My daily stroll through the newly built but already decaying park near my apartment in Hanoi on a brisk morning has me in deep thought. The stroll in this weather makes me ponder my past and where it all started for me as a young photographer. About 12 years ago, I visited Vietnam as a photogra-tourist (I coin that phrase just now) and instantly fell in love with the country. As cliché as that sounds, it’s true.
When I returned to in Hanoi two years later, I was accompanied by a truck load of credit card debt from unnecessary gear and a year left at University that I would never finish. My plan was to focus on personal projects and use my time shooting my projects as my version of my final year of school. I was intrigued by a photobook by Philip Jones Griffithsabout victims of agent orange in Vietnam and I wanted to do my own version of this story.
After getting settled in and finding my bearings here with the help a wonderful woman named Thuy (one of my closest friends to this day and I’m forever grateful to her), I gained access to an orphanage for victims of Agent Orange. I started my project Legacy Of Horror and in the end launched my career with it. The project led to several accolades including my acceptance into the prestigious Eddie Adam Workshop, winner of the Marty Forscher Award for humanitarian photography, and the Emerging Photographer award given out by the Missouri School of Journalism. It also helped me open the door with the New York Times that led to shooting over 100 assignments around Asia for them, which eventually led to commercial work that came at a time when editorial budgets took a spill. I understand this is an odd career trajectory and it won’t be the same for everybody, but my career really did start and sustained because of a personal project that I shot 10 years ago. Of all the things I’ve done in my career, the part that had the most impact on me and what I’m proudest of is that first true personal project.
I learned so much about myself as a photographer during that time. I learned I could photograph in the moment and suppress my emotions (not saying that’s a good thing) and focus on the story. I also learned I couldn’t escape those emotions I felt for the children as they surfaced every evening while I edited and organized my images. By using only one camera and one lens (Canon 5D and the 35mm for you tech nerds), I had to physically move more and that self-imposed discipline made me rethink my compositions. I learned the importance of anticipating moments as well as patiently observing. I learned how photographing the same happenings every day in the same place made me creative out of boredom. I shed the old way I shot and worked on new ways to compose my images, new ways to see light, and different approaches to visual storytelling.
Each day I experimented and each day I grew. Some days I took awful images but the failure helped me learn and evolve. I stopped trying to reproduce images that would get me pats on the back in University, or worse yet, trying to mimic other photographer’s images that I admired. I began to strive to create something original, something I could call my own and create my own identity with. My work isn’t the most prolific work on the topic but it was easily my most powerful work.
When I finished that project, I thought to myself this is the first of many. I was addicted to the whole process from the conception of the idea, to shooting the story, to sequencing the final images. Yet some projects started over the past 10 years all fizzled out for a variety of reason and I’ve never could truly recapture that feeling I had when I started out. I’ve shot for just about everyone but myself in that ten years and I’m content with my career path, but something is missing. Nothing compares to the gains I made during that time I shot my first personal project.
There is no playbook, no list of projects to choose from, no right or wrong way to go about it, no assurance it will be successful, no help. You must just lace up your boots, leave everyone else behind, be discipline and focused. Personal projects aren’t just for documentary photographers or photojournalists, photographers of all genres will benefit from the process. Personal projects aren’t just for photographers starting out either, but for anyone looking for a spark, looking to expand their creativity and discover something new about themselves.
I’m 39 and it’s been far too long since I’ve had that spark. While it’s been fun reminiscing about the past, I’m gazing towards the future. In two days, I will embark on the next chapter of my new ongoing personal project. The project has a long way to go but at least I’ve begun. I’m scared, petrified even to discover who I am at this stage in my career. Maybe the project will suck, maybe it will be average (just as bad as sucking), who knows, but I know I will love the process and that I will learn something new about myself.
I feel naked (sorry for that disturbing visual if you’ve met me) without a client or an editor directing me this time, but I also feel damn liberated and ecstatic to recapture that feeling I had over a decade ago. I encourage all of you to not make the same mistake as me and wait ten years. Stop pondering, stop making excuses, just go after it now.
Justin Mott is an American photographer living in Vietnam since 2006. He has shot over 100 assignments for the New York Times and his major editorial clients include TIME, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian among many others. His boutique visual production studio Mott Visuals specializes in premium commercial photography and video production. Mott is also familiar to TV viewers as host and resident judge of History Channel’s hit photography reality series Photo Face-Off now entering their 4th Season.