Looking for a Great Assignment? Create One for Yourself


There was a time when publications assigned photojournalists long-term projects with the goal of thoroughly documenting an important story over time. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, those days are gone.

Or are they?

Sure, if you’re looking to be sent to exotic locations for weeks at a time, keep dreaming. Today the business is about tight deadlines and tighter budgets.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t still create long-term documentary projects — and get paid to do so.

Assign Yourself

Start by opening your eyes to what’s going on in your own community. Find a story on your own, and cover it on your own time initially. You might be pleasantly surprised at what comes of it.

Swedish photographer Paul Hansen calls this “having a knitting project in a drawer.” It’s a project you take out and work on when you have some spare time. You “knit” a little every now and then, when time allows, and put the project away when you have other things to do.

Before you know it, you’ll find yourself with a complete sweater — or in the photographer’s case, a complete photo documentary.

Shoot Locally, Sell Globally

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I used this approach for a feature I did a few years back. I shot parents and their babies taking advantage of Norway’s generous parental leave, through various activities. I did the whole thing in the area where I live, usually within walking distance of my home.

I ended up with a story called “Babyland.”

For the Norwegian media, my story wasn’t news. But in other countries, “Babyland” was seen as unusual — even exotic.

In the end, my photo documentary found its way into publications in at least five countries (tear sheets from three countries illustrate this post). And single images from the feature have sold in even more countries since then.

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Other photo documentaries I have made locally have been published locally, depending on the story. In addition, these pictures contribute to my growing archive for future sales.

Starting a “knitting” project in your own backyard has numerous advantages. You can do it on the cheap. You can gain an intimate knowledge of your subject matter. You can shoot it between other assignments. And you can expand your network — even picking up new clients along the way.

Best of all, because you control the project, it is story-driven — not budget-driven or deadline-driven. And that’s a true breath of fresh air.


8 Responses to “Looking for a Great Assignment? Create One for Yourself”

  1. That is great advice, Frederik. As you say, sometimes the greatest stories are in our backyards. Thank you for this.

  2. Interesting read .... thanks ....: )

  3. Nice post.

    My only question is if you were able to make the "local documentaries published locally" profitable?

    My experience is that work has to be sold well outside of my "home" city, because the rates here don't support anything worth talking about.

  4. Totally agree with you Fredrik!
    A project I assigned myself to, "In Spite Of!" (http://tinyurl.com/kv53x8), went well beyond anything I had imagined in advance and even brought in some funds from an unimaginable source - the Residence of The President of Israel.
    Nir

  5. That's a great way to think about creating exposure for your photography business is to create your own version of an assignment, and then work on creating a collection of images that tell the story of the assignment before any text has been written. Great Idea.

  6. @ Will S.: yes, I am able to make the local stories, published locally, profitable too. One reason is, despite sometimes poor rates, they don't cost much to produce. Secondly, a story sold locally may be resold elsewhere with a few,minor or no adjustments.
    It can be useful to take a long term view not only making these, but also in selling them. For example reselling bits of the story as they can be linked to local events/news. Over time you may earn much more than an assignment you get paid a day rate for and then forget about.

  7. Frederik, did you write the piece to go with the photo essay or did the papers add their own words?

    BTW your story is definitely food for thought as I am currently working on a large project of my own and this gives me encouragement and ideas for avenues to try and sell the work to.

  8. @Robert: I try to work with a journalist as much as I can. As a minimum I write a proper introduction myself and makes sure the captions are comprehensive. It seems there are very different practices with regard to how much text is needed and who'll write it, but better to have too much than too little. In Norway papers rarely accept photo features without words, on the other hand: a Russian magazine sent a journalist to Norway to write a story to my pictures.

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