Project: Taryn Simon's Secret Sites

As much time as we spend on lighting around here, it is easy to forget that flash and other technical aspects comprise only a small part of what photography is really about. To grow as a photographer it helps to be mindful of the whole process.

Photographer Taryn Simon sums the balance up pretty well in the first line of her TED Talk, on photographing secret sites in the US:

"Ninety percent of my photographic process is, in fact, not photographic. It involves a campaign of letter writing, research and phone calls to access my subjects which can range from Hamas leaders in Gaza to a hibernating black bear in its cave in West Virginia."

Sounds boring, right? Until you see where the phone calls and letters lead her...

Ed Note: Some people may find a couple of the photos a little strong. There is a body on a decomposition farm, and one photo with implied surgery. Neither are close ups, but still wanted to give notice.

I found this presentation to be very powerful and have watched it several times. As individual images, her photos are simple and technically beautiful. But seen together, the series is much more thought provoking.

Narrative like this doesn't just happen. It comes over the long term as a result of someone being a thinking photographer. The concept of a "thinking photographer" I learned from my friend Chris Usher as an intern at The Orlando Sentinel in the 1980s, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Actually, the phrase "thinking photographer" should be considered redundant. To be a good photographer, you have to be thinking all of the time. The magic, the chase, the great puzzle—the aforementioned ninety percent—is what happens before you press the shutter.

Keep in in perspective. Learning lighting is cool and fun. But the very best way to facilitate tremendous growth in your photography is to commit some time, energy and extended thought to a good project. Without exception, every good photographer I know uses projects as a way to shape and amplify their work. You should, too.

The summer is a great time to incubate a project. The days are longer, so you have extra light in the evening to work with if your 9-to-5 days are otherwise taken.

You never know where it will lead you. And once started, you'll soon find that a good project creates its own new opportunities and experiences.

I imagine (or, would at least hope) that there are some cool summer projects percolating amongst the readers of this post. If you care to share, hit us in the comments...

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Blogger seshu said...

I am working on a series of portraits of people on a particular stretch of highway here in Connecticut. Will involve one camera, one lens, one light or one reflector.

June 28, 2012 8:31 AM  
Blogger mtherrmann said...

Although I have primarily shot family portraits, weddings and engagement photos, I have realized that personal work is necessary to grow as a photographer. I recently set out to shoot more personal are the early stages :)

June 28, 2012 8:39 AM  
Blogger Nick Giardina said...

Wow! That was awesome. Not only Taryn's talk, but even more so, your afterthoughts. The most common things that I hear (in my head) when discussing photography (with myself) are:
1. What am I going to shoot?
2. When will I find the time?

If I am passionate about my work, I will make time. My brain will be on fire with ideas that need to be fleshed out and images that need to be created.

If I don't make time, my work will suffer, and maybe I'm not as passionate about it as I think.

June 28, 2012 9:25 AM  
OpenID 1a1e6426-c12f-11e1-89b2-000f20980440 said...

About a month ago I realized that I need to start a personal project to keep my photography fresh and keep my (still small) follower base's attention.
I recently finished my first subject for my photo blog project. I am planning on taking lifestyle shots and a quick interview of local talents here in Northern Virginia. I figure this would be a win-win situation for both myself and the talent. It would be great cross promotion for the both of us, interesting content on my photography website for viewers to read/view, and I'll be adding to my lifestyle portfolio.

My first entry of a home craft beer brewer is at:

and pictures from my next entry that I'm working on are at:

June 28, 2012 10:41 AM  
Blogger Lisa Dierolf said...

The Ballerina

June 28, 2012 12:15 PM  
OpenID fijnefotografie said...

as a non-native English speaker, I thought the subtitles would help me to understand some things better... but they are hideous!

Interesting talk, though!

June 28, 2012 2:48 PM  
Blogger ssheipel said...

Taryn's not a thinking photographer. She's a thinker who is a photographer. Hair splitting I know :) but this is a person who is simply brilliant -- and thank gawd she uses a camera to express her thinking. And thanks too for the lessons from her (that you've captured here) that the rest of us can embrace as we wield our cameras.

June 28, 2012 3:30 PM  
Blogger Heath said...

I was lucky enough to catch Taryn's hidden and unfamiliar exhibition when it toured to Brisbane a few years ago. It remains one of the best photo exhibitions I've seen.

There's a pretty interesting radio interview with her here - (starts at around 31 minutes)

June 28, 2012 4:56 PM  
Blogger Pierre Vignau - Vimages said...


I took a picture of my 90 year old mother about a year ago and then realized I had no pictures of my dad as an older person. He passed away 7 years ago. He was French, and I have uncles, aunts and cousins in France that I haven't seen for a long time. I'm going there for a month to shoot them.

Through Strobist, I learned to play with light. I have 6 SB's 3 umbrellas, 3 softboxes, Orbis ring flash, Softlighter II, you name it, I have it.

I'm going to France with 1 SB, one reflector, couple of lenses, my D300 and that's it. New challenge.

David, thanks for keeping us awake in the creative part of photography; not only the tech stuff.

Pierre, in Québec

June 28, 2012 10:07 PM  
Blogger Mark Tantrum said...

I like the reminder about projects- I've heard that many times from my lecturers and speakers. As a full time freelance photographer, it's so easy to forget, concentrating on daily assignments. I'm hoping to document two women's journey over 9 months training for an ironman event next March. Totally in my own time, I'm really looking forward to the focused attention it will require- looking to use lighting to help tell the story, the emotional journey they will take...

June 29, 2012 11:15 PM  
Blogger Rik Sanchez said...

I have two projects this summer. Finishing up one while starting another both involving Japanese women who are into Lolita fashion in Osaka, Japan.
Osaka Lolitas This is my general Lolita project, the other involves shooting them under various train station overpasses. All shot with small strobes, up to 10 in some photos.

June 30, 2012 6:17 AM  
Blogger Chris Haye said...

Nice to see some coverage of an art photographer (though I hate the term) here.

I worry that there is a pre-occupation with gear/technique amongst the majority of photographers at the expense of concept. We're all guilty of being more focussed on researching the next piece of equipment that will revolutionise our practice rather than what we can do as individuals to actually produce something interesting.

June 30, 2012 8:17 AM  
Blogger jo said...

I am working on a project , documenting a homeless camp in the woods not far from me. The people, the lifestyle and their creative problem solving and ingenuity are inspirational. This will probably take me a year (I hope). . The first couple months can be seen on my Flickr under "the tent city project". I've found the more I go, the less attention anyone pays, and the better the photographs. I decided at the end of the project I hope to hold an exhibit to raise awareness, and funds, to help benefit those in need in our own area. johendley

July 03, 2012 12:42 PM  
Blogger Heather K. McManamy said...

I've been reminded (and subsequently self-reprimanded) that I *do* have projects in the works, and my excuses are getting the better of me. Well, that and the 105 degree heat right now. :/ I've become obsessed with the idea of story for my images, and have tried to develop projects around that idea. The only one that's gotten anywhere is The Indelible Project, and that only once. I must be more honest with myself. Thanks to everyone who wrote before me and reminded me I need to get on with it. :)

July 04, 2012 6:09 PM  
Blogger Gerben Grotenhuis | Fotograaf said...

Me and a good friend are working on a funny project taking a lot of time called the Toilet Diaries. Basically it shows all the stuff you can do in a bathroom. We are now at 50 photos, we stop at hundred making a photobook and a calender.
Check it out at:
or at our facebook:

July 06, 2012 1:02 PM  
Blogger Paul D'Andrea said...

I've been working on a site that is sort of a brochure for Central Indiana's outdoors. I think what we lack is a compelling view, like the Rockies out west, to get people outside. I built to show people what they're missing and to make the outdoors a bit more accessible.

The slideshows have been an interesting challenge. I carry a sound recorder to try to recreate what it's like to be out hiking on a nice day. I've also got a robotic head to make motion timelapse clips.

A lot of work goes into each post, which has been a struggle. I quit my day job four months back. I hoped that I could dedicate a little more time to IndyHikes, since I wouldn't be running my photography business while also holding a full time job, but business has been busier than I thought it'd be (knock on wood). It's been a fun project though, even if it's slow going.

July 11, 2012 10:23 AM  

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