On Finishing Projects

Corrupted image from my work in progress LEJOG project.

Corrupted image from my work in progress LEJOG project.

I’m now a year and three months in to the making of my Land’s End to John O’Groats road trip project (still currently untitled - I’m really struggling with that, actually), and consequently I’ve got a fair amount of pictures for the project, but a persistent question that I and other people have is, ‘When will it be finished?’

It’s an interesting question in a way, because, as I didn’t set myself any sort of time or budgetary constraint (though it’s worth noting that there is of course a natural budgetary constraint stemming from the very small amount of money present in my bank account), there isn’t really a clear answer to it. Obviously when you’re at university or are shooting to a deadline imposed by a client, then your finishing points are essentially fixed, but with personal projects you could arguably carry on indefinitely unless you impose an arbitrary deadline. The obvious answer is that I could set myself some sort of arbitrary deadline, but I find that conceptually unsatisfying, as if I reach that deadline and want to continue making pictures, then why shouldn’t I?

In discussion with a friend a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that my ‘project’ on my two cats, Royal & Eva, would be finished when they die - as this would obviously entail a natural end to the picture making process for them and I. But thinking on it further, I’m not sure that works either - unless they both pass away in very close succession, Yogi and I are likely to get another cat (or possibly a dog - fingers crossed for both) in the meantime, and that will introduce new opportunities for pictures with the surviving cat. Basically, as long as we have an unbroken line of pets, this project will never really be finished.

Royal & Eva, London, December 2016

Royal & Eva, London, December 2016

So that leaves me with a dilemma - like any other delusional artist, I want my work to, at some point, enter the pantheon of great works in photography, and I’m aware that much of the work that I admire was made over a period of years or even decades (I’m thinking about American Prospects, Uncommon Places, Sleeping by the Mississippi, Pictures From Home, Sentimental Journey, Wonderful Days etc.), so perhaps the logical thing to do would be to follow suit, and work on projects for so long that you eventually get it sick of it, and you happily make a decision to stop. Indeed, in conversation with David Campany, Stephen Shore agrees that his ‘interest now falls away as you are beginning to sense that you have met the challenge, rather than having to repeat in order to discover that you’ve done all you can?’

Another dilemma arises from the pressure of social media and the perception that other photographers are always launching a new project, winning an award, being exhibited, etc. It feels like you have to constantly be pushing new work out into the world. Perhaps it’s always been thus, but, for me, Instagram is the big problem of our time. I’m very hesitant about posting my LEJOG project on there, because anything you post becomes yesterdays news so quickly - most people will literally scroll past it in under a second. It feels cruel. The temptation though is to publish something as a ‘work in progress’ and then continue to work on it over the coming months/years. Perhaps that’s a smart move to make in a world craving for regular content, but I still worry about diluting the impact of my work by showing it in an unfinished state.

So what to do? For now, I’m going to keep working on my LEJOG project in private (i.e. not sharing work on my website or social media), try to get some feedback off other photographers, and get some opinions on how to move forward. Ultimately, I do want this to be a long-term project, and with Great Britain still right in the middle of some incredibly important events, it would feel premature to bring anything to a close in the near future.

How does everyone else manage this issue? How do you know when a project is finished? How do you balance long term thinking with the short term demands of social media and the modern world? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.