What 9/11 did NOT change in my photography

Last week I blogged about how the terrible events of 9/11/01 changed photography. (Or maybe more accurately, how the photography that came out of that day highlighted the changes in the culture of photography that were just picking up speed at that moment.) That essay was written from the perspective of a blogger first and a photographer second. This week I approach the same topic the other way, as a photographer first and a blogger second.

After “coming to terms” with the events of 9/11, I watched as other photographers, including my wife, Annu Matthew, created photography projects drawing on their own responses to those same events. Photographers that I know, such as Joe McNally, Kevin Bubriski, Jay Maisel and Joel Meyerowitz created projects at or near the site of the attacks in New York City. Others created similar projects, some of which focused on the two wars that followed the events of 9/11. In searching the web, I noted that Photo District news compiled an article on what they call From The Ashes: Photo Projects of The Post-9/11 Milieu

One of the more unusual projects I found was that of documentary photographer Jonathan Hyman, who photographed vernacular artwork that he saw popping up in public places across the country which had been created by ordinary Americans in response to the attacks. Read more and see the work.

In the years after the attacks, I looked at a lot of post-9/11 projects. I thought about doing something myself. In the process of talking myself out of various ideas, I learned a lot about myself as a photographer. Although I am often labeled a photojournalist, because that is my background, I am not really a photojournalist these days. I am something in between an editorial (magazine) and a long-term projects photographer.

Many photojournalists would simply needed to hop on a train to NYC because they “had” to be there. Others would have jumped right in and hoped to “score” a big assignment. The latter was particularly unlikely in the over saturated media market of NYC, where it seems like everyone has a camera. Having tried both strategies in the past (and mostly failed) I knew that I was not going to take either of those approaches.

As I shot down ideas for potential projects, I started evaluating my own project creation process. I looked back at the many projects, large and small, which I had created over the years. I excluded assignments since those were “outwardly directed.” I did include projects that evolved from assignments because those were some of my most successful efforts.

What did I learn? My projects take a long time to develop! I start with an idea that I am interested in learning more about. That idea should also be something that I hope is of interest to others, who will experience my exploration of that topic. Then I do lots of research, usually consisting of reading and sometimes interviews. Then I start photographing for the project. At this point in the process, my idea is evolving, going through a process of trial and error, until I have a clearer definition. The final approach is almost always different from the initial idea. So much so, that if my idea for a project does not change between the start and the end, it usually means I am not working hard enough.

Once I understood my project development process better I realized two things. First, I could not figure out how to use that same, historically successful strategy to create a new project in reaction to 9/11. Also, I took so long going through that process that my window of opportunity was gone.

I cannot say if those photographers who did “pull off” pos-9/11 projects were any more concise in their decision-making as they defined and executed their projects. We read numerous stories about those photographers who successfully pulled off post-9/11 projects. I would love to read similar pieces about photographers who lost time, money, possibly even their health in the failed pursuit of some post-9/11 project. But since their work never gets published and/or those photographers do not become famous, I doubt we ever will. That is really too bad, because in my experience, as much as we learn from success, we learn more from failure.

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