How to Start a Project: Steven Ahlgren

© Steven Ahlgren, Interstate Highway, Ridley Park, PA, 2012

Two years ago, 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 students each semester.

It occurred to me that their collective advice would probably be of interest to others and under that idea I will be publishing some of the responses I received then as well as soliciting new responses to post a series of a dozen replies from photographers to the basic question, "What advice do you have for starting a project?"

We started the series with replies from Judith Joy RossIrina Rozovsky, Alejandro Cartagena, and Phil Toledano. Today we follow with a response from Steven Ahlgren.

Ahlgren is a Pennsylvania-based photographer whose work has been shown internationally and published in DoubleTake, The New York Times, Harpers Magazine, The Boston Globe, and Adbusters. His images are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and the Yale University Sterling Library. He is a graduate of the Yale MFA program. He was interviewed by Amy Stein on her blog in 2009 here and by Evan Sklar in the same year here.

Steven Ahlgren: There are different ways for me that projects come about. For my series on corporate life I knew generally what I wanted to photograph before beginning, but things went in different directions once I started making images. I began by photographing corporate cocktail parties. This eventually led to photographing inside offices, and then these pictures led unexpectedly to photographing corporate exteriors and pedestrians. The point is that once you start something, be open to where it may lead.

On the other hand my current project – which I still consider kind of amorphous and can only describe as the physical and social landscape of the car - came about in a much different way. I was looking at photographs of mine that I liked but that were not made with any project in mind. I found the theme only after looking at these photos and realizing many were connected. My interest in the subject was always there but I didn't realize it until spending time with the images. Only after making this discovery did I begin to go out and make pictures specifically for this project. Even now, however, I still don’t know precisely what I am looking for when I go out to photograph. This situation can be either liberating or frustrating depending on my point of view at that moment.

I remember comments from two people I greatly respect that relate to both of these approaches. The German photographer Michael Schmidt wrote in an interview in his book Irgendwo that he needs three to five years to complete a project. The first couple years are spent intuitively making photos without a clear objective. Often the work looks different than what he planned. Oftentimes he is confused. But by the simple act of going out and making photos it helps to clarify what it is he is really after.

The other comment comes from photographer/curator John Szarkowski in a documentary about his life in photography. He mentions briefly near the end of the film that often students (and I think all photographers) sometimes don’t have any idea what to photograph. His advice is to simply start making photographs – even if the initial subject is something you might only be slightly interested in. When you are stuck, try to figure it out through working and responding to what you have made, instead of trying to resolve the answer in your head before you pick up a camera.

Finally, I also have to remind myself not to always think and work in terms of PROJECTS. It has been my experience that there are many random, unrelated, wonderful pictures to be made as I go through my days and it would be a shame not to make these photographs because they don’t fit into what I might think is important at that time.

© Steven Ahlgren, Political Poster, Wilmington, DE, 2012