Are you balancing work that fills your bank account with work that fills your soul?

We’ve all made excuses. 

“I’m too busy trying to finish projects for my clients.”

“I’m too exhausted to wake up a the crack of dawn to chase perfect light.”

“I’ve got to focus on work that pays the bills!”

Sure, there are plenty of good excuses. But the truth is: you can’t afford to avoid personal projects. Consider the risks. Without work that fuels your creativity and feeds your spirit, you’re sprinting down a path to boredom and burnout.

To explore the power of personal projects, The Photo Life is publishing a series of posts from photographers who have embraced risk and pursued long-term personal projects. The second post in the series is an enlightening Q & A with photographer Dave Wittig.

CLICK BELOW TO SEE A SLIDESHOW of Dave’s ongoing personal project, The Naked Portraits.

Why do you make time for personal projects?

Because it’s the reason I became a photographer. After my love for my wife and friends, making art is the most important thing in my life. I became a “professional” photographer so that I would have the resources to make that art. It is the fruit of my research into how this life works. It’s the closest I can come to coherently expressing certain beliefs, experiences and ideas.

What are the most rewarding personal projects you’ve worked on in your journey as a photographer?

If the question is restricted to actual artwork, then it would undoubtedly be a large scale, multi-year collaboration I’ve been working on with poet Mischa Willett to re-imagine Rilke’s Duino Elegies. The synergy I’ve felt despite the fact that we are dialoguing almost without speaking outside of the work itself, and across thousands of miles, and in the case of Rilke, the space of a hundred years, is remarkable. It’s the most ambitious project I’ve been involved in and makes me smile more than anything else I’ve worked on.

If I can stretch the parameters of that question a little, to the most satisfying experience related to personal work, then it was the opportunity to work with Dr. John Walford, an art historian who was writing an essay on my work. While I had already completed the art itself, having to deeply reflect on the work I’d just done in order to answer his questions was a rewarding – and at times arduous – process. His questions, comments, and conclusions were illuminating and still guide my thought and work. Of course, having my work published in book form, and exhibited in two centuries-old Italian churches was quite a reward as well.

What are the biggest challenges to starting – and finishing – personal projects?

For me, finding or creating the first image is sometimes the most difficult part. There’s all this thought and work and imagining that’s gone into it and it can’t start until that first image is found or made. To me that first image really guides the rest of the project, it sets guidelines and boundaries, and keeps me true to what I set out to do. In fact, I can’t think of a single series I’ve done where the first image somehow got replaced or overshadowed by subsequent photos in that series. The challenges in finishing a project never seem to be the same for me. Sometimes it’s lack of time, money, energy, enthusiasm, or simply access to what I want to photograph.

Are personal projects ever really finished?

Definitely. Sometimes, there is some sort of a fixed deadline that forces the project to be finished. For example, a publication or exhibition deadline. Other times, the window of opportunity to shoot closes, because a trip ends; or people are no longer available; or the event you were covering comes to an end. Most of the time for me, however, the project just comes to an end on it’s own. I just intuitively sense my work is done with it – that I’ve arrived at the end of the road those images took me on, or I feel I’ve made my peace with it, or I simply lose interest in that combination of subject and mode of expression. On the other hand, I’m a strong believer in Bob Dylan’s idea that “every artist only has one song.” From that macro level my “project” isn’t ever finished until I die or at least late in life.

What are the financial limitations or freedoms of personal projects?

The principal financial limitation is simply the relatively small amount of resources and time I can dedicate to a given project. However, the freedoms come from that same scarcity. Most important is the freedom to fail. I don’t believe innovative work can be done in any field without at least feeling free to fail. I can spend money/time and come back empty handed knowing that I’m investing in my future work. Donors, patrons, and investors are much less sympathetic.

Have you ever gotten funding for your personal projects? Would you ever consider seeking funding?

I have received small grants. I’ve applied for many others I didn’t receive. At this point I’m not sure it’s the best investment of my time. It seems more efficient to make money doing my “for-profit” work and then self-fund my own projects. Of course, that isn’t as good for the CV nor one’s reputation, but I want to be making images as much as possible, not writing grant applications.

Do you edit your own personal project imagery? Or, do you find that it’s smoother if someone else culls your images?

I value certain people’s critique immensely, but until I meet a clairvoyant editor (and I believe they may be out there) it’s very hard for me to imagine that someone else knows what I’m trying to say better than I do.

Can you describe why you started the Naked Portraits project?

I was photographing nude models for several other projects I was working on, and occasionally I’d make these portraits of them that seemed to have a depth that was incongruous with the other work, especially my other portraits. These images were deeper, more intimate, and more honest. At first I thought I might just be imagining this, but people’s reactions to these images confirmed that there was a tangible difference to them, even though they didn’t know the circumstances under which I made them. I like to imagine that at the end of my career, I, or preferably some critics, will look back and say that deep down I was a portrait photographer. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I have immense respect (and some jealousy) for great portraitists. I make these “Naked Portraits” because they are simply the best portraits I’ve ever made, and I’m endlessly captivated by what can and cannot be revealed in a portrait. I also like to think that someday someone will buy the book of my “Naked Portraits” and be immensely disappointed with the lack of visible anatomy.

What other personal projects have you done? Can you share or show readers via links or downloads?

The best way to see my work is to come to my exhibition next month at Chicago Artist’s Coalition Gallery. For those who can’t make it, my blog has sketches and drafts of ideas I’m working on, while my website has 5 current projects that I’ve been working on for quite some time.

Have you ever worked with another photographer on a collaborative personal project? Or does that never work?

I love collaborative projects with or between other artists. I’ve tried to complete some projects with photographers but haven’t been successful thus far. Nonetheless, I’m not giving up, nor do I think it’s in any way impossible.

Photographer David Wittig

David Wittig is an art and wedding photographer based in Chicago. He and his wife, Nancy Beale, have been capturing weddings and transforming them into art for the last ten years. Their own relationship, a myriad of friendship, partnership and marriage, aides their images, providing two perspectives of a singular moment—what can often be the most important moment of your life. They have shot weddings from Maine to California, from India to France, and are always excited to add another stamp to their already- full passports. Their work, which examines a documentary feel and editorial style, is influenced by their fine art backgrounds and training.

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