How to Start a Project: Alejandro Cartagena

© Alejandro Cartagena, from the series "Suburbia Mexicana: Lost Rivers"

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 my students. 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 as well as soliciting new responses in order to publish a series of a dozen replies to the basic question, "What advice do you have for starting a project?"

We started the series with replies from Judith Joy Ross and Irina Rozovsky. We're following today with another from Alejandro Cartagena.

Cartagena (b. 1977) lives and works in Monterrey, Mexico. His work has been exhibited and published internationally, and is in collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Cartagena won the Critical Mass book award, and was named one of PDN's 30 emerging photographers. He was also a finalist for the Aperture Portfolio Prize, selected as an International Discovery at Houston FotoFest, a Hey, Hot Shot! finalist, and a featured artist at the CONTACT Festival in Toronto. He is currently teaching at the Faculty of Visual Arts of the University of Nuevo Leon. He is represented by Circuit Gallery in Toronto.

Alejandro Cartagena: I am writing this with no possible authority on how to start a project but wanting to do it as a possible arranging of ideas of how I do it or how I incentivize my students to do so. I guess the starting point is the idea. This thing that pops up in your head and starts the internal battle with your personal, professional, cultural, ethical, and artistic biases and constructs. In that battle, at least for me, is where most things get thrown away. If something survives for more than a day, I maybe pay a bit more attention to it and start the contextualizing part. But before talking about that, if I were to be faced with a student "looking" for a project I normally pitch them some questions like, What are you interested in? Is there a certain situation in your life, family or city that might be lingering in your head? Is that thing interesting enough to spend time, money, and effort on? If so, would you be willing to be sincere about what is really pulling you to it; are you being judgmental, simplistic, emotional, "political" about it?... and so on.

If the idea manages to survive, I would guide them through contextualizing the idea; that is something I do for my own work. For me this part is about asking myself where this work falls in terms of the history of my work and past interests. How am I "progressing" or moving forward? Or am I pushing the idea ahead with no importance to what I've done before? It's not about producing safe work, but about making sense of who you are as an artist or visual thinker. I feel that sometimes I get tired with what I might be producing and feel anxious to experiment, even though all new works are experiments. I hope this doesn't sound too pretentious or - again - safe! But I do think of this a lot. Continuing with the idea of contextualizing, I also try to do as much research about my subject matter as I can, in texts and through other visual thinkers. Sometimes this is all happening at the same time as I am starting to shoot. Sometimes it is just abstract. There is no exact process. Ever. But these things are happening and circulating in my head all the time. That is the ignition process.