quite quickly, but it does look very interesting. Thanks for the advise.

  4. One of the wonderful aspects of a longterm project is being able to see how your own vision has changed. How do you perceive your visual environment now as opposed to twenty years ago? Are you taking the same sort of images? Of course, Cuba itself has changed, and so have you. Thanks again for your insights and safe travels. I also have my own longterm projects. Will share another time.

    1. I think – and hope – I am taking different pictures now than 20 years ago. Back then I was very close up, today I step back a bit and let the scene evolve more than me interfering with it. I also think my visual expression is more subtle and more emotionally loaded than before. Technically it’s easier to distinguish. While I very often used flash earlier, today I mostly or almost always use available light. It has to do with the change from film to digital – which also gives a different expression in itself.

      Look forward to see your long term projects.

  5. I am taking your always >simple yet effective advice< with me: …"project doesn’t have to be exotic at all or take place in a far-away-country. In fact the closer to your home-base the easier it is to follow through and use spare time whenever there is a chance. A personal long-term project can be grand and it can be small."

    Thanks again, Otto and all the best to you on your travels to your second family's homeland. 🙂

  6. I must be due for a new long-term project. You have no idea how timely your post is for me at the moment. Thanks! I hope you enjoy your trip, and I look forward to what you bring back with you. Safe travels!

    1. Thanks, Linda. And then I soon hope to see the result of your long-term project (well, I guess it depends on how long it’s gonna be, of course). 🙂

  7. Amazing photographs and revealing writing here. I can imagine this will be a great adventure for you.

  8. Amazing photographs! I do remember your post about talking about your second family. Wonderful going back to Cuba.
    I have been working on a long term project taking photos of century old buildings and having the colors changed. It brought me great Joy as I looked at each building and turned it into somthing different a fun project. I could do more of that maybe go to a different town. It was so much fun and it really did inspire me. I think the project itself made me more creative in other areas. It makes me happy just thinking of the project.

      1. I don’t think I’ve posted anyof the photos from this long term project yet. I’m not sure why. I just went to a Picasa class to learn to organise my photos better. Maybe after I get a little organised I will! :+)

  9. Thank you dear Otto, this is a wonderful post again. Have a nice and enjoyable and safe travel. I would be looking for you always… Good Luck. Love, nia

  10. Dear Otto,
    Your post hit on it for me. I have been looking for my next project since my blogging on my trip last summer to return the war club. I think I’ll take your advice and just plunge into something close at hand.
    Your photos of Cuba are really great – I fondly remember your post on your dear friends there – and I look forward to seeing and reading more. Did you see the article in the New York Times magazine about Cuba?
    An interesting take on an alluring and compelling place.
    Have a wonderful visit with your friends.

  11. Great post again Otto and what wonderful photos to accompany it. Cuba must be a photographers dream, I would love to visit sometime. Enjoy your trip and look forward to a lot more of your photos.

  12. Flotte bilder fra Cuba! Nydelig stemning i alle bildene! Herlig bilde av Castro! Håper jeg får muligheten til å oppleve dette landet en dag!

    God tur og ha ei fin tid med familien din! : )

  13. Very interesting and good shots, artistic and enjoyable to watch. Your advice always have the experience of having worn shoes by the ways of the world. thanks

  14. This is so timely as I’ve been contemplating starting a personal project. Starting the blog as a 52 week project over a year ago yield more satisfaction and creative growth then I could ever have imagined and now I’m ready for the next step. I just have to figure out what it is. Incredible images Otto. Have a wonderful trip.

    1. Now that you have done a project 52, maybe it’s time to step up to a project 365? Just joking, but I do look forward to see the result of your next step. 🙂

  15. When I saw the first photo I thought you had already been.
    This is a wonderful set images. I particularly like the 3rd one that has the terracotta tone.
    Stay safe on your journey, My Friend, and I look forward to seeing the images you will share when you return.

  16. A valuable article with the energy to get me out of my chair and outside with my camera, regardless of the time and weather!! And the pictures are, of course, superb – beautifully crisp, vibrant colours and full of vitality

  17. True words sir and very good advice here. I have talked to so many photogs that say they don’t have these projects. One thing I have noticed though is most have them, but don’t even know it!

    As for the photos I LOVE that portrait with the lady and her gun. Very cool! Also the dude giving some speech, I suppose, looks very fiery.

    1. I think most photographers who burn for photography do one kind of a personal project or another. Thanks for the comments about the pictures. The dude is somewhat less fiery these days…

  18. Personal projects are so important, they keep you going 🙂 They’re also a great way of showing potential clients what kind of work you enjoy doing I think. Right now I don’t really have a lot of time for them (just started up my business so I’ll have a year of very hard work, but I hope to start shooting them again soon – I’ve got one coming up and I’m really looking forward to it)

    I really like the light and shadows in the first picture 🙂


    1. You are very right, Laura, it’s by the personal projects the potential clients will get to you – even if they then want you to do something quite different. 🙂

  19. Your post “My second family” made ​​a great impression on me. And so does both your great photos above from Cuba – and your wise words. I would hope that they may inspire me so much, that I will be able to accomplish something similar one day ……..
    Otto, I wish you a good trip and look forward to seeing and reading more from you later.

  20. Oh, as always these photos really deliver. The naked underbelly of the gun with the younger and older woman, Fidel packing a metaphorical punch in a speech, the wave rolling into Havana… so many layers of meaning in each of these. Simply powerful… and gained from the “long term” of working long projects. Just as writers ripen, gain material and hone delivery with experience, so must photographers. Thank you, Renee

  21. I’m so impressed that you were able to go to Cuba annually for the past 20 years. I’m looking forward to hearing what if any changes you’re seeing. About 2 years ago we had an exhibition on Cuba at the museum where I work and besides loving the photos, I attended some fascinating public lectures and also read several accounts of Cubans who went back after all these years, and discovered they didn’t belong there anymore.

    1. There have been some really radical changes in Cuba since I first visited the country in 1991. Back then I arrived in Havana at night. And it was pitch black everywhere. Only inside the hotel was there any light. Now cafés, restaurants and outdoor places lit up the night as it was any regular city. Quite an astonish change, literally. But of course the political changes are in a way more interesting. But this will have to wait. I’ll get back with more pondering about the changes in Cuba.

  22. Very inspiring post Mr Munchow. I like your dedication towards photography. Thank you, for letting us know “to begin” It feels like Today is the day. Long term personal projects definitely make a lot of sense, if one wants to achieve the proficiency level. You’ve been motivating. Thaks once again. 🙂

  23. Your photos glow with such vibrancy while your words are always full of inspiration! The very word “project” has such purpose to it, now that you mention it . . .

  24. Your photos of Cuba are descriptive, vibrant, and non-clichéd. They show a culture that we really don’t hear about very much. I appreciate your insightful thoughts on the creative process with all it’s highs and lows. Best wishes.

  25. I’m working on a couple of long term projects, one started around ten years ago is almost completed, at least the photographic part. And the second is going on and I’ planning to complete it in the next year. You are right, it is important to have a long term goal, it is waht is keeping myself awake!
    PS: wonderful photos, as usual from you.

    1. Have you ever been to Cuba? I am sure your husband has mixed feelings about the present situation in the country? For many Cubans he is one of the lucky ones who made it. Thanks for the comment.

  26. Great piece of advice with some really wonderful pictures. 🙂 I am working on a project and as you said now I am somehow feeling more connected to the subjects and I believe the same for them too. 🙂 Have a great trip Otto!

      1. Yes the first chapter of my book is a glimpse of that project; which is about the rural India and issues related to it. I hope to come up with something more than a chapter of a book on this topic someday.

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