Part 3: Behind the Scenes of a Long-Term Photography Project
To make progress on a big photography project, it's important to clear the table of distractions and old baggage. Here are three huge decisions I needed to make inside my creative work and my business to be able to focus fully on Watershed Sentinels.
How to clear the deck for fresh creativity
Today’s episode is special since it is Part 3 of a multi-part series that takes you behind the scenes of a long-term conservation photography project that I’m working on, called Watershed Sentinels.
What often happens when we think of this kind of project (as opposed to a story) is that it can seem overwhelming, especially if you are only getting started.
You might wonder what a long-term project is, how it is managed, and what the dos and don’ts are.
Fortunately, there is no one right way of doing such a project. And to show you the ups and downs, the messy bits and the savvy strategies that are all part of a personalized project, I’m taking you along on my own journey, to give you a sense of what it all entails.
In Part 2, I left you with a cliffhanger about some weighty decisions I needed to make. In this episode, I share what changes I’ve made in my photography business and creative space, and why these are pivotal for moving forward successfully with this photography project.
- Why Urban Coyote Initiative needed to be fully back-burnered
- What this decision meant for the project’s website, social media, and other accounts
- What letting go of certain things to clear out our headspace for something else can mean for creativity
- The process of doing away with my in-person photo tour company when COVID hit.
- The importance of taking a hard look at the things you are emotionally invested in but might not be practical
- Why you have to let go of all the should's around your project and claim a should-free space
- The piece of equipment I recently purchased especially for Watershed Sentinels
Episode 052: Part 3: Behind the Scenes of a Long-Term Photography Project
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Hello, hello, and welcome to another episode of Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. Thank you so much for tuning in again and listening along with me this week, I really appreciate it. And in fact, this episode is a little bit special, because this is part three of a multi-part series that I'm doing, that takes you behind the scenes of a long-term conservation photography project that I'm working on. It's called Watershed Sentinels. And the reason why I'm doing this series is because I think that sometimes what happens is; when we think about the idea of a conservation photography project as opposed to a story, it can sometimes feel kind of big and... I don't know, sometimes overwhelming. Especially if you're just getting started. And you're like, "Well, what is a project? How does that work? How do I manage all of this? And when am I doing things right? And when am I doing things wrong?" Well, ultimately, I think that there is no one right way to do pretty much anything, especially a project.
01:04 JH: So I wanna take you behind the scenes of this project, to show you with all honesty what I'm doing, where I'm going right with the project, where I'm stumbling and having trouble and challenges and how I'm overcoming those challenges, and I'm just taking you behind the scenes with full transparency, so that you can use that inside of your own project planning or where I have challenges, maybe you can leap right past them in your own project, and be able to use what I've learned along the way to speed your success forward. So in the last episode in part two, I left you with kind of a cliffhanger, I told you that I had to make a pretty significant decision, in order to be able to fully focus on watershed sentinels and to give it the attention that it needed. So in this episode, I'm going to walk you through what decisions I've made, these kind of big changes that I've made in my photography business and creativity overall, and why that's been so important to be able to move forward with this. I'm gonna give you all the details in this episode.
02:18 JH: 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.
02:50 JH: Okay, I am pretty excited right now, because right before coming in to record this episode, I was unboxing a brand new piece of photography equipment. And oh my gosh, it's really exciting because I do not buy myself photography equipment very often at all. I like to kind of use whatever I have around or use what's cheap, I mean, in fact, to be fully transparent with you, where I'm recording this podcast episode right now is inside my "podcasting booth" And what it is is a very tiny little cubby-hole fort that I made out of three-inch thick foam camping pads and a sheet of birch plywood. And my boyfriend and I used spray glue to mount the phone to this birch thing, and we built myself a little tiny fort. And honestly, it's awesome, I love it. But that's what I tend to be like when it comes to equipment, what can I use that will suffice, what can I use that's around me, and how can I make some thing not a big deal. So the fact that I'm unboxing brand new equipment, I'm so excited, but what I bought is very specific to Watershed Sentinels, and all that even on what it is that I got at the end of this episode.
04:11 JH: But right now, I wanna get into what I promised you at the beginning of this episode, which is the decisions that I had to make in order to even provide the space for creativity for watershed sentinels. So as you may know, watershed sentinels is not my first long-term conservation photography project. Quite a few years ago, I started another project called Urban Coyote Initiative, and the whole goal of this project was to use the power of photography and videography to communicate science-based information to the public, about coyotes and to promote coexistence strategies. And while it started as this fascination with coyotes and this love of photographing them, it ballooned into something bigger, because those images that I was creating with urban coyotes could serve a bigger purpose. And in fact, ballooned into something pretty significant. Urban Coyote Initiative had multiple team members. We had a beautiful website that was generating something like 25,000 page views a month, because of the articles that we'd written on it. It had multiple ways of generating revenue, including a Patreon membership and a store that sold swag.
05:29 JH: We had something like, I think, 59,000 Instagram followers and 60,000 Facebook fans. And it was really amazing what we were doing inside of this project. But the thing is, when I really needed to sit down and take a hard look, especially in 2020, we just were not doing very much field work. Getting the funding to be able to go out and do the work that I wanted to do, it's tough. And the energy and wherewithal that it takes to keep that project going even at a simmer, it was fairly substantial. So what I needed to do when I was thinking about where I was gonna clear up the time and the head space, to be able to focus on watershed sentinels, 'cause I had to sit down and take a really hard look at Urban Coyote Initiative. Sometimes what happens when you're working on a long-term project is you find out that you've hit kind of a fork in the road, and the project might be going in one direction and you as a creative might be going in another, and you need to reassess if this project is really aligned with who you are as a creative.
06:43 JH: Now Urban Coyote Initiative, I mean, it's my baby. I love this project so much, I love the mission. I love the imagery, I love the uniqueness of how it started for me, but it's not actually a very unique thing anymore, I mean, everybody's all over urban coyotes, all these photographers who can get out there and work on urban coyotes are getting out there and doing that. And frankly, I've developed other interests, so why cling to something that isn't necessarily the direction that I wanna go as a creative anymore. What happened with Urban Coyote Initiative is it had become what felt like part of my identity and part of my ego, and it was something that was really difficult to think about letting go, but I also didn't see a future forward. It's sort of like a couple that realizes that they love each other, but they're not in love anymore, and they need to part ways. So I decided that at least for the foreseeable future, Urban Coyote Initiative is fully backburnered. It was a very tough decision, but I decided to go ahead and close down the website, close down the Patreon membership, closed down everything that was leading to this, the social media accounts, everything.
08:11 JH: I redirected the website to a profile page on my website on jaymiheimbuch.com, so any traffic that was going to UrbanCoyoteInitiative.com is just re-routed to a landing page that basically talks about the project. And I still own the URL and the name and the branding and all that, so I can return to this in the future, but meanwhile, just the fact that I know that nothing out there exists for it right now, that website doesn't have to get updated or maintenance done on it. The Patreon membership doesn't need to be promoted or taken care of, the social media accounts don't need to be posted to or monitored, that clears up so much space for me. And while it felt like it was this really difficult decision and it felt kind of heartbreaking, it also felt really relieving. When I redirected everything, all the assets back to just my project profile page on my website, it felt like kind of a weight lifting off of me, it felt like obligation lifting off of me. And that feels really good.
09:22 JH: The project is still kind of there, if I ever wanna pick it up again, the imagery that I took from it certainly is still there, the relationships that I built because of it are still there, and those are all wonderful things that will carry forward. But meanwhile, my goodness, do I have headspace cleared up? So this was a really, really big deal for me to decide to basically take one long-term photography project that I've been working on for a long time and had kind of become known by. Like people think of urban coyotes and think of me, or they send me updates about news items or various things about urban coyotes, it was kind of associated with my identity, which is great. But I was able to let go of all of that and to start to form this new path, this new creative adventure. And that's really wonderful.
10:14 JH: Now, that wasn't the only thing that I let go of. So inside of my business, I have multiple verticals, multiple ways of bringing in revenue, and one of the things that I had started was Oregon Coast Photo Tours. So this was my in-person photography toward company that I built from the ground up, and it was starting to really take off right when COVID hit. I had had a really successful... I think about six months or so after launching it, and then when COVID hit, I decided I was not gonna take part in any of the travel industry. And I put up a notice that said, "We'll be back when things are settled down, when cases aren't on the rise anymore," and I kind of tabled it, and I went on to go focus on other things. Well, just like with Urban Coyote Initiative, even though I wasn't actively working on it, it still existed and there was still maintenance to be done on the website and people were still writing in requesting tours or they wanted to get gift certificates or they wanted to schedule stuff and so there was still customer service to have to do, and frankly, my level of interest for doing in-person tours, while COVID is still very, very much a concern, is just not there.
11:29 JH: So I took a really hard look at this business vertical, and I thought, "Man, if I can backburner this and be totally fine, financially fine and emotionally fine; if I'm getting fulfillment from other areas of my teaching," 'cause I love giving tours, I really, really love going out there with people and showing them the world and showing them a lot of the natural history of an area, which generates all this kind of excitement about photographing it, and then showing them on a photograph. Oh my God, I love it so much, but that's not happening right now because of so many factors that are external to my business. And so if I could get that emotional fulfillment elsewhere, because I'm teaching conservation photography 101 every single week. So I'm getting that sense of fulfillment elsewhere inside of my business, so if I'm not doing that with Oregon Coast Photo Tours and I have no idea when I'm gonna actually reopen it, then do I need this in my business at all right now?
12:35 JH: And frankly, no, I didn't. So I decided to go ahead and close down Oregon Coast Photo Tours as well. And just like what happened with Urban Coyote Initiative, as soon as I finally made that decision, and it was a really difficult decision to make, because I took a lot of pride in the fact that I had built this successful business vertical from the ground up, and it was really cool. But that's all ego and not practicality. And as soon as I made that decision to say, "Okay, well, this isn't something that fits right now in my business or in my life, and if I can take the time and the energy that I put into maintaining Oregon Coast Photo Tours, and instead put that into Watershed Sentinels, well, what might that mean?" That could mean something pretty darn amazing. So once again, with the Oregon Coast Photo Tours, yeah, I still own the URL and the name and all of that, I can return to it at some point. But I wanted to remove all of that kind of wait, and so I redirected that URL to my website, to a page on JaymiHeimbuch.com, it says, "Hey, we're closed. Here's other ways that you can learn."
13:53 JH: And as soon as I finally did that, it was, again, even more weight lifting off of me. Here were two things that I was emotionally invested in because of the idea of them more than the actual daily activity. And as soon as I could free myself from all of that and take that head space and refocus it into watershed sentinels, it felt so light, it felt really, really great. So I think that the important takeaway that I learned from this is if I'm going to truly zero in on a photography project that I know is going to require a lot of me, it's gonna require a lot of time and energy out in the field, a lot of research, a lot of planning and strategizing for how I roll out everything that I create, if I'm gonna really do this right, then I need to clear the table of other things that have sort of petered out or that aren't fully necessary right now. And I think that, honestly, it was really important for me to take a look at these two things, the Urban Coyote Initiative and Oregon Coast Photo Tours and realize that a lot of it was my pride that was holding me to these things that weren't necessarily right for me anymore, and I needed to address that.
15:15 JH: I needed to address that and say, "Yeah, of course you feel pride in that. Of course, you're really happy you created it, and now it's time to let that pride go, because there's gonna be some other things that need your attention a whole lot more. And if you're clinging onto something just because of pride, you're gonna make some bad decisions." So I went ahead and faced up to it and moved on, and I think that that was the biggest takeaway that I hope that I will carry into future decisions when it comes to projects. Now, I had to make a third decision that also completely revolved around letting go, and the thing that I had to decide to let go of was all of the shoulds. See, the more that I dug into the research for this project, especially looking for what's been covered already, how it's been covered, looking for inspiration and that sort of thing, I felt like I was really getting pushed to go the story route and to create these stories around things, and that it needed to look a certain way.
16:18 JH: And I got really stuck because I kept thinking about like, "Well, but I don't know what the story is yet. I haven't explored that, but I'm supposed to know the story so that I can figure out the direction that I'm going. Right? I need to do all the stuff." I started to get into the swirl of having to do this project in a certain way, because that's what I was seeing other things done, and I need to photograph it in a certain way because that's how I was seeing so many other well-established photographers photographing underwater animals and life and water-oriented stories, I was seeing them photograph them a certain way, and I noticed myself starting to get really wrapped up in how my project should look. And once I really acknowledged that I was letting myself get wrapped up in how I should do this project, I think I kind of had an aha moment, where I needed to let all that go. However it was that I was hearing from other people that this is how you do this sort of a project, that this was how you take a larger issue and break it down, and how you show what it is that you're documenting, and how you document it in a way that's gonna get recognized in publications and that sort of thing, and this is how you should do conservation photography storytelling.
17:40 JH: Once I really acknowledged that I was getting wrapped up in all of that, then I could let it go completely, because my personality is one where I think that as soon as I start to get wrapped up in how I'm supposed to do things, I end up almost stopping mid-track, because I feel like now there's something that I have to be held to, a standard that I have to be held to, and a mold that I have to fit into, and that's incredibly stifling. And I have to think about, "But what if I can't do that?" And I'm not sure how I really feel about fitting into that, and I'm never gonna be that good, and I get wrapped up in all of that junk that floats around in all of our heads as creatives.
18:24 JH: So, once I really could acknowledge that I was truly getting wrapped up in the shoulds of doing a conservation photography project like this, then I could let it go and say, "No, that wasn't the inspiration for this from the very beginning, that wasn't the route that I was thinking that I was gonna go." When this project really came to me, it came to me in a different way with a different plan, and I'm gonna return to that, I'm gonna take all of the shoulds and let them go and shove them to the side, and instead I'm gonna return to what it was that motivated me to start the project in the first place.
19:01 JH: The type of photography that I wanted to do, the style that I wanted to do this in, the order in which I wanted to do this, it's perfectly fine to do it that way. Just because no one else is necessarily done it quite that way, it doesn't matter, in fact, that makes it even more edgy, because you're paving a new path, you're doing something differently. So I needed to really embrace that and embrace that it was okay to do something that is sort of outside of the box when it comes to conservation storytelling, that it's okay to forge my own path with this project, because what's the worst that's gonna happen. I fail? Okay, pick myself up and try again with a new route, right? Or have a new podcast episode out of it if I fail, right? So worst case scenario is I have more to help you uncover challenges or hurdles to avoid. Sweet, no problem, I can handle that.
19:58 JH: So, I made a decision to let go of all the shoulds and to claim a should free space around watershed sentinels. So watershed sentinels is now my should free zone. And with that, I made a fourth decision, and that's what leads us to what I was unboxing when I started this episode. Oh my goodness, it's so fun. So watershed sentinels started out with a photograph of a dipper, an American dipper that breaks a lot of rules in photography, but that I love, and that has really become sort of like the anchoring image for me and that guiding image for me to be like, "Yeah, break rules, shoot these species the way that they've never been shot before. Show them in a way that they've never been shown before, and be bold and daring with that, and also be bold and daring with the way that you want to show other people these watershed areas," Well, for me, brave and daring means video. I have been a still photographer since day one, I've never embraced video, but I was lucky enough to assist Morgan Heim on a short film that she made, and watching the video creative process and how incredibly different it is from thinking about photographing a story, it was so fun and exciting.
21:22 JH: So, I wanted to kind of wait in slowly, and she recommended a DJI Pocket 2, and it is a tiny hand-held, basically, it's like a miniature GoPro on a gimble, and it's small enough and easy enough that I can take that onto the kayak with and to be able to get a really beautiful video footage, while I'm also out there scouting locations and looking for wildlife and adding in still photography. Now I also got sound equipment, so that I can record soundscapes. So watershed sentinels is now entering the zone of still photography video and soundscapes. Oh, there's so much potential here, and I'm so excited, because once I cleared up all of this room, this mental space and time space, for me to let go of old things that I was just sort of cleaning to for reasons of ego and pride and nostalgia. Once I cleared that and made room for watershed sentinels, that creative energy had room to really boil up, and once I embraced that this was a should free zone, then I could fully go for all the creative ideas that were bubbling up. There was no, "Oh, that'd be fun, but that doesn't fit into this project, I need to do that with something else." It's like, "No, I can figure out how that's gonna fit into this project because this project is still being formed."
22:54 JH: I'm now rolling into a new era of watershed sentinels and the ideas for what I'm gonna be rolling out pretty soon are flowing fast and free, and I cannot wait to get out there and to start to collect some of what's on my shot list now. And hopefully part four will be full of that, full of letting you know what I have been working on creatively and how I have managed to put these pieces together into the project, and the direction that the project is taking in terms of deliverables. But for now, just know that a really big moment for me inside of working on a long-term photography project was figuring out how to free up headspace and schedule space in order to truly commit to it, in order to say, "This is truly my focus. And I had to make some decisions that were all about cutting ties with old things that were not necessarily where I wanted to go creatively anymore, were not necessarily what I wanted to focus on anymore, and say, 'It's okay to let that go.' Because there's so much more potential for me as a storyteller and for this conservation issue, if I'm fully focused on it, and that's what's most important."
24:16 JH: So making those big, weighty decisions, they're not easy, I definitely spend a lot of time talking this through, and it was a little while between making the decision and actually acting on it, but once those decisions were made, things really started to go forward, so I think I'm rambling a little bit, but what I'm trying to say is, it's okay to let old stuff go that isn't serving you anymore as a creative or a conservation issue that maybe you don't feel compelled to work on anymore. It's okay to let that go. Especially when it means that you can work on something that will serve you as a creative, or a conservation issue that really makes your heart sing, 'cause you can do big things inside of that space.
24:57 JH: All right, I hope that this was a helpful episode, and I hope that part four is coming at you in the not-too-distant future. Have a beautiful day and I will talk to you again the next week.
25:11 JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing: Subscribe to this podcast. As a subscriber, you'll not only know when each week's episode goes live, but you'll also get insider goodies, like bonus episodes. You might miss them unless you're subscribed and I don't want you to miss on anything. So please tap that subscribe button, and I will talk to you next week.