The important process of naming a project

The members of a critique group that I head recently had an email dialogue about what to call one of the member’s ongoing projects. As the process unfolded, I thought about my own struggles naming my projects and how the naming of a photographic project is arguably the most important step in the process of defining and shaping such a project.

Whenever I teach my class on the Photo-Essay, I tell the students that the hardest part of any project is defining the project and clarifying the point of view they will take when they are photographing. I tease them that, relatively speaking, “photography is easy but defining your project is hard.”

I am teaching that Photo-Essay class next at the CT Media/Photography Institute in Farmington, CT, July 12th – 18th, 2009. For more info., go to http://tinyurl.com/DavidWells2009PhotoEssay In that class, we start with the premise that figuring out a title for a project and then writing out a project proposal are the first steps major in the project. That whole process helps the photographer know all the things they will be photographing as well as what they are NOT going to be photographing.

Knowing what to exclude is often the key to working efficiently. Staying focused on the defined topic eliminates the wasted effort and time that can easily go into exploring aspects of a project that do not turn out to be important to the final project.

The dialogue on naming the project went something like this (to paraphrase:)

“I have been working with some intensity on my two upcoming exhibits and have been pondering the titles and themes ….

One is titled and themed, ‘Barn Stories.’ It has the double meaning of the barns telling their own stories … and of getting people to tell their own “barn stories,” telling their experiences with barns and what they mean to them.

For the other, I am working on a title or theme and have come up with, at this point, ‘Barns & Grain Elevators: Beauty and Utility. ‘ It is this second part, beauty and utility that I am pondering. My original idea for a title was ‘Agricultural Architecture,’ so I looked up architecture in the dictionary, which led me to the beauty and utility theme.”

I replied:

“As for the second project’s title, how about:

‘Beauty and Utility: The Architecture of Barns and Grain Elevators.’

This shifts the emphasis so the more photographic/artistic points are highlighted first.

I am not as big a fan of Agricultural Architecture.”

Another group member asked:

“So is it better to state/suggest an emotion or feeling in a title or to just say what people will see and allow them the freedom to feel as they will? ”

I replied:

“The short answer is it is best not to leave it open to very much interpretation as folks interpret things so many different ways that they can go way off in their interpretation from what you planned, so do direct them as much as possible.

Please consider these both:

‘Beauty and Utility: The Architecture of Barns & Grain Elevators’

vs.

‘The Architecture of Barns and; Grain Elevators: Beauty and Utility’

The first one’s change in word order shifts the emphasis to make the photographic/artistic points primary. I prefer the first version.

The whole process is a tug of war between the informational and the evocative.

In the future, try writing the titles ideas out. Leave them alone for a few hours (days) then revisit them.”

Another group member chimed in:

“Yes, I too like the evocative to precede the descriptive.”

Another group member chimed in and suggested:

“The Beauty of Utility”

To which the photographer who was working on the project replied:

“I really like that, especially since the builders were probably more intent on the functional than the beauty, but what they produced has beauty. Perhaps I am selling the builders short, that indeed they wanted to build something that was pleasing to their aesthetics.

Pulling together all the suggestions, I come up with:

‘The Beauty of Utility: The Architecture of Barns & Grain Elevators.’”

Now, we could continue to debate the possible titles for days, but I think the process the photographer went through was quite instructive. He had an idea and then he defined the various threads within the project. Next, he played with words/phrasing and used other resources (the dictionary) to make sure he was correctly using the words that he had in mind. Finally, he sought the advice from others on how to fine-tune the title.

The last step was especially important, because as photographers, we all tend to lose perspective on what we are doing. A project may be incredibly important to us, but unless the title and the project imagery are clearly understood by others, we have failed. In my own projects, that same process has unfolded, sometimes more and sometimes less successfully.

My project exploring the impact of pesticides on farm-workers was initially titled ‘The Pesticide Poisoning of California Farm-workers.’ When I submitted the project for the NPPA/Documentary sabbatical grant, I changed the name to ‘The Pesticide Poisoning of America’ in order to be more geographically expansive (and to fit within the grant’s theme of … “a documentary project illuminating ‘The Changing Face of America’.”) One unanticipated benefit of that name change was it gave me the incentive and the freedom to later explore the same topic as it impacted people living in New Jersey.

To see a small selection of that work, go to: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuCalPest/index.html To see past winners of that same grant go to: http://www.nppa.org/competitions/nikon_documentary_sabbatical/past_winners.html

The title of my project exploring the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians went through three name changes. I was initially photographing programs promoting cooperation between the two sides and I called the folks who were reaching across the divide, ‘Pioneers for Peace.’ I showed that body of work to a group of photographers who said it failed because I needed to show a more all-encompassing view of Israeli – Palestinians interaction. So, I stepped back and photographed all aspects of that interaction, including conflict, coexistence and cooperation.

The resulting new project was briefly titled ‘Between Brothers,’ drawing on the idea that Moslems and Jews trace their lineage to the same common patriarch, Abraham. After my third or fourth friend said that ‘Between Brothers’ sounded rather sexist, I switched to ‘Distant Relations.’ That final title reflects that connection to their shared patriarch. The final title also helped me greatly to define what to include (or exclude) as I was photographing. To see a selection of that work, go to: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuuPalIsr/index.html

My most recent project exploring the fluctuating encounter between the eternal and the newly global in South Asia started as a few pieces in a group exhibition in Rhode Island. That exhibition was called ‘Four Indias,’ where I was one of four photographers who explored different aspects of India. Then, it became a solo show/project that I initially called: The Newly Global and the Eternal: Dualities in South Asia. To see a selection of that work, go to: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuuIndiaExhibit/index.html#_self

A curator who presented the show in Montana (and was not that fond of that clunky title) suggested a much better title: ‘Concurrence: An Evolving India.’ I really like what became the final title because it is both evocative and descriptive. If you want to see the latest incarnation of that work and see if we did a good job titling the project, you can see the latest incarnation of that exhibition, which will be in New York City from July 6 through July 28 at the H.P. Gallery in Calumet’s New York store at 22 W. 22nd Street in New York City.

My experience naming my projects proves another point I often make in my Photo-Essay classes. I tell students: “If your project does not change between when you start it and finish it, you are not working hard enough.”

Speaking of working hard, the important thing to remember is that naming a project, which means defining that project, is the hardest part of the project. For my wife who is a fine-art photographer, that is similarly true! In her experience, like mine, once you know what you have to do, it is relatively easy to execute the idea you have worked so hard to define.

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