Part 1: Behind The Scenes of a Long-Term Photography Project
Dive behind the scenes of my photography project Watershed Sentinels! In this episode, discover how the project all began, including the process and strategies I used to help this big, hefty project take shape.
Shaping a photo project – the good, bad, and wonky
Launching into a new photography project is not easy. It can be a creative endeavor that can quickly spiral into something overwhelming or unwieldy.
What helps is seeing how someone else is managing it – mistakes and all.
In this first part of a series of episodes, I’m going to be doing something a little different. I'm going to take you behind the scenes in one of the projects that I'm working on, Watershed Sentinels, and I'm going to break it down.
I'm digging into all the things I've done right, have figured out, and that are working well. And all of the places where I've gone down the wrong path, been confused or have gotten stuck, and how I've had to dig myself out of conundrums.
In part 1, I’m taking you to where it all began, the very origin of the project, because sometimes the way a project takes shape dictates whether or not you're going to move forward fluidly … or with some stumbling blocks.
- All the steps I took in shaping Watershed Sentinels
- Who to turn to when you need input (and how they can best help you)
- The key questions that really matter when you’re planning a project
- My three biggest take-aways from this first part of shaping a new long-term photo project
Episode 038: Part 1: Behind The Scenes of a Long-Term Photography Project
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Photography projects have kind of a superpower. They can be two things at once. On the one hand, because you are completely shaping the way that a project looks and, and how you work inside of it and how it unfolds. You have the ability to be really creative. A project kind of allows you to expand how you think and how you approach storytelling and come up with some really interesting ways of rolling out imagery. On the other hand, because you are completely designing a project and deciding how it looks and how it feels and what you're going to do with it. A project can become unwieldy really fast. It can grow and become so big that it actually causes you to get stuck creatively. I think everyone who has tackled a photography project has experienced this. And so in this episode, I'm going to do something a little bit different.
This is the first part of a series of episodes, where I'm going to take you behind the scenes in one of the projects that I'm working on, and I'm going to basically break it down. All of the things that I've done right, and have figured out, and that are working well. All of the places where I've gone down the wrong path and gotten stuck and how I've had to dig myself out of conundrums.
So in this first episode, I'm going to take you behind the scenes of the origin of a project. All of the episodes are based around my project called Watershed Sentinels, and it is a large and multi-year potentially lifetime length project. And I'm going to walk you through how the idea came about and how it took shape, because sometimes the way that a project takes shape dictates whether or not you're going to move forward fluidly or with some stumbling box. All right, let's dig in
Welcome to impact, the conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing and everything in between, this podcast is for you. The conservation visual storyteller, who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in
Hello and welcome to this episode of impact. Thank you so much for listening. Let's dig into this first. Let me give you a little context.
So all of the episodes that are part of this kind of behind the scenes series are going to focus on Watershed Sentinels. Watershed Sentinels is a project that I started a couple of years ago, or really the idea was sparked a couple of years ago. We're going to get to exactly what state this project is in right now, later on. But the project itself documents the lives of 12 charismatic indicator species that all live within watersheds of the Oregon coast. So the entire project is taking place on the coast of Oregon. And we really dig into what indicator species are, how they live out their lives with their role inside of a niche is, and they have a larger purpose. So as people are learning about these indicator species, there's a larger purpose, but I'm already getting ahead of myself. In this first episode, we're talking about the origin of a project and how it takes shape.
So I'm just walking you through the experience of one project. This is something that is unique to each individual photographer. Every project can take shape in a myriad of ways. So I'm not saying that there's a right way or wrong way to create a project, but I do want to walk you through behind the scenes of this one, because there's a lot of commonalities about how this took shape and also where I got stuck, that a lot of people struggle with. I talk a lot inside of Conservation Photography 101, my digital course about the difference between a story and a project. And the reason why I do that is because so often, often students start in on a story idea or start to chase down what story they want to work on it, but they realize what they're looking at is actually a project, not a story.
See a story is a very self contained mind thing. When you work on a story, you have a very specific idea or an issue. You go out, you document it, you complete a story. It gets published and you move on a project. On the other hand is something that you may continue to work on for a while. It's something that is complex. And a project usually is the overarching entity out of which multiple stories are born. Now, just like what happens to so many of my students, the idea for this project was born out of a story. So a few years ago I was assigned to photograph a story about marbled murrelets. This is a species that I'd been really interested in for years before this assignment. And so I was really excited at the opportunity to actually go photograph some research that was happening about these birds.
So marbled murrelets are a seabird. They're small Robin sized. And for most of the year they live off shore, but during breeding season, they actually fly inland and nest in large bowed trees, the type of trees that you find in old growth forests and on the bows of those trees, they lay a single egg and they raised a chick. So the species is amazing because it connects the health of our oceans to the health of old growth forest, because they need both to survive. Kind of amazing, right? I know they're amazing. So I was really excited to get to photograph some research happening on the Oregon coast about marbled murrelet. And it's actually a 10 year long study. And they're looking at how marbled murrelets use the forest and the impacts of logging and it's, it's big and complex and really interesting.
Well, that assignment really got me thinking about the species. It got my interest all rejuvenated. And so I started to read more about marbled murrelets and their ability to really bring us full circle in the health of what's going on, both in the ocean and in the forest of the Oregon coast. I just find that fascinating and it sparked an idea. It sparked the idea that what else is going on inside of an ecosystem from the top of a ridge line, in a forest all the way down through the watersheds, out into the ocean. What else is living inside of the same ecosystem that also is so charismatic and surprising and helps to draw our attention to the issue of connectivity of an ecosystem's health from something that seems so disparate as an old growth forest or a second growth forest and the open ocean. And yet here it is the species that really helps us to see how everything is so incredibly connected and that our stewardship of that connectivity is so important.
So I started to dig into some other species. So with watersheds indicator, species can be anything that reveals if that watershed, so the Creek or river, or the habitat through which water runs through, how is that fairing? Is there a lot of siltation? Is there erosion? Is the water polluted? Is there enough prey abundance for certain species? So I started to really dig into what other species live inside of the watersheds of the Oregon coast that make great indicator species. And that are really interesting. And I found quite a few. So everything from river otters, which are apex predators, so pray abundance and diversity of prey is really important all the way to the American dipper, just North America's only aquatic songbird. And with American dippers, the health of a watershed is critical because they feed on insect larvae and macro invertebrates that live in freshwater ecosystems.
So the clarity and cleanliness of a stream is really important. They need rapidly running water that they prefer habitats that have rapidly running water. And so the flow of a stream is really important. So, um, I started really digging into all of these other species and I found way more than 12. I decided to narrow it and I wanted 12 as a number because that just seems really solid. You know, a dozen just seems safe. And right now I actually have a Baker's dozen. I have 13 species that are part of this project. And the whole point of finding 12 really charismatic indicator species is truly to draw people in. I want them to be curious and I want them to feel really connected to these interesting, cool animals that they live next to because as they develop that emotional connection, they'll be really interested in the issues that are affecting these species.
The more that I can get someone to fall in love with the species and care, the more that I can get them to think more deeply and take action on what's impacting those species. So essentially watershed sentinels was born, but it kind of got tough. So I was like, all right, I have this idea. I have these 12, the species that I want to document, but how is this project really going to take shape? What's it going to look like, what's it going to do? How am I going to guide people into the depths of an ecosystem and all of these controversial issues that affect these species and how is that narration going to take place? And so what I did was called up a friend, I called up a fellow conservation photographer who also has worked on quite a few projects that can be complex.
And I just talked it out. I told him what the idea was about. And I was like, what do you think? Like how, how would I shape this? And he gave me a really great idea to follow the water. Follow the flow of water. So maybe start a ridge top and follow the flow of water from that ridge top of the coast range all the way down to the ocean. And I could segment the species based on these kinds of habitats that they live in. And each type of habitat is a component of this larger ecosystem. And I loved that idea. It felt so organic because the species that sparked the whole idea in the first place is the marbled murrelet, which lives out in the open ocean flies, inland to nest and raise young during breeding season flies out to the open ocean and back and forth in this cycle.
So the species that would actually route the entire project would be the marbled murrelet. We would visit it as its breeding, and as it's raising its young in the forest, follow it all the way out to sea, along with that flow of water, and then follow it back into the forest. And meanwhile, we're also exploring the lives of these other species that that marbled murrelet would pass over. It flies out to sea. So I kind of had the idea and I had sort of like a vision in my head about this project and how I would guide people through this project and help them experience it a little bit. So what I did next was really tried to solidify this idea in my head in a way that I could explain to someone else. And this is really important because as you start to explain something to other people, you start to figure out the holes in your project.
You start to figure out where you might get tripped up or, uh, with some gaps in your understanding or some gaps in how you're actually going to pull it off. And so the way that I did that was to create a pitch deck. And so a pitch deck back is simply a series of slides that you would create for, you know, Keynote or PowerPoint. And it's a deck that you would use to present or to make a pitch to someone. And so I decided I'm going to create a pitch deck for this project, because it's going to force me to think through all of these different elements, all of these different gaps far. I just had the idea I just had, I want to follow 12 species and make people feel connected to their watershed. Okay, that's not gonna cut it. It's gotta be way more specific than that.
And a pitch deck. I knew what helped me to do that. So I went on to Creative Market where you can find a ton of templates for pitch stacks and all sorts of things. And I found a pitch deck. It's a style that I really liked. And I went ahead and bought a license to that design is not my thing. I'm terrible at design. And so I wanted to have something I really liked the look of. So I could kind of plug in information without getting lost in the, but I don't like aesthetically how this looks. So I grabbed this pitch deck and I started to basically fill in the blanks in this template. I started to fill in the blanks of, okay, well, um, this page talks about the premise and this page talks about the species and this page talks about, um, what I want to create for deliverables.
And this page talks about and on and on and on. And as I started to fill in the blanks in this template for a pitch deck, it forced me to really think about the fact that, well, there's a page for deliverables. So what deliverables do I want, what is, how am I going to roll this out to the public? Do I want to do this as an exhibit? Do I want to do this as a website? Is this going to be a book? What, what shape will this actually take? What artifacts am I going to create as I work on this project? And then it also had a page for getting involved or getting in touch. And I was like, well, yeah. So what, what would I be using this pitch for? Who would I be reaching out to? Well, I'd be reaching out to potential collaborators and sponsors.
Who would I want that to be? And what do I need from them? Well, I would need people to help me with access to private land, where these species might exist. I would need people to help me find gallery space. I would need people for this or that. So that really started to take shape. Who's going to benefit from this? Is it always going to be about community? Or am I going to make sure that scientists or researchers or teachers and educators would also benefit? So as I started to really shape out this pitch deck, I got a very clear concrete idea about what this project was actually going to look like. Not just conceptually, but physically. What is it going to look like now, as I completed the pitch deck exercise, I actually had a pitch deck to take, to go and pitch to someone and to talk about this, this project in a bigger way.
And so what I wanted to do next was to reach out to some organizations that might be potential collaborators. And I got letters of support from a few of these organizations. The pitch deck certainly did its job. Um, they were really interested. They were organizations that are already aligned with the mission of the project anyway. So they're nonprofit groups focused on conservation and on environmental education. So I pitched it to them and they said, yep, we totally are aligned with this. We support this project. Here's a letter of support. And a letter of support is a really great thing to have if you're trying to go for funding or if you're trying to get some partners on board.
So it was really great to already start out this project. I haven't even photographed anything, right, but I'm already starting out this project with organizations that are saying, yep, we can totally get behind that. We can help you out when you need it. Well, now there's the issue of how am I going to unroll this? So I have these ideas of what I want to create. I know that I want to create a exhibit. I want to create a book. I want to create an interactive website. I want to create some packages for educators to be able to have basically ready-made presentation packages with high quality visuals and stories that they can use to educate communities on what's going on inside of our watersheds. But how am I going to actually get this out into the world? What's a good strategy for this? Am I going to accidentally, uh, let something out into the universe that then causes me to have trouble letting something else out into the universe?
So for instance, one of the conundrums that I was having was, do I go ahead and pitch these individual species stories or do I wait until I have all of them done and pitch one large story? Does it harm the overall project if I go ahead and pitch individual species stories, because by the time I have a full story, there's already so much out in the world in terms of smaller stories, that it, it doesn't seem new or fresh or interesting anymore.
So again, I relied on some resources. I talked to two people in particular, one is a photo editor and one is a book editor. And so I reached out to them and said, Hey, this is a project I'm really interested in working on, I'm diving into this thing. And I don't know how to unroll this. I don't know how to, as I start to work on it and to have material ready to go, I'm not sure the order in which I should get things out into the world or what that should look like.
And what's really amazing is both of these people asked me a ton of questions. What was my goal? What would this project accomplish, who's the audience for it? Um, what would I want to have happen overall? What would be a short term plan or a longterm plan? And through all the questions that they asked, I really started to have an understanding about what needed to happen in what order for this project to make sense. I got a lot of clarity on that. I cannot emphasize enough how much talking through concepts with other people has really helped to shape this project. And to guide me through these little sticking points in the planning process, talking to other people, this project wouldn't be what it is without that importance. So the next thing that I did after finally having some clarity around how I wanted to both have the project take shape and in the order in which I wanted to unroll some things was I went into basically step one.
And for me, step one is building a landing page on my website site for the project. Because just like with a pitch deck, when I'm building a landing page on a website, it forces me to think through some of the most critical components of how this would look. So on my website, I built out, um, basically a skeleton structure of the landing page for the project that mimicked how I would want viewers to experience the project. And I started to kind of chip away at that and, um, work on it a little bit. And then I showed a few people, some, uh, some of the kind of basic elements of the website to get some feedback and, and it felt like this was really going somewhere, right? Like I thought of the idea and I talked with a friend who helped me really shape the concept of it. And then I got specific and I found out the organizations wanted to support it. And then I talked to some more to really help me walk through how to get this out into the world. Once I had material ready. And now here I am with this kind of skeleton structure for the first part of this project, it really felt like things were moving.
And then something happened that I think everybody also experiences. Life got in the way. I kind of got all this momentum going on a project. And so many things happened all at once. That overwhelmed me. I got really distracted with having to work on other things that were really important. And suddenly I found out that this project that I was so enthusiastic about and was really starting to make progress on, it's back-burnered. And as I started to let it simmer on that back burner, it went into that whole out of sight, out of mind state.
And whenever I started to think, okay, Jaymi, you really need to work on this. You really need to get going on this. I would look at it and feel overwhelmed because I had started something that was going to be big. It was going to be complex. I was going to need to put a lot of work into it. And here I am being distracted by all of this other stuff going on that I would look at that project and just be like, Oh, it's big. Not yet. Not yet. I'm not ready yet. And the more that that happened, the more stuck I got, and I got stuck in a few ways. I got stuck in, where do I dig in? And I got stuck in, well, how am I going to photograph this? How, how do I tackle this stylistically? How do I photograph this in a storytelling way, that makes a lot of sense based on where my style is right now? Am I going to make it really photojournalistic? Or am I gonna make it fine art? And I started to let the wheels spin on that a little bit too much. And as I let the wheels spin and I'm staying in place with spinning wheels, boy, did I get mired down in all the muck?
So for quite a while, this project just sat there, it stayed in idea mode as so many projects do. Like I said, at the very beginning of this episode, this is not a, Oh, here's your step by step guide for how to do a project. There is no one right way to do a project. I'm just walking you through what I've experienced on this beast of a thing and where I turned for help and how I moved through some phases.
And also where I got so thoroughly stuck. Now, in the next episode for this series, I'm going to walk you through exactly what I did to get unstuck, because this project is very much on the move right now, and I'm really excited about it. Um, it's taking shape, there's so much momentum and progress again. So I'm to walk you through exactly what I did to go from that point in time, where I was looking at this thing that was exciting, got backburnered and now seemed just overwhelming. And I didn't even know where to begin to the point where I could reengage with it and make progress once again. So that's coming up in the next episode in this series, which will roll out in probably a few weeks. So there's a little bit of gap in between each of these episodes in the series, but I promise it's worth the wait. If you have a project that you've been working on and you've gotten totally stuck on, I think the upcoming episode is going to help you get reinspired in the fact that you absolutely can find that forward momentum once again.
Now, if you are just thinking about a project and you really want to work on a photography project, and you're not quite sure how to dig in, my big takeaways from getting going on Watershed Sentinels are three things.
One to come up with an idea that really motivates you from your core. Um, I think that one of the biggest things about Watershed Sentinels is every time I think about it, I just, I get so much energy. It's as if I had three cups of coffee all at once. I just cannot wait to talk about it or to get moving on it. And you need to really have that level of enthusiasm about a project if it's going to be big, and if it's going to take awhile. Because that energy that drive that why behind your project is what gets you through all of those tougher moments when you're trying to strategically work through something or you're getting frustrated. So that's takeaway number one to make sure that your project is something that you truly from your gut want to work on.
The second takeaway is bringing people into the conversation is invaluable working on a project solo in a vacuum that adds so much, uh, heft to the project that you have to carry around with you? And it makes a world of a difference when you talk through wherever you're getting stuck or whatever you're wondering about with someone else, because they're going to come at it from a different perspective, they're going to have fresh eyes, fresh ideas. And as long as they're there to really ask you questions and to help guide you through the thought process, that's going to be really, really, really valuable. So talk, you know, about through your project with other people and getting their insights and ideas and letting them guide you through the thought process is going to make a really big difference for shaping a project in a way that makes a lot of sense.
So number one, feeling super, super inspired, number two, talking about it with other people and allowing other people to help guide you through the thought process. And number three is to act as if you are moving forward on the next step, no matter what. Now there's a couple ways that I did that and it was through the pitch deck and through creating a website for this project. And even though I wasn't sure what I was going to do with either of those two things acting as if I were going to be pitching this or acting as if I were going to be showing this to the public, forced me to think through some of the more critical elements of the project and to really put things down on paper.
Now, some other ways that this can play out that work really well is to start a grant application. So even if you don't know what you're going to need funding for quite yet, or even if you're not at the stage where you really qualify for the funding yet, going through the process of a grant application will really help to clarify a ton about your project. It's an amazing exercise to do. It's going to help you solidify a lot of your thinking. It's going to require you to answer questions that you might not have even thought to ask yourself about your project. You could do that with the grant application. You could do that with an application for fiscal sponsorship. You could do that with an application to an art gallery.
I actually did that with Watershed Sentinels as well. I didn't have any images. I wasn't going to be ready to, to show anything, but I still went through the occasion process to a gallery because it required me to think about what I was going to need to have in place. It required me to think about an artist statement and a project statement, and to really think about what would I show, how would I frame this? How would I make all these images fit together?
So, number one, be really from your core inspired and energized to work on this project, because that will carry you through all, all of the sticky points inside of, and your project. Number two, talk about it with other people who are willing to ask you a bunch of questions and go through the thought process with you, so that you can really think about how your project is going to take shape and use the ideas that other people are giving to you through these conversations to shape that project.
And number three, act as if you are moving onto the next phase of your project, even if you aren't ready for that phase, because taking the steps, taking the action as if you were moving forward is going to help you through what you need to have in place, or how you need to be thinking about your project in order to get to that place. And again, I did it through creating a pitch deck and creating a webpage, but there's a bunch of different ways that you could do this.
All right. I hope that this was helpful. I can't wait to get the next one in the series out to you, because again, I'm going to talk about how I got totally stuck and mired down in overwhelm and distraction. And, uh, I'm going to walk you through everything that I did to get unstuck and reenergize that project, and really rebuild momentum on the project.
It's a lot of fun. Now, one last note, if you have a project that you're thinking about and want help on, or if you have a project you're excited about and want to share, I invite you to hop into the free Facebook group for conservation photographers, a link to join the group is in the show notes. So just hop over to jaymih.com/38, the number 38 for this episode. And you'll find a link to join that free group. It's the perfect place to find people who will help you walk through ideas to share your excitement about your ideas. So I hope to see you there. And meanwhile, I will talk to you next week.
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Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast