Self Assignment. My answer for why I shoot personal work.
Why do you shoot personal work?
Cary Norton: Short answer: I shoot personal work because it’s what gives me the greatest sense of personal satisfaction. Photography is how I’ve learned to navigate life. Photography as a career can be problematic for me—something so intensely personal ones worldview/coping mechanism/raison d’etre (to be overly dramatic) intertwining with commerce sets the stage for conflict (internal, mostly, I guess). The compromises I make creating images that aren’t fully from/for myself (i.e. editorial, corporate, et cetera) creates an emotional need for me to make the work that moves me, whether I recognize it or not. And so I find myself shooting photographs that make me happy.
Longer answer: I shoot personal work because I have to. I found photography in college and pursued that as my career without question—but morphing photography, which has always been intensely personal for me, into something on which I rely for my life, has been a mixed bag. I’ve had several genuinely perfect jobs. Jobs where I was given an idea and the freedom to explore that how I saw fit. Jobs where I’ve been dealt an awful hand (weather, bad subject, et cetera) and managed to pull out beautiful work that I’m still proud of. Jobs that feel more like breathing than working. But they are the exception, obviously. Most jobs are just jobs, but I try to shoot everything as though I were shooting it for me, even if it’s a photo of something I couldn’t care less about. I strive for the FEELING I get shooting personal work no matter what I’m shooting. That feeling is why I take photos in the first place. It’s a fundamental part of who I am now. Making photos of my life is how I’ve come to cope with life. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. I just mean that, through all the stuff you can go through in life—all the emotions, twists and turns, gloriously beautiful parts of being alive, and all the stuff that knots your gut—it’s all so overwhelming. Photography is how I’ve learned to absorb it all and deal with it. For instance, in retrospect I can tell you almost every girl I’ve liked since I started shooting. I wear my emotions on my sleeves as a rule anyway, but man, the photos say it all if you know what you’re looking for. Also, having a camera, even if it was just my phone, was indispensable last year when my grandfather was passing. I’ve lost people in my family before, but never had the impact been so direct and intense. During his last days, I cut myself off from everybody that wasn’t in my immediate family and used Instagram to communicate what I was going through, more or less without words.
Also, a good bit of the personal work I end up shooting is my every day life. This, for me, is crucial. I don’t get too caught up in shooting that I don’t live in the moment, but my mind works so visually that shooting intensifies my experience. By that I mean something like this: When I shoot it I am engaging the experience visually which means I’m creating in that moment which means I’m more likely to remember it. Not only just recalling what we did at some point in the future (I’m horrible at remember that way), but if I look at the photo I took I can recall my emotional state when I shot it, the what and why of the composition, and all the moments in between. In waiting for the moment I want to photograph, I get to watch the others flit by and it gives the photo I do take in the moment more context in my brain. I don’t know, it just all lives together in my head like that.
Personal shooting also let’s me experiment with photographing in different ways and with different cameras and formats. I embraced 4x5 because I wanted a challenge (and how do you not want to shoot large format after seeing Avedon’s American West?—which is basically inevitable if you shoot for a living) and that’s turned into all kinds of learning. I’ve always shot film but shooting large format has made me slow down even more and learn more about how to interact with who I’m photographing, and it also gives me the ineffable joy of developing the film. That’s another reason I shoot for myself; It’s really fun. I get to be in control from start to finish and don’t have to answer to anyone but myself if the project succeeds or fails.
And I managed to forget probably the most important part of personal work for me—people. As private as I like to be, as a rule, I really love people. Shooting personal work let’s me connect with people and have no agenda except to try to learn about them, and life, and myself through that experience. Having a camera in my hand gives me an excuse to break through the barrier of not knowing someone. Shooting helps me form new relationships and keeps me engaged with the world around me.