on self-assignments (with a side of mud, booze, and rednecks)

If you don’t like the assignments you are given, make your own.

Shooting for free is the kiss of death in this industry, but there’s a time for everything.  Sometimes, a self-assignment is worth it.  If you are a staffer, the daily grind of assignments can beat you down with every building mug and press conference.  If you are a freelancer, the times when the phone doesn’t ring can seem like an eternity.  I suggest one of two things: either get off your butt, or get your boss off of it.  Find something to go shoot and go shoot it.  Just for yourself – not to sell, not to market, and definitely not something you are delegated.  This assignment has to be something that gets you going both visually and viscerally.

In the summer of 2007, a small group of photographers – myself, Sol NeelmanRob Mattson, and Bob Croslin – piled into a car and headed north to East Dublin, Georgia, to cover the Summer Redneck Games complete with events ranging from the mud pit bellyflop to the toilet ring toss to bobbing for pig’s feet.  Essentially a bunch of rednecks, trucks, camo, and beer.  Amazing.  It wasn’t something any of were being paid for (even though some of did after the fact – i.e. Sol in National Geographic) but it was just something…else.  There wasn’t an editor that needed a specific shape for the paper.  No reporter asking for us to shoot someone because he/she was in their story.  Hell, we didn’t even have to get names.

We just shot for the pure joy of shooting.

We eventually met up with Jeff HallerElissa Eubanks, and Tamika Moore – we even ran into my Eddie Adams leader Bill Frakes and Laura Heald on a random hillside.  The key for the four of us was that we wanted to just have fun and make some photos, but the underlying mission was to destroy each other visually.  It was never spoken but there’s that battle that always happens when you get a bunch of photographers together.  The challenge breeds creativity and somehow wipes out any sort of hesitation to just jump into a complete stranger’s world without a reason why or publication to vouch for you.

None of us wore credentials.  I bought a mesh, green John Deere hat (which has gone MIA unfortunately).  None of us really remembered rain gear.  Others had trash bags wrapped around cameras.  I just took it like a champ and my gear paid for it – a body and a lens toasted and off to CPS after covering the bellyflop contest.  My clothes were ruined by the thick red clay that I can still see almost 5 years later in that shirt I wore.

We all crashed in a very exquisite motel and edited that night.  Why?  None of us had clients, but we were just excited about what we had shot.  Everyone was racing it to their blogs or Sportsshooter galleries at 3am with a hotel sink full of beer and smiles on our faces.

What’s the point?  The photography business can be a rat race.  There are tens of thousands of photographers out there doing exactly what you and I do. Everyone has one unique thing – a vision.  That vision can be driven by ego, competition, passion, fear, curiosity, artistry, adversity, and talent.  What drives yours? It should be you.

Sometimes feeding the beast is easiest when that beast is you.

For more photos:  click.




I’ll leave you with one last photo.  That’s me in the center after taking a hit in the mud pit.  If you see that hat somewhere, it’s mine and I miss it.

6 thoughts

  1. Been a pro for 40 years (shot my first newspaper image for $1) and now trying to be an amateur. Oh it’s okay if you insist on paying me but I’d shoot it anyway philosophy. So I’m shooting jazz festivals here in Ontario. Why? I’m not particularly into jazz but festivals are where the photos are. Pretty simple what? The Toronto Zombie Walk (see http://www.peterwestphoto.ca) was a shooting gallery of fun images. Made zip but got work from people who saw I could still shoot special events. Also I volunteer to shoot for non-profits in my town who can’t afford to hire a photographer. Shooting grieving kids and hungry people helps make it all worthwhile.

    Chip’s images are first class. Might be worth a road trip someday.

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