How to Start a Project: Judith Joy Ross

Closing in on two years ago as my students at the Universidad de Antioquia were beginning to start their final projects for the semester,  I asked a handful of friends in the photography world if they had advice about starting projects for them. I continue to present their responses to my students each semester.

It occurred to me that their collective advice would probably be of interest generally. With that idea, I will be publishing some of the responses I received over the coming weeks, as well as soliciting new responses, with the idea of publishing a dozen replies to the basic question, "What advice do you have for starting a project?"

We'll start the series with a reply from Judith Joy Ross.

Ross is a Pennsylvania-based photographer, most well known for her work in 8x10 black and white portraiture. Her ability to capture the emotional sensibility of her subjects has been frequently noted. She has work in collections around the world and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985 as well as a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1986. 

Judith Joy Ross: Sometimes it's something I know I want told. Sometimes it's something I want to discover. It requires believing in the project when you want to give up. It's not about yourself, it's about the project idea. Just stay focused on the idea of the project and discover where it takes you. One particular project - Portraits of the U.S. Congress - was funded by a Guggenheim. It was so challenging and miserable a thing, if it had not been publicly known that I was going to do it, I might have backed out. But there it was and somehow I was doing it. It was very hard to get permission to do the project, but there was of course the serendipity that comes and lets things happen as well. After I got permission to do it I could not back out; I was scared to death. I didn't think of backing out either, [but] it was just so fucking difficult. Public Schools in Hazleton was similar. I have almost always had to drag my ass to shoot. It's scary hard work and only a few minutes are exciting. Then more work. The pictures make you go on and on and thinking of the people you have seen and thinking I am telling their story was - up until now - a great motivator.

Always it's not about how you feel, about how shitty or great it's going, you have to look at the pictures and see where they lead. You cannot want the pictures to be a certain way or the idea to be what you thought it was going to be, you have to let it unfold and show you what it is. It's bigger than you, thank God - that's why it's not about you and how miserable you may feel or the lack of faith you may have during a project. It's about the pictures. You have to be a good self-critic...of the pictures. It takes time to let things go and let things come.

Email dated October 26, 2010. Edited for clarity.