I recently sat down with Todd Bigelow, a freelance photojournalist based in Southern California. I wanted to talk to him about his approach to photo projects. Bigelow is best-known for his long term project on immigration and the border between the United States and Mexico.
He has mastered something that many documentary photographers struggle to do: shoot photos of a subject they are passionate about; get those images seen by lots of people; and make enough money to fund the project (and then some.)
During my interview (video below), I asked him to reveal the “secrets” to his photo project success. He is a very humble, helpful, and friendly guy – so he was more than willing to share.
The 6 Secrets to a Successful Photo Project
1) Retain your copyright
“Retaining that copyright is absolutely imperative if you’re going to make a successful photo project and get it seen,” said Bigelow.
He said that there are a variety of reasons for this, including the ability to license the images so that you can generate revenue to cover the costs of the project.
“You also need to be aware of the fact that if you give up your copyright, that image could be used in places that you wouldn’t necessarily want it to be used.”
This is especially important when photographers are looking to protect their subjects and contacts within the story. By violating the trust of your subjects, you but your own access at risk.
2) Be passionate about the subject
“Pick a subject matter that you are passionate about,” he said. “That passion is going to really, really, really drive you out there to photograph.”
Bigelow, who has been working on his immigration project for 18-years, says that photo projects require a lot of energy and time.
“If you’re not passionate about it, you’re probably not going to get out the door and spend a lot of time working on it.”
3) Have a thorough understanding of the subject
Bigelow said that having a deep understanding of the subject can help you to allow the story to unfold and develop as you’re shooting. A person who doesn’t fully understand a subject may lack the confidence needed to “go with the flow.”
For example, when Bigelow ran up against some obstacles in the USA as a result of the border being shut down, he knew enough about the subject that such a shutdown would have consequences on the Mexican side of the border.
So he went to Tijuana, Mexico, and photographed in a crowded Catholic migrant shelter in order to tell the story.
“I think it was having that understanding of how the story continues to evolve, led me into the shelter and found a new avenue to explore and make more images that were telling of the difficulty in crossing the US/Mexico border.”
4) Have realistic expectations
A photo project could fail if a photographer has unrealistic expectations — specifically when it comes to access. Bigelow cautions photographers to be especially careful about this from the very start of the project.
“A lot of times, we might think we’re going to get real easy access to what we’re photographing, but that’s not always the case,” he said. “We kind of have to blend that expectation of what we’re after with what’s realistically available for us to shoot.”
Remember that there are many ways in which to tell a story. If your first choice isn’t possible, or doesn’t seem to be working out – don’t give up. Instead, look look for a different way to tell that same story.
“The key is to find the route that will give you the access to best tell that story,” he said.
5) Don’t have preconceived ideas
“Having preconceived ideas can be extremely detrimental to a really good photo project,” he said.
Doing so, “will actually shut more doors than it will open because most of the time when we have preconceived ideas we tend to stop after we’ve successfully made that image. So we don’t let that idea or story unfold.”
“If you let it unfold you’re going to actually find some new things to photograph.”
Bigelow said that one example where he allowed a story to unfold resulted in him gaining the access and ability to document vigilantes in eastern San Diego County. Providing a insiders view of a controversial topic – an angle he never anticipated, or planned-for. Being open and willing to go-with-the-flow can be a tremendous asset to your overall photo project.
6) Show the images to others
Bigelow says that doing research is an important part of the “getting seen” process. Pitching editors must be part of your overall project plan, and not an after-thought.
“Just like when you are researching your topic, you research the types of publications or websites or places that might be interested in looking at your work, and hopefully publishing your work,” he said.
“You need to be able to make cold calls. I’ve made many cold calls. I’ve traveled to New York more times than I can count and hauled my work in front of editors and said ‘Please look at this.'”
Making cold calls and in-person visits are tactics that have yielded success for Bigelow many times.
How do you perform this type of research? Bigelow suggests searching for websites that cater to the topic, and going to bookstores and reading the masthead for names of editors that you can call.
He also sends online galleries to editors via email.
“I send a lot of gallery links to editors, and you can mix and match your images to custom tailor the particular images for what you think that publication might be more interested in,” he said. “It’s very effective.”