If you’ve ever gone to school to pursue a career in the arts you know how important assignments were. Whether we liked the assignments or not, they guided us, gave us reason for being, kept us inspired and creating. But we all know those assignments wouldn’t last forever. All too often you’d hear people give one very important piece of advice, “stay on top of giving yourself assignments”. After you graduate there is no one to provide you with those thought provoking assignments, well, until you begin acquiring work. There is no longer the responsibility of performing or earning a grade to get that expensive piece of paper. If you talk with most graduates from art school, or any creative degree program, they will tell you that the scariest aspect of graduating besides job availability is staying motivated and producing new work.
If you do a Google search for ‘photo challenge’ or ‘photo assignment’ you will face 458 million search results. Yes friend, you read correctly. 458 million. Now narrow your search to the reasonable first three to ten pages. Everybody and their brother has a page dedicated to the ‘photo challenge’ or ‘photo assignment’. There is one for every genre and sub-genre of photography as well. The problem is that these challenges and assignments are dominated by the 365-selfie, 52-week, 30-day, 24-hour, photo-a-day challenges. Are you seeing the pattern here? It sounds like a diet. Believe me, I’ve tried all of these and found myself in most cases miserably bored and quitting. Photography was no longer fun. It actually became more of a chore. The problem is that these challenges and assignments do not give us any real world parameters that could spawn creativity besides a time frame. Yes, the time constraint is a real world challenge, but the creative limitations our environment or clients challenge us with are far more helpful in sparking creative, new ideas.
Just telling someone to think outside of the box isn’t always enough. You have to challenge people with limitations. By doing so you draw a line in the sand and dare them to cross it. Parameters. Boundaries. We need to define the box before we can step outside of it, right? If you look closely, the one thing that these challenges listed above are missing, are rules and guidelines. No, I don’t mean “your image must have these dimension, at this ppi, titled this way, uploaded here, by this time”. No, what I am talking about is a set of parameters that we have to work with. We all know what happens when we are put in a box. We want to get out. When we step out from the confines of the box we take our first risk. This first risk leads to more risk taking. In photography, when risks are taken, scary and interesting things happen. We learn about ourselves and others. We find our voice. We discover some new worlds. Most importantly, we create new work.
The whole point to my story here is to share with you a collection of challenges and assignments. Some are my own, and others I have found scouring the web (sorry, not all 458 million search results), looking for the most interesting challenges and assignments. These are blogs, websites and books that offer other-than-the-normal tired assignments and challenges. In some cases I might have found them inspiring to begin with— adding a few parameters of my own. Lastly, I was inspired to write this after giving my Fundamentals Of Photography students at Houston Community College a final assignment to photograph a bench. You can read about it here. Otherwise, enjoy the list. I hope you find inspiration and begin seeing things a little differently.
Some interesting links:
• A really interesting way to rethink time constraints
• National Geographic is always a great source for assignments – They have a page dedicated to assignments. If you knock it out of the park, you may get chosen for their online gallery.
• ‘Gain access to…’ and, ‘It would it be interesting if… – A student’s reflection on her instructor’s assignment that she continues to give to her students now.
• An interesting way to look at people in their cars on the freeway.
• CNN has a page dedicated to assignments
• Project Soul Pancake• Reddit picture challenge
• The worlds longest list of photo contest ideas (challenges)
• Google’s page dedicated to photo challenges
• An interesting list of words to to challenge yourself visually with
Interesting assignments I’ve given my students in the past, or that were given to me while I was a student in school:
• A portrait or self-portrait without showing us a person.
• Tell a complete story in 3 images.
• 10 photos, one subject (Shoot from the hip. You cannot look through the viewfinder).
• Light as subject (photograph light as if it is a person).
• 4×4 space. Find a space and map out a mental or physical perimeter and photograph everything you can within that space using multiple camera angles, perspectives, and POVs. (Try to capture a sense of place, space, mood, tone, and structure.) Explore photographing something that lies beyond the boundaries (box).
• Get out of your own head, “How would [enter person’s name here who isn’t a photographer] photograph it? My favorite person to think about is Gene Simmons of KISS in full make-up and theatrical garb.
• Make an ordinary object look unrecognizable.
• Visualize a classical music piece, or your favorite song using only colors and textures as the subject.
• Sometimes just a phrase can offer challenging parameters, “I can barely remember…”.
• Visualize the scent of a woman, or a man.
• Photos from your neighborhood from someone else’s perspective. Walk around and have someone else tell you what to shoot.
• 25 strangers (one of my favorites). No, not your friends and family. People you don’t know. You have to be close enough to hear them respond when you ask their name.
• Walk blindfolded (with help from someone) and when you bump into something photograph it.
• Recreate an image or mimic the style of a photography master.
• Photograph a park bench. You only get 36 frames. No more no less. Choose your 8 best images.
Books with some thought provoking assignments:
The Photographer’s Playbook: 307 Assignments and Ideas
I know there are so many more amazing assignments and challenges out there. Hell, I only made it through the first 10 pages worth of millions of search results. Give these a try. Search flickr, or other photo sharing communities, for groups who are creating amazing challenges. Don’t be surprised if all you find is words to visualize. If you are that type of person who likes visualizing a word like ‘blue’ or ‘love’ or ‘sorry’, try challenging yourself by creating an image visualizing the word using the ‘LIFE formula for visual variety’. I’ll leave that one for you to research on your own.