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The thing you need to do for getting good ideas which are actually possible, is to weigh the game in your favour.
You need to be selective in your project choices, research well, and demonstrate an intense curiosity when pitching your project idea.
The four steps in this article will help you:
Primarily a street photographer, using this method I transitioned into documenting places hidden behind closed doors, as you can too.
The first thing to ask yourself is, what are you actually interested in? Grab your pen and pad, write down “What Interests Me?”, then number lines, 1 to 20.
Without thinking too much, fill in all the way down to the bottom of the list. The goal here isn’t to think about where your interests might go, but rather to give you a reference from which to work.
Look back at your photographs and see what you like to capture. Lots of street photographs like these were coming about due to my interest in transport. I’ve now started projects about the local train station, and a local bus company.
Now that you’ve got your list of 20 interests, the next thing you need to do is get rid of those which are not visual in nature, or are impractical. For example, you should cross off astronaut training from your list, or following your favourite sports star around the world, as they do their thing. It just isn’t realistic, at least not in the early days.
Your goal here is to have a list of potentially visually stimulating interests which are readily accessible (assuming you gain access) to go back to over many visits. A key part about documentary photography is understanding what is going on, and picking up on the subtleties of the situations. You need to be able to go back again and again, build rapport, and blend in – because it is at that point that you’ll start producing quality photographs.
With the list reduced to those that are practical, which also have a visual interest, you should select three that you believe will be most interesting to others. This is important for a couple of reasons:
Finally, of those three interests, which one do you feel you know the most about? This makes the next step easier.
Don’t forget to think laterally. While I’m as musical as a crumbling wall, being an engineer, I could appreciate the design and material aspects of violin making.
Once you’ve chosen your interest, you should further your understanding. Get your notebook again, start researching and make notes. Some suggestions:
While reading, in addition to anything that grabs your interest, keep an eye out for:
All of this collected information will form ammunition for your first contact, showing your knowledge, interest, and understanding of the subject. Remember this should be interesting stuff to you. If it feels like a chore, you’ve probably chosen the wrong interest as a subject, or aren’t connected with it.
You should be deeply interested in the subject. I had no problem spending hours, upon hours, researching the local train station, because I wanted an all-access pass so badly.
Next, you should consider your close friends and family. Do any of them have links to your interests? Those who do, are they in a position to give you the access you’re after? If so, great! They’re going to be who you contact. If they’re not, you should still talk with them about your interests, and desires. They might be able to put you in contact with a connection.
After you’ve found the person you’re going to contact, you should look for their details. It might be as easy as looking at their contact page online, or through finding someone else’s email address at the company, working out their structure, and taking a punt.
For example, if you wanted to contact John Doe to ask about documenting Company XYZ, through some Googling, or looking at XYZ’s PR or HR page, you might find an email address like john.doe@XYZ.com. It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ve used this in the past to great success.
Guessing an email address allowed me to access the Oxford Train Station which I’m currently documenting as they redevelop.
In large organizations, you might find the assistant to the gatekeeper is the person you’re going to be contacting. LinkedIn is also a brilliant resource.
One final piece of research to do, is to look for example photographs you can show the person you’re making contact with. These can either be your own work, or the work of other photographers (be sure to credit them though). What you’re looking for is something that visually explains the kind of thing you’re seeking to achieve.
At this point, you should have a chunk of research about the organization, relevant news articles, an idea of who you’re going to contact, and some example photographs to show them.
It is now time for you to put it all together in an email. Your email should include:
Don’t be scared to chase emails either. If you don’t hear from them within the week, send a follow up email or phone call. Without it, I wouldn’t have shot at Oxford Violins.
In addition, you should make it clear that none of your ideas are set in stone, and that you’re open to their input (remember, it is highly likely that they are more knowledgeable than you are).
Finally get someone to check it. Before you do though, make sure you don’t prime them as to your intentions. You’re looking to find out if your request is obvious, clear, straightforward, that you’ve demonstrated your curiosity, and that there is a single next step that is easy to understand.
Now send it.
Once you’ve got your foot through the door, you need to show your face, be confident, demonstrate your knowledge, ask questions, and show your curiosity. Assuming that all goes well, the rest should pan out nicely. Start shooting, see how the project develops, and learn as you go.
This is where the joy starts. You’ve used your interest, and your camera, to get into somewhere that is fascinating to you. Enjoy yourself. Make friends, and click that shutter.
Before you know it, you’ll be behind the scenes in places you couldn’t have imagined yourself being.
Bio: Peter David Grant has produced an exclusive ebook of the emails he’s used to get access to many of his projects for dPS readers. He’s deconstructed them, explaining why each bit is in there, and provides templates for you to use. You can get it here.