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 Backyard Abstraction, 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. 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 Cuban Family. The farm is but a part of my project. Over the 25 years I have been returning to Cuba, I have tried to portrait and captured the changes is this contradictory country.

75 thoughts on “The Long-term Project

  1. I would say my wild horses are my long term project. Chronicling the same herd, or visiting all new areas, I get a feel for their lives.

  2. I’ve tried a few long term projects and enjoyed the intensity of concentrating on a topic or place. Now – hopefully – we’ll be moving home and I’ve already lined up some ideas for our new location. It’s going to be fun! 🙂

  3. My long term project, I thought, was finishing and publishing my book. What I didn’t realize is that finishing it, wasn’t the end, but actually only a beginning. Visiting with people in the book, hearing people’s feedback and thoughts, considering how to market it, if at all — and now, wait for it… I’ve been asked to write a second book and I’ve started the outline! I’ve been asked to do speaking events with both kids and adults in Boston in 2019 and am gearing up for what might be new career. I’m so scared — in a good way. Jumping in with both feet! My long term project — a journey I set for myself to walk through parts of my life and understand them — has actually started a new path for me. And I’m thinking Long-Term Projects are quite the journey. And for me, quite the surprise. I know it’s not the same thing you’re talking about — but I’m not a photographer — and, well, you know I follow and read you because what you talk about is never just about photography. Your art (and I’m talking about your writing here) transcends photography. All the great artists transcend… so it makes sense. 🙂

    1. It’s really exciting to read your comment (and your blog as well). Yes, you are definitely in for a long term project. And it’s so cool if it actually has lead you into a whole new career. I wish you all the best with the next book, the speeches, the various interactions and so on. It’s simply fantastic. And thanks for the lovely words about my blog.

  4. You always advocate long term projects – and I think you are right. I am still working on mine – the one I started when I attended a course of yours. It will go on, I feel…but I still love the idea, and that is the essential thing.

  5. I think I need a project. I tend to go so many directions with my images that a project would actually give me a focus to pulling it all together. Thanks for your post.

  6. Love Cuba, som du vet. Du har varit där så många gånger, du har en historia att gå tillbaka till och det avundas jag dig. Vill åka tillbaka och det kommer jag att göra…men det finns så mycket annat, så många andra intressanta platser som jag inte har sett, men som jag vill se…innan jag ligger med näsan i vädret. Tack i alla fall för påminnelsen och glädjen!

    1. Ja, jeg elsker Cuba, men som deg, vil jeg også se mer av verden for øvrig. Det er alltid en kamp mot tiden, før vi – som du sier – havner med nesen i været. Jeg kan ennå rekke et par steder til…

  7. This is a terrific sampling, and great shots. The flag-wavers and Fidel look very animated. In the first two shots, the musician and the lovely young soldier are holding their respective instruments at the same angle (I’m imagining a revolutionary-themed composition, staccato, guitar and automatic rifle).

  8. Is that last photo El Malecón in Havana? It’s a wonderful photo, and a place that’s had some importance to me.

    As for long terms projects: of course. My first experience of a (somewhat limited) long term project was the documentation of prairie regrowth after a controlled burn. Once every few days for two months I went down and photographed the same piece of land. It was so interesting, and nothing ever was the same. I’ve been pondering picking a piece of native prairie and documenting it through an entire year: not a large piece of land, but a smaller bit that would force real looking to see what’s going on inside it — maybe a square meter or two.

    Your mention of your backyard project brought to mind a very recent revelation I’ve had. You know this, but it’s just come to me: there’s a world of difference between what a camera can do, and what we can do with a camera.

    1. Linda, I’ve been thinking of documenting the local pond over a year in the same way in which you mention picking a piece of native prairie. I know from past years how interesting it is to see and photograph the same small natural ground over all 4 seasons. Love your last sentence – so true.

    2. To answer the question first; yes it’s El Malecón. And of course, now you made me curious.

      As for long term projects, I think both the one you have done and the one you consider doing, are great ideas. I would love to see what you came up with through a year of documenting a piece of the prairie.

      And, yes, you are quite right about the camera and us as photographers using a camera. 🙂

  9. I’ve been procrastinating about doing some more abstract nature photography, but health matters and pain keep getting in the way. I had no real excuse until this year.
    (now, yesterday’s hip MRI and torn muscles, of all things, actually give me a real excuse for putting it off. LOL 🙂 ).

    I like the idea of doing something more abstract with B & W photography too.

  10. I love having a project at work, so why did I not think of a project for photography?! Such a great idea, Otto. Gives me something to ponder and act on. Thanks so much.

  11. Life is far too short for ‘tomorrow’! You have to grab it and run with it. I love the idea of a long-term project, something to really get my teeth into; in all the days I’ve posted on my blog I’ve had themes, but they tend to be shorter term, rather than lifelong ambitions! Something to have a think about… 🙂

  12. I’m thankful you introduced me to this idea – in some ways, I think long-term projects choose the photographer. The theme that always seems to show up in the images… that irresistible subject matter that re-surfaces again and again. Once I realized it had chosen me, though, I became more intentional about noticing/partnering with it. A dance that brings me much joy…

    1. Sometimes a theme indeed choose the photograph, and it may not always be evident from the beginning. But sometimes you just sit down and play with various ideas about what you would like to do. That’s how I actually got started with my Cuba project—not knowing it would last for decades…

  13. Very good post, not to mention the very nice photos. I never thought of photograph in that way. Your message applies to all aspects of life. I have found that starting a project is scary (speaking from experience) – I have meant to start learning something for a year now, but am really scared about and have extremely low confidence in my capability.

  14. Great captures, the look on Fidel’s face as he orates and the woman’s dainty red nails on a lethal weapon…. Lot’s to ponder in these…. What a great concept, to work on a long term project and just exhaust it. Thanks for the idea.

  15. i used to only shoot still life, because i figured i was bad a portraits, then one day my husband TOLD ME i was bad at portraits so my next project became PORTRAITS of my husband hahaha

  16. Such evocative shots. I’m especially drawn to 3, 6, & 7. They say a lot about the politics down there. It has taken me a long time to find my long-term project, but now that I have I’m a bit possessed by it. Maybe that’s the sign that these are the projects we’re on the planet to do? I’ve enjoyed following your Cuban and backyard observations. Keep at it!

  17. As you have illustrated the long term project has limitless possibilities. One of the aspects that attracts me is to see the extent to which the subject has changed over an extended period and the nature of the changes that have taken place in the interpretation.

  18. You’ve said before that my love for the Algarve shines through, and I think the same is true for yours of Cuba, Otto. Long may it continue, for both of us. 🙂 🙂

  19. Some beautiful photos here Otto. I suppose the long term project could apply to writing as well and something definitely pops into mind for me. Thanks for the nudge and inspiration.

  20. You always give such wonderful, inspiring instruction, Otto — but I especially appreciate how you always punctuate your lessons with some examples of your own. And these images are extraordinary! I hope you’re proud of them, and of your long-term Cuban project.

  21. Such a wonderful idea, Otto. I’m thinking of a long term writing project, but not a book. Still trying to recover from the first one. 😀 Perhaps a travel diary about the rediscovery of my own town.

  22. Excellent post Otto! I love self-imposed projects … choosing a theme and working it into a collection. One reason I love blogging is because I can put images in sets. Together, I feel they make a stronger statement. I also consider the subjects I accept as my niché to be long-term projects. Some of the galleries I have organized on my store website for example can be considered long-term because I keep looking for subjects to add to them.

  23. Thanks for the encouragement. With the recent environmental news, I’m realizing that my long term observations of nature may end up being an important record.

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