Using Projects And Themes To Give Meaning To Photography

Lately I’ve read about a number of photographers (re)discovering using themes in their work to give them structure and inspiration.

As I see it, there are loosely two ways to approach using themes.

First, by choosing a specific theme before you make a single photograph. For example you might decide you want to make pictures of the shoes of businessmen, or redundant red telephone boxes converted for other purposes, or yellow bicycles.

Then, with this theme in mind, you head out with your camera looking for subjects and compositions that fit the brief.

I can certainly see the appeal and the benefits of this approach, especially if you’ve felt in a rut lately, just photographing the same things over, or not photographing at all.

And there are many shared variations of this online, like the popular Thursday Doors series that my fellow photographers and bloggers Jim and Bear have both featured recently.

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Personally though, I tend to prefer the other broad approach, which is like the first, only backwards. Or inside out, depending on how you wish to look at it. 

By just photographing what you find interesting, moving and beautiful, even if the subjects aren’t exactly the same in every image, over time you will naturally gather a collection (or a few collections) of photographs around a share theme or themes.

This feels more relaxed and organic to me, and avoids the trap of feeling I have to make photographs of specific objects or around set themes, just for the sake of it.

The ones that have emerged in my work over the last perhaps 12 years I’ve been photographing with intention, essentially fall in two camps.

Described literally, stuff that’s decaying, and stuff up close.

Sometimes both of these in one photograph.

To give these two themes or projects a more poetic turn of phrase, I like to call them “When Nature Reclaims” and “The Beauty Is In The Detail” respectively. 

As I said, I’m not consciously thinking when I got out on a photowalk, “Right, I need to make sure I get some great photos of flowers up close and some ivy rambling all over a crumbling gravestone today”.

I just kind of photograph what I enjoy, even if often that is close up flowers (the beauty is in the detail) and ivy rambling over crumbling gravestones (when nature reclaims).

Something I’d like to do more is review my past few years of photographs and see what other themes or projects emerge.

I’m sure there are some smaller and more subtle ones to be found, like pictures of the little yellow signs we have over here with an H and numbers on that signify the location of a hydrant in a street.

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How about you? What themes have naturally arisen in your photography? What specific projects have you taken on with a set theme in the past, and how have they worked out? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

10 thoughts on “Using Projects And Themes To Give Meaning To Photography”

  1. Thanks for the link Dan.

    The Thursday Doors picture came out of a set I was doing for another reason, I just remembered the theme when I was doing the processing of the whole set of pictures, which happened to be a Thursday, and it was a door. Voila as the Frenchman say…

    Like you I have some things I like and I suppose the ‘theme’ comes from being drawn to that kind of approach. Nature reclaiming is one I always have too as well as my trying ICM out on everything at the moment. Doors has been added in my head as one of the other possible things to look out for.

    Themes can be negative though. It took me ages to shake off that my blog had been ‘discovered’ on WordPress for my B&W coastal landscapes, so I imagined that was all people were there for and was trying too hard to contain myself within that. It actually felt brave of me to post something so completely different when I first posted the colour abstracts. Now I have broken that mould I feel better about posting other different stuff – so I’ll post the rest of the Davidstow Airfield pictures that the door one came from with a new ‘uglier Cornwall’ angle instead of the ‘dramatic and beautiful landscape’ ones soon.

    1. Interesting what you say about being discovered on WP – that was how I found you actually, it came up as a recommendation in my WP Reader stream.

      Because I started 35hunter as a film photography blog, when I started to drift further into digital and shoot less with film, I felt a bit like I might be letting down the readers that discovered me for film photography.

      I ended up writing a kind of confessional post that gave me “permission” to move on and not worry about it any more.

      https://35hunter.blog/2017/08/10/guilty-secrets-and-the-great-film-fallout-2017/

  2. Dan, do I dare say I love the color photos. I am getting so many of them from you now and very impressed. No pressure to post more. As you know I am taking photos around my home and garden and on my small adventures away from home, maybe at a gallery which I then load on to my computer to enjoy. I am like you and just snap what takes my attention that day. I really am trying to take at least one photo a day to get me into the habit of it as I so enjoy the results when I make the effort xoxo susanJOY

  3. There is something to be said for adopting a theme, because it both makes you intimate with a subject and encourages you to look at it in new ways. And I do use that approach when I’m traveling sometimes, if my eye feels “flat.” But in my semi-daily discipline, I’m more like you: shooting things I find interesting, beautiful, funny, not-ordinary. There are certainly themes (and stylistic preferences) that emerge organically, but mostly I’m content if I get individual images I like.

    1. “makes you intimate with a subject” – Yes, I really like this idea.

      I wonder if you collected together your favourite individual images whether a theme would naturally become visible anyway?

      1. I did indeed do this a few years ago, and was surprised by the sense of stillness so many of my images had, regardless of the subject. It’s a great way to see intellectually (instead of instinctually) what you’re drawn to.

        1. Yes, it is interesting to step back and observe with a bit more of an objective view after some time has passed.

          And of course as you’ve found, the themes don’t have to be certain subjects or objects, they can be more subtle, and more about moods and emotions.

  4. Hi Dan, I don’t think I have identified any themes in my pictures. Like Susan, I just use my camera as a notebook, and record events I go to, bike rides, trips. There are regular events I like to photograph, like a local flea market that happens three times a year. (Actually the largest one in the US) that is as close to “street” as I come. When I shot two rolls of film this Spring and didn’t get one decent picture I didn’t pick up a camera again for months.

    1. Very interesting, I wrote about using my cameras as notebooks or sketchbooks last year – https://35hunter.blog/2017/12/03/my-camera-my-notebook-my-sketchbook/

      What did you not like about your photos? I’m just thinking when I take a photograph I don’t like, by identifying why I can try to do better next time. Examples might be technical like it’s blurred through being out of focus or the shutter speed being too slow or the depth of field is wrong or there are blown out highlights, or more compositional shortcomings, like there’s too much cluttering the photo, or it’s simply just not interesting enough.

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