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Are Personal Projects Worth It? Why David Burnett, Ami Vitale & David duChemin Say Yes

How important are personal photography projects to distinguishing your voice? And will a project on the side help catch the eye of your dream clien...

How important are personal photography projects to distinguishing your voice? And will a project on the side help catch the eye of your dream client? In our guide, The Inspiration Handbook: 50 Tips from 50 Photography Trailblazers, we got advice from David Burnett, Ami Vitale, David duChemin, Dixie Dixon, Scott Strazzante, Dianne Debicella, and Jonathan Gayman who share why personal projects really matter.

1. David Burnett, Photojournalist 

Photo by David Burnett

Photo by David Burnett

“As an emerging photojournalist in the early 70s, my focus was on trying to create stories for magazines to the exclusion of almost everything else. I wish someone had told me then that the most personally important pictures you’ll ever make are those about you and your life. I’m glad I had the chance to work for some great magazines, but I re- ally miss those little everyday images, the ones that take place in and around your own life, which will never make the news. Don’t sell yourself short: photograph your own life, not just everyone else’s.”

2. Ami Vitale, Photojournalist & Documentary Filmmaker 


Photo by Ami Vitale

“Perhaps one of the most important aspects of building your business is to develop a body of work on the subjects you care deeply about. I think one of the biggest mistakes photographers make is not having work that defines their interests and strengths. No one is going to hire you for what you say you like to do. You have to show them that you are capable of it first. For example, if you only take portraits for corporate clients, National Geographic will never hire you. So sometimes, it’s better not to accept every assignment and use that time to work on a project that you are passionate about and create that body of work that will get you future assignments.”

3. David duChemin, World & Humanitarian Photographer 


Photo by David duChemin

“I’ve always found more success concentrating on personal projects and then leveraging those into shareable work (books, blog posts, social media, etc). It’s taken me years to recognize, but that’s what grows my audience and brings in new work and new opportunities. So this year, my marketing budget for time and money is all going into my new work in the Canadian arctic and continued work on my humanitarian projects in Africa.”

4. Dixie Dixon, Commercial Fashion Photographer & Nikon Ambassador 

Copyright Dixie Dixon, Disney, Lifestyle, band, dallas string quartet

Photo by Dixie Dixon

“It’s important to take the time to organize and master your marketing plan. On my end, I plan to send out more unique promos and set up more meetings with my dream clients ranging from advertising agencies to brands. I also plan to update my website and portfolio with all of my recent work and continue to build my lifestyle portfolio and directors reel through personal projects. In the commercial world, it’s so important to always be shooting personal work because it keeps your vision fresh and attracts your dream clients to you.”

5. Scott Strazzante, Photojournalist, San Francisco Chronicle 

“I thought that my only path to success was to photograph an Olympics or a natural disaster in a far flung land or have access to the President. In reality, it was only after I embraced the moments happening in my backyard while trusting my own voice, did my work start to be noticed. When I look back at my career now, it is my personal efforts—my project Common Ground, my Shooting from the Hip blog, and my iPhone street photography—that I am most proud of.”

6. Dianne Debicella, Senior Program Director for Fiscal Sponsorship, Fractured Atlas 

“There are no shortcuts in fundraising money for your personal photo projects. It’s hard work and takes time to build relationships. Make sure that when you approach donors or apply for grants, you are able to articulate your value, including the value of your work, and how these values relate to your donors. Be specific in what you are ask- ing a donor to do, be patient, and do your research before making an ask.”

7. Jonathan Gayman, Commercial & Editorial Photographer 

The Macrobiotic Lunch Tray

Photo by Jonathan Gayman

“I always have a greater goal in mind when working on personal projects. Right now I’m doing a lot of editorial work. I’ve been shooting food for five years now, and before that I was still doing a lot of corporate portraiture. One of the goals of this lunch tray project was to broaden my scope to the more lucrative commercial area. I like to keep in mind when doing personal projects that I’m doing it not just for me but also to have work that can speak to the type of clients that I want to work with and show the type of work I want to be doing.”

For more tips on growing you photo business, check out our guide The Inspiration Handbook: 50 Tips from 50 Photography Trailblazers.



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