Personal projects help launch many careers, but they also help photographers stay in the game for years on end. Photographer Mark Peterson, who started his career more than 35 years ago, says the most important thing photographers can do to keep going, especially through career valleys, is to “find a project that you care about, that isn’t about [trying] to get work, and that you’re doing because you honestly want to show people something.”
Personal projects have served as stepping stones throughout Peterson’s career. In 2017, he published “Political Theatre,” his groundbreaking work about the pretense, egos, and stage-managed “optics” of presidential politics. His previous project, called “Acts of Charity” and published in 2004, was about
money and privilege on parade at charity events.
“From 2005 to 2008 or 2009, I felt my work really suffered, and a lot of it just wasn’t very good,” he says. “I felt like I was in quicksand. Every time I took a step I felt like I was sinking deeper, and wondering if I had it in me to keep making pictures….[I kept wondering]: “What can I do different? How can I move forward?”
Peterson has always been interested in photographing politics, and the political right in particular. When the Tea Party gained momentum after 2008, Peterson found it irresistible. “It was like your grandma sitting in a lawn chair yelling the most awful, nasty things. I really wanted to capture that. That’s what motivates me: trying to explain the strange, crazy world we live in.”
Still, it took Peterson a few years of experimenting and constantly pushing himself to find his voice for the project that became “Political Theatre.” But the assignment work followed, and Peterson’s career peaked once again.
Now at work on a new project about the radical right, Peterson says he measures his success by the progress of his projects, not the money he earns. “At the end of the year, you can look and say: ‘That was a good year. I made five pictures for that project and I’m halfway through it,’ or: ‘I just started and I’m missing this.’ You can look ahead to the next year and kind of say, ‘This is what I’m going for.’”
See more about Peterson’s work and advice in “How Mark Peterson Stays Inspired and How He’s Fueled His Long Career.”
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