In Frame: The Challenges and Rewards of Personal Photography Projects

Last week I had the first visits in my photo projects on adults with autism, which is a continuation of the Autism Stories project started last year. It’s exciting. The last few months, which were a time of reflection and recalibration, I missed working with people: getting to know them, discussing, photographing them.

Evening hike in a local forest (Belgium, 2023)

Whenever I do that I feel alive and at peace with myself. I feel like doing what I need to be doing.

But making time for photography is not exactly easy. I do photography in my own time while having a full time job, being a parent, and a few other things that need time and energy.

Finding Time: A Delicate Balancing Act

Finding time is difficult for many reasons.

When working on a documentary project, I work with people who have their own schedules and preferences to which I need to adapt. They don’t owe me anything. I am the one asking for something: their time, their willingness to be photographed and have their pictures made public, their willingness to open up about their lives.

Another difficulty comes from the constant challenge of finding enough time in one day. Some things will require a lot of time and, although I may not consider all of them meaningful enough for the time they take, I have a professional obligation to be there. I spend a lot of time with my son, especially during weekends. I love it. It’s never lost time, even when he’s having a meltdown. But it’s certainly not time I can use for anything else.

I also need time for myself. To process things, rest, dream, write, or just be. And sometimes I need to choose between having this time for myself or scheduling some photo work. Whichever I choose, there will be at least a hint of frustration somewhere.

Blending documentary photography with parenting, work, and personal time is like a Rubik’s cube with a couple of pieces missing: even in the best of cases, I am only able to do an ok job. There’s simply too much to be done and too many unforeseen demands on my time and energy. By the time I get to work on the project, I may feel exhausted or there may not be much time left.

What Photography Gives Back to Me

That being said, photography gives a lot back. It is a space of freedom and grace, in which anything is possible for a while. It is an outlet that offers escape and a chance to recharge. It connects me with others and reconnects me with myself. It offers a space in which I play and create a story while also being part of it, along with the other characters.

Working on a photo project is an exercise in storytelling, even if it’s documentary photography. And practising our storytelling helps us better distinguish between ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves all the time, the constant chatter in our heads. We can easily get stuck in a continuous rehashing of our narratives rather than letting go of expectations and allowing ourselves to be curious about what’s really going on. Photography confonts us with different stories and different ways of telling a story. It loosens the grip of the default narrative and lets the different narrative possibilities shine through.

Photography also cultivates a certain awareness and attention to detail. You walk on the street, all senses awake. There’s this detail here and that situation over there. You can see things developing into something that could be a good photo. You anticipate. You position yourself in the right place and wait for the right moment.

I believe the way we pay attention trickles down and reflects itself in everything we do, from making tea to replying to a friend who just opened up about their problems, to writing, photography, or dancing.

Photography as a Form of Presence

There’s nothing to pushing the shutter button. It takes a fraction of a second. Unless you’re using a film camera, you can take as many shots as you like, delete most of them, and then take some more.

You can do it as an ego-affirming gesture, as yet another form of narcissist expression. You can do it to kill time. You can do it to escape anxiety and depression.

But you can also turn it into an act of awareness and presence.

Remember the last time you felt absolutely present with whatever you were doing. Fully involved in that activity. Losing track of time. Being aware and focused without trying too hard. Without trying at all.

Working on a photo project does that for me. Not all the time. Not fully. But it makes this state of flow possible.

Sometimes I have a pretty good idea of what I want to shoot and how. Sometimes I have a vague idea but I remain open to whatever I encounter. And sometimes I just go with what’s there, with no plan and no expectations. Regardless of the situation, the way I pay attention, notice, and focus on things is different from the day-to-day scattered awareness I usually experience.

Even if I am not constantly looking for possible compositions, there’s a certain background awareness that accompanies any time spent with the camera. A form of attention to detail that, after a while, does not require any conscious effort.

In a Nutshell

I briefly went over some the challenges of finding time for photo projects, especially those involving sensitive topics like adults with autism. Despite these challenges, I find photography incredibly rewarding. It’s not just about taking pictures; it’s a powerful way to express myself, tell meaningful stories, and find moments of calm and focus in my otherwise pretty hectic life. Photography offers me a space of play, connection, and storytelling that brings me back to myself and grounds me in the present.

2 Comments on “In Frame: The Challenges and Rewards of Personal Photography Projects

  1. I love how you describe the process of photography in this post, as a form of presence and awareness and storytelling. Waiting for a good photo because you spot an opportunity for it. A wonderful post 👌🏼🌟

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