Part 2: Behind The Scenes of a Long-Term Photography Project
Welcome to part two of a multi-episode series that dives behind the scenes of my photography project Watershed Sentinels! We're exploring the ups, the downs, and strategies for project success.
How to get unstuck and back into action
You know those moments when you get an idea, flesh it out, and you're ready to roll but suddenly find yourself thinking…. but what now?
You go from ready, to stuck.
You're asking questions like:
- Where do I begin?
- What steps should I take?
- Where do I go to get the skills and support I need?
It's sometimes hard to go from idea to action.
So, in this episode, I'm going to walk you through the strategies that I used to get unstuck.
I'm walking through where I looked for help, the way that the project then took shape after that, and the tools and other strategies I used to get my project moving again.
Hopefully, this is going to help you in whatever phase of project development you might be in as well.
- All the steps I took to get Watershed Sentinels moving again
- The importance of mentorship, not just from a learning standpoint
- Finding your style of processing information, and how to use that to make progress
- My three biggest take-aways for getting unstuck, and taking action
Episode 046: Part 2: Behind The Scenes of a Long-Term Photography Project
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Welcome to Part 2 of a multi-episode series that takes you behind the scenes of one of the big conservation photography projects that I'm working on called Watershed Sentinels. Now, in the last episode, Part 1, I talked to you about the origin of the project, where the idea came from, how it took shape, the tools I use to help make it take shape, and I also talked about how I got really stuck. Well, in this episode, I'm going to walk you through the strategies that I used to get unstuck. So I'm going to go through where I looked for help, the way that the project then took shape after that, tools, and other strategies. And I'm hopeful that this is going to help you in whatever phase of project development you might be in as well. So 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.
Now let's dig into this episode. All right. So where we left off was that I created a project that is big and beautiful and got it all set up and then got totally stuck. And it kind of sat there for a while. Now, one day, I was like, that's what I need. I need a mentor. What I really need is someone to help me walk through the sticking points and also hold me accountable for something. I need someone who's an outside perspective to really help me out. And what I figured out was I didn't need just one mentor. I needed a couple, I needed a mentor that was going to really help me on the story development side of things. And I needed a mentor who is going to help me on the technical side of things, because Watershed Sentinels of course has to do with water. And I don't know how to shoot underwater. It's a brand new world for me, new equipment, new strategies, new techniques.
So I was going to need two people who could help guide me through these areas where I was just like, I don't really know what my next step is. So first, I reached out to a photo editor who I deeply admire and respect, and it was an out of the blue thing. I had no idea what she was going to say, but I figured why not? And so I wrote, and I just said, Hey, do you happen to do mentorships? If so, I'm wondering if you might be willing to take me on. And she wrote back and said, yes.
And I kind of sat there amazed, but I was really lucky that her schedule had changed up. She wasn't teaching. She was working from home because this is the middle of COVID so everything's a little wonky. And she had the capacity to take on someone and she actually was really excited about it. She said that this was a really good opportunity for her to stretch her creative thinking muscles because she was going to really need to lean on them to help kind of guide me through where my sticking points were.
Now, the next thing that I did was I reached out to someone who is a photographer who's doing work that is really similar to what I hope to achieve with freshwater underwater photography. And I think the world of his photography, vision, and technique, the artistry behind it. So I reached out to him and said, Hey, would you be interested in taking me on in a mentorship?
And it was really funny because he wrote back and was like, I don't really know about being a mentor. I think of you as a peer. I would rather have it be sort of a peer coaching thing. And he asked me about, you know, some stuff that I'm really good at that he was really interested in learning. And so we decided it was going to be sort of like a skill share thing which works for me. Call it what you want. I was going to be able to lean on someone who I really respect and admire to walk me through the technical side of things that I would need to be delving into for this project. And it's amazing how great it felt just right then. I wasn't even necessarily out of being stuck yet, but I knew that leaning on some people who could guide me through this situation was going to fix that. And I already felt so much lighter and optimistic and energized to get back into this project.
Because see, the reason why I was really stuck was because the project was big. It's big in terms of story. it's big in purpose. Big and deliverables that I want to create. And big and how it's going to push me as a photographer, because I'm going to need to learn things that I just don't know yet. I'm going to have to go for grants to be able to afford the equipment that I'm going to need. I'm going to be getting into water and learning skills that have nothing to do with photography, just in being in the water. There's just so much that I would need to learn. And now I had some guidance and just knowing that almost safety net/accountability was there was enough to really shift things.
So in one of the first sessions with my storytelling mentor, we talked about the project as a whole and what it was that I wanted to accomplish. And I was like, one of the reasons why I'm stuck is because there's so many different ways that this can go. There's so many stories to tell that I'm not really sure how I want to even start tackling this. You know, there's this big umbrella story. There's these smaller, vertical stories underneath it. Where do I start? What do I begin photographing first? At what point do I actually enter the fray? And the advice that she gave back actually was really fitting for me because I am such a nerd about organizing stuff. But she's like, you need a really good spreadsheet. So I created this mega spreadsheet. I mean, it's crazy. And what's really funny is when I was thinking, okay, so I need this spreadsheet and I need it to do these things. I needed to organize this kind of information. Oh my gosh, how do I even build this spreadsheet?
So I went to a third mentor. Who's actually been my mentor for years and years. I lean on her for so many things and just trying to figure out kind of the business side of things and time management side of things. And so I went to her and I was like, okay, I need a spreadsheet. I needed to do this. This is all the information I'm trying to track. This is how I like to look at information. This is how I want to be able to sort the information because I want it to serve this purpose. How do I do this? And so we kind of brainstormed what I absolutely needed to have in it, and what I didn't need to have in it, because I also have a tendency to overcomplicate things.
So I ended up creating this whole big spreadsheet. And it's awesome. Because the spreadsheet helps me to track all of the species. I'm actually photographing 15 different species. So all of the species, the types of shots, the styles of shots that I want to get, what locations they're in, the specific watersheds that they're in, the people in organizations, the dates, the kind of timeframes that I need to be able to capture these images in, shot notes and progress, and so much more. Because the thing is, I'm photographing these different watershed sentinel species, and I'll be photographing them in different locations. And I need to be able to track what progress I'm on on the species, as well as have I covered all the watersheds yet, as well as who's doing what and what time frames. So that I know, six or eight or ten months out, when I need to be prepared to actually get out and go do these search shoots. Because it might be research that's happening or restoration projects that are happening or breeding or migratory behaviors that are happening. So there's all these different types of information that overlap with each other in different ways. And I needed to be able to figure that out.
I mean, just talking about that, it sounds overwhelming, right? I mean, it sounds like, geez, Louise, how in the world are you keeping track of all of this? Well, the spreadsheet lets me do it. So all the columns have dropdown boxes and I can filter based on different data or keywords. And I made different tabs in this larger spreadsheet. And the tabs are, first of all, the main document that organizes all of my shots that I need to get for different stories. And then there's a tab for the watershed councils. A tab for people and projects. A tab for articles that I want to track my budget is in there. Grants that I want to go for is in its own tab. Where I'm pitching elements of this project is all tracked. So it's basically one big master document. So instead of having all of this information kind of scattered into different folders, it's in one place and I can cross reference. So as an organizational nerd, that alone helped me feel so much more clear and focused on what I was doing next, because at least all the data is in one place. And luckily the storytelling mentor, she's huge on organizing things. She loves a good spreadsheet. So this was a really great kind of way for us to begin our work together.
So after I had this mega spreadsheet where I could put all the information about the project, including shots, location, species, everything that I was going to need to create photographically, where at least it would have a place to live as I thought of it. Then I was ready to move onto the next part of this project, which was to dig into the research.
Now that I have a place to put what I find, I started to really dig into what researchers are out there doing, what work, what projects are out there already happening for species restoration, habitat restoration, what news items are out there that might be leads for shots that I want to go and get. And so I started to dig into research and I actually started reaching out to researchers, even just for the groundwork. I wasn't necessarily ready to get out and photograph yet. And again, we're in the middle of COVID. So even that has a whole lot attached to it. So I wasn't ready to necessarily shoot, but I needed to start getting a lot of information, and so I reached out to some researchers. And the way that I did that was to use a tool that I really like called Loom.
And Loom is where you can do a really quick video recording and host it on the platform. You grab the link and pop that into an email. And essentially it's a video message to the person that you're trying to reach via email. And it's a really great way to do an introductory post to someone that you haven't met yet because they get to see you and hear you. And that means that you get a chance to make a really unique, great first impression while you're also asking them to "please meet with me so that I can pick your brain on this thing that you may or may not be interested in". So I really like using that tool because I usually get a really great response with it. And actually one of the researchers that I emailed using Loom wrote back to me in about five minutes and she's like, sure, that sounds great. I definitely want to talk with you.
So I started reaching out to the researchers that were doing work on the species that I wanted to focus on, and then in addition to that, going through a whole bunch of online stuff. So I went on to Wiley, I did a Google Scholar search. I started pulling and bookmarking all of the studies that would be really relevant to the species. And I also started doing things like grabbing best practice manuals for stream restoration and habitat preservation. And that was really helpful, because it gave me a lot of information about how to identify some of these species, where they tend to be what's healthy, what's not healthy. And so I started digging into a lot of the natural history as well as really essential information for when I'm in the field doing photographic field work. So again, nerding out on all of the research.
In addition to that research, I hopped on the phone with my technical mentor, my kind of like how to get the shot mentor. And we talked through underwater housings, and gear, and strategy, because all of that's brand new to me. I don't know anything about it. And I had no idea where to start. I had tried to research underwater equipment and got really overwhelmed really quickly. I'm more of a tactile person. So if I'm learning about new equipment, I want to actually have it in front of me in my hands. I want to turn it around and see how pieces are put together. It's really hard for me to go online and do that via a website and have to like figure out, okay, does this housing go with this dome port? And what's that arm thingy? And how does that fit together? So it was wonderful to be able to get on the phone with someone.
And we did a video call and he showed me some of his setups and walked me through the equipment. And then he sent me a list. And so with that list, I was able to put together two different types of kits that would be really helpful for getting the shots that I would need. And then I started pricing everything out, which helped me build my budget. And I really needed a budget to be able to understand what grants I needed to go for. How big of the grants are they? What are they going to cover? Are they going to cover equipment needs or rental? And so that was really helping me in getting a lot of the next steps, like logistical steps figured out.
So again, in the very beginning of this, I figured out what I wanted the project to look like, how I wanted it to serve my area and the deliverables that I wanted to create from it. It was all the big picture stuff. And then I got stuck because how do you then dig into that big picture? So now I was really starting to be able to dig in. I had someone helping me out with organizing all of the actual visuals that I was going to create and keeping track of all that. I had a way to track all of the research. I had a way to dig into all the technical stuff that I was going to need to get the exact gear and strategies and everything.
So I was really making progress. And importantly, not only did I have people guiding me through all of the information, but they're there as kind of accountability partners. So now when I'm not making progress on the project, I think about them and okay, well, you know, are they going to want me to get out there and create something? And it keeps me moving forward. And because I know that we're going to have a call together at some point. So I probably won't have a call with my technical mentor for awhile until I really start getting equipment in hand, and then we'll be walking through how to get particular shots together. But I am having regular meetings with my storytelling mentor because the research that I come up with and the way that I'm moving forward on it, she's kind of checking in with me and helping me to maintain progress in that area. And I know that when we meet next, I better have stuff to show her. I better show her that her time investment in me is being put to good use. So that accountability has been really amazing in maintaining forward momentum.
Now, one thing that I learned in all of this that has been really helpful is I learned about how I need to actually lay out information in order to see it and to be able to start forward progress on it. Everybody thinks differently. Everybody approaches things differently. And sometimes it's hard to even realize what you need to actually start moving forward. My storytelling mentor was suggesting ways for me to start figuring out the storyline of each of the species. And you know, okay, well, what is the story of this species? What is the story of this other species? What about this one? You need to start to figure that out. And so we thought about a mindmap sort of situation, and I got a huge piece of butcher paper and I wrote out all the species and, and it just kinda sat there on the desk because when I would look at that and try and think, okay, well, what is that? And brainstorm. I just got really, I got creatively blocked. It wasn't how I really wanted to process the information.
What I realized is I wanted to get actually back into sort of a comfort zone for myself. And where I find a lot of comfort and progress is in having sort of an overarching outline and then starting to actually put it together. So rather than me coming up with a rough sketch and slowly filling it in, I like to actually act as if I'm creating it right then and someone's going to look at it. Because it's like I put on glasses where suddenly I can see the pieces that are missing the essential information. And I get really focused in on what I need next. So for me, that's actually in website development. I really love designing websites. I think it's a blast. I knew that I wanted to have a website for this project. So I just started building the site. Instead of focusing in on the stories, which I need to figure out and will tell, I focused in on the structure that the project as a whole was going to take in one of these deliverables.
So I started designing the website. And as I started designing the website and I was like, well, I want it to do this function and I want a person to have this type of experience, and I need this tool in place to pull that off. Then I could see the information and the visuals that I wanted to have to fill in these different parts of the webpage. And as soon as I had that blank area where it's like, okay, well, this part of the website is going to need to do this, and so therefore it's going to need to have this visual and this text. Now I had my way forward and I was really cooking with steam.
So this was around early July or so I think I had this great website kind of worked out. It had the overall feel to it already done. And I knew exactly what kind of information I wanted to have for the website. And so I knew where I needed to start shooting. Right? Well then life happened because of course, and I needed to move cities. So I was going to move out of Newport, north about three hours to a city called Astoria. And it's still on the Oregon Coast, but it was outside of the geographical range that I had intended for this project. And that meant, okay, well, am I going to change the shape of this project? Am I going to change that sort of local scope of where this project takes place? Or am I going to then need to invest more time and money and traveling back down south so that I would be within the original range? And ultimately what I decided is, you know, in the midst of COVID-19 and all that, I'm going to travel as little as possible, which means I'm going to change the location in which this project takes place.
So it actually grew. it went from basically being a 50 mile diameter circle from, with Newport, Oregon, being the center, to being a strip that goes from the Columbia river in the north down to the bottom of the Oregon Coast dunes, kind of near Florence in Oregon. And it's going to cover that entire stretch of coastline. Okay, well, at least that part's figured out, but the other thing is, well, now I'm moving. So all the spots that I'm really familiar with, where I know which species are in which habitats, and I know some behaviors, I know some regulars who I was planning on going and photographing as part of the Sentinel species. Well, that's going to change. And now I'm going to be learning all new locations, all new species hotspots, where I really want to shoot. So it kind of threw a little bit of a wrench in the works. Not that big of a deal really, but it did slow me down a little bit.
It was going to mean more time. It was going to mean more field work, but totally doable. Now, if I am going to really focus in on this project and dedicate the time and energy and focus that it needs to evolve and to become the thing that I'm envisioning. Well, there's only so much time for that. And I had to make a really big, really difficult decision. It was a kill your darlings moment that was painful, but also really uplifting at the same time. And I'm going to dive into what that decision was in part 3 of this series.
So let me review really quickly what I did to get unstuck. So I got this big vision of the project figured out, and then there was this kind of stuck point. Well, to move forward from that, I reached out for help from two mentors who are going to help me in two very specific and essential areas. And through their mentorship, I would gain not only insight and assistance, but also accountability. So that was really big.
The second thing was figuring out how to really arrange information in a way where I personally could see it and figure out forward progress from there. That I really found my own individual style of how I could see and move forward on information. And for me, that was basically building a deliverable as if it were already going to be put out into the world. And so I could dig into website development and see very clearly what information I was going to need, because I was ready to start putting that information into place. So figuring out your own personal style of how you want to actually create and roll information out and allowing that to guide you in what to work on next, in the order of how you get information or image assets or next step tasks, put together really helpful.
And then the third thing is that big decision. That means if you're going to say yes to one thing, you're going to need to say no to something else. Even if that's something else feels big and important, and I'll get into that in the next episode.
Thank you so much for hanging out with me and letting me kind of nerd out about this whole process. I hope that it's helpful. And if you have any questions about this or about your own projects that you're working on, where maybe you're feeling stuck or uncertain, I invite you to come into the free Facebook group for conservation photographers. You can find a link to that in the show notes. So just had to jaymih.com/46, number 46 for this episode, you'll find a link to join right there. And meanwhile, I'll talk to you next week.
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Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast