How I Develop a Personal Project by Adam Ferguson
Identifying the themes you are attempting to explore
I would like to discuss what it means to see and realize a photo project—whether it’s personal, assigned, or commissioned work. I touched on this idea in a previous newsletter about finding a metaphor with one photograph and in another about photographing surveillance, but I didn’t unpack it overtly. Recently, I was looking through notes from workshops I’ve had with students over the last year, and there was a common thread to their questions: “How do I develop a specific project?” Let’s work out what you are making a narrative about, I told them. What are you exploring on a thematic level? I’d take out a sketch pad and start brainstorming; together, we’d come up with a group of words or phrases that would become the defining principle of the work.
Let’s play with a hypothetical example. Pretend I was assigned to make a series of photographs of a group of rock climbers in Utah for a magazine. For this project, the themes that come to mind are perseverance, camaraderie, strength, resilience, and environmental beauty. But they could also be isolation, fear, dominance over nature.
There is no end to the words or phrases you can come up with. The premise is to make a list and then curate it so it aligns with the story you want to tell. In an advertising context, this list could be aligned with a brief or treatment. I make this list regardless of who I am working with.
I come from a photojournalist background where I respond to events and immediate phenomena; it took me years to develop my craft before I started reflecting on my work like this. I’d been dissatisfied with the way I was responding to stories as a photographer. When I looked at artists’ or photographers’ work I was drawn to, I wasn’t achieving the same cohesive, creative thesis.
The first time I developed a project by conceptualizing its themes was when I returned to Australia in 2014 to photograph the Australian bush. I started in the purpose-built mining town of Moranbah in Queensland. I was burnt out from all the international work I’d been doing and wanted to tell a story about my own country. I was interested in Moranbah because mining was an integral part of the shaping of modern Australia. Beyond mining, I had made a list of phenomena to cover, like I might do for a news assignment: country show (fair), youth, drought, workers, pig hunting, youth, small town, cattle station, Aboriginal community, mine, bachelor and spinster balls. Like much of my previous work, I was being more reactive than reflective and didn’t have a clear concept of the story I was trying to tell beyond the micro-events I witnessed. I felt frustrated.
One night I sat down at the Black Nugget pub in Moranbah, a single-story concrete Besser-block construction with a tin roof, and wrote a new list of words and themes that epitomized the Australia I was looking for: isolation, dominance over nature, colonial legacy, ‘The bush’, fleeting, remote, engulfing, remnants, centralization, displacement, mechanization, loss of innocence, modernization, decline, and environmental degradation. It was a shift in seeing small events as part of a larger context.
One of the next times I went to a bachelor and spinster ball, a regional dance where youth from surrounding farms and towns gather to party, I didn’t take pictures of the stage or the band or the spectacle of the event. I didn't take many photographs at all, but I found one photograph that depicted a loss of innocence.
Without a clear understanding of the archetypal themes you are attempting to explore, it's easy to get confused by your own imagery, or seduced by the power of a single image. I make this mistake regularly. But by stripping a project back to its core themes, you have creative guideposts. And when it comes time to edit, you have a thesis to hold every picture up to.
About Adam Ferguson
Adam Ferguson began his photography career as a student at the Queensland College of Art in Australia in the early 2000s. Like most art students, he graduated broke, so he crewed yachts as a deckhand in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean to fund the launch of his photography career. In 2008, he flew to New Delhi on a one-way ticket and spent the next eight years based in Asia.
He first gained wide recognition for his work in 2009 when he began to cover the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, working as a photojournalist contributing to The New York Times, TIME, and National Geographic. Since then, his work has focused mainly on civilians caught amidst geopolitical forces. In recent years, his work has concentrated on climate change.
He has been the recipient of multiple awards from World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International, American Photography, Photo District News, The Overseas Press Club of America, Sony World Photography Awards, Columbia University, and the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, among others.
When he’s not traveling, he lives in New York. He’s currently working on two monographs: a visual diary of his time covering the post-9/11 War on Terror and an exploration of Australia’s sparsely populated interior and its colonial legacy.
About the newsletter
After 20 years in the industry, Adam Ferguson decided it was time to throw open the doors and share some of the wisdom and experience he has accumulated after two decades.
Since his early twenties, his life as a photographer has seen him travelling on assignment, often to areas of conflict and unrest, and then coming home and trying to live in peace, keep up with a rapidly changing media and photographic landscape, and most importantly, telling stories. The pandemic forced him to look inward, helping him with the decision to launch a twice-weekly newsletter on photography where he’ll explain his conceptual and technical processes, write a journal from the road, interview colleagues, and have an honest conversation about photography.