in which i answer a question about photo projects

Because I’m the Managing Editor of, I get a hefty chunk of photography-related email. Most of it has to do with photography exhibitions, or photography books, or questions about Utata photo projects. Relatively little of my email deals with my own views on photography. But a few days ago I got an email that included the following questions:

I guess what I’m asking is how do you develop a personal photography project? Do you just pick a thing and start taking picture of it? Do you make up rules or guidelines before you start? How do you start a photography project?

I started to write back and basically say ‘Dude, I don’t have a clue how to start a project.’ But that sounded pretty stupid. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I must have some vague notion of how to go about it. I mean, I’ve done a number of photo projects. They couldn’t have all happened by accident. Could they?

So over the last few days I’ve found myself sporadically thinking about projects. This is what I discovered: each of the three projects I’ve included on this site (I have other photo projects; I just haven’t published them here) began in a different way. And since I do not want to write another post about guns, I’ve decided to write something about each of those three projects.

later i saw a red-haired woman in a blue sundress

later i saw a red-haired woman in a blue sundress

I’m going to begin with the Traffic Signals series, because it’s the simplest. Well, that’s not true — the Larking About in Alleys series is actually the simplest. But Traffic Signals is the oldest of the three projects. And, of course, I just checked and found that Faux Life is older by a year. But fuck it, I’m going to talk about Traffic Signals anyway.

The project as it exists now actually began with a different project. The Utata Storytellers Project of 2009 required us to make up to six photographs in which we would relate a story. We were only allowed a maximum of 35 words per photo. I kicked around a number of ideas for the gig, but came across my final project idea rather by accident.

the unquiet sky, shy as an alligator

the unquiet sky, shy as an alligator

I was standing at a crosswalk with some other pedestrians. There was a buzzing sound coming from the traffic signal. That buzzing ceased (or at least reduced in volume) when the light changed and we were allowed to cross the street. It struck me as odd and more than a little funny. It was as if the traffic signal was also sending out audible cues.

So I concocted a little talein which a person believed he was being given messages through the traffic lights and pedestrian signals. It’s called After the Bombs Dropped. For the photographs, I used an app called Poladroid, which mimics Polaroid photography. I thought it added a more authentic feel to the story.

angry birdsWhen the project was finished, I found I was still intrigued by traffic signals. I was fascinated by the fact that so many people — both drivers and pedestrians — obeyed them, even when there wasn’t any traffic on the streets. And yet even though they obeyed the signals, people never really looked at them. And they were everywhere. Everywhere.

So I kept photographing them. On the set in my flickr photostream, I continue to use the Poladroid app for the images. That aesthetic still appeals to me. But for my personal files (and here on this site) I use the app but dispense with the faux Polaroid border — primarily because the border looks goofy here. (It may look goofy on flickr as well, but hey — that’s flickr.)



I like to think the series is deceptively simple. As I said, traffic signals are everywhere. But while they’re ubiquitous, they’re not necessarily visually interesting. Most aren’t.

I’ve come to appreciate how difficult it is to photograph traffic signals in a way that creates a sense of drama. It’s not about documenting traffic signals; it’s about imparting a sense of tension within the frame.

it was a mistake to call her

it was a mistake to call her

I’m not always successful. But the challenge keeps me interested in the project. It also, I have to confess, annoys anybody I’m in a car with when I insist they either stop the vehicle or let me out and drive around the block until I get the photo.

It’s not quite an obsession, but it has an obsessive component to it. And happily the world is full of traffic signals, so it’s unlikely I’ll run out of material.


I took the 9AM bus to the downtown farmer’s market this Saturday morning. It’s a short trip, but circuitous, traveling mostly through working class neighborhoods. By the time we reached downtown the bus was about three-quarters full. There were maybe five white folks, all of us with empty ‘green’ bags, heading to the farmer’s market to buy fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, fresh-baked pastries and breads, local jams and jellies, ethnic delicacies, locally grown eggs, wines from small regional wineries.

All the other bus passengers were African-American or Hispanic. Most, if not all, of them were going to work. Several of them were wearing restaurant garb — smocks from fast-food restaurants or polo shirts with the names of restaurants embroidered on them. A couple of guys were wearing steel-toed boots and carrying their own tool belts.

[T]here are 47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Those folks going to work, they’re the people Gov. Romney counts in his 47%. I suspect most of them pay little or no federal income tax — not because they don’t work, but because they don’t earn enough money. Some of them probably get food stamps, several of them almost certainly receive the Earned Income tax credit, some of them may get some sort of government subsidy for heating in the winter, a fair number of them probably had done military service (or had a relative in military service). They still probably pay state income tax, of course, and sales taxes, and a host of other taxes.

These people are most definitely not victims, and don’t see themselves that way. Not one of them, I’m sure, has ever attended a US$50,000 a plate fund-raiser dinner to complain about how unfair life has been to them. And I think I can say with a high degree of confidence that not one of them has ever filed a 379 page income tax return.

Despite what Gov. Romney says, these folks do take responsibility for their lives. In fact, the working poor have to take more responsibility for their lives. They can’t hire somebody else to raise their kids, or cook their meals, or mow their lawns, or do their laundry. Poor city dwellers are less likely to own a vehicle, so when going to work or appointments they have to take into account bus or subway schedules (and consider the possible disruptions in service); that usually means leaving earlier and traveling longer in order to be sure they’re not late. Poor folks have to shop more carefully — for food, for clothing, for just about every goddamn thing. Being poor means making daily money decisions: do you buy fresh vegetables and the makings for a proper meal that you’ll likely be too tired to cook, or do you pay a bit more and buy a couple frozen pizzas that are filling and quick and easy? Do you buy the kids cheap shoes which will only get them through the summer or more expensive shoes that might last a year?

Poor folks are up to their necks in personal responsibility. They have less time and money to spend at weekend farmer’s markets.

The bus was nearly empty on the way back. Mostly just us white folks returning from the farmer’s market. Two women were cheerfully sorting through bags full of hand-spun yarns. Me, I picked up a nice garlic focaccia and an absolutely delicious loaf of raspberry streusel bread. I tasted an exceedingly fine locally-made Chipotle-Jack cheese (aged six months) and intended to buy it last thing before leaving, but it was clear at the other end of the market — three or four blocks away — and I might have had to hurry to catch the bus. These are the sacrifices we make.

wave the white flag

We’ve given up. Surrendered. Oh, we make a big fuss about the mass murder in Aurora. The news is full of ‘human interest’ stories about the victims — this one saved that one’s life, that one just got married, this other one worked with disabled kids, and that one had a promising career. So very sad, so very tragic — and yet we don’t really care enough about these poor people to even have a serious discussion about gun control. The simple fact is, we’ve capitulated. To this guy.

James Holmes

We say we need to have a discussion about gun control, but we openly concede we won’t. Why? Because at this point in the history of our culture we just acknowledge the fact that mass murder is acceptable. We’re basically okay with the fact that every so often somebody will buy a butt-load of firearms, then armor up and walk into a place of business, a shopping mall, a fast food restaurant, a school and shoot the living shit out of as many people as possible. We’re not only okay with it, we’ll pass laws that make it more possible. Hell, we’ll even pass laws that allow folks to buy extra capacity magazines so we can keep the body count up.

Here’s a true thing: according to data published by the FBI, single-victim gun killings have dropped more than 40 percent in the last 30 years. Here’s another true thing: mass murder — the killing of four or more victims in a single related incident — has increased in that same period. In the last three decades there have been around a thousand mass murders, with close to 5000 deaths. That’s another four or five people killed in another mass murder every what, nine days? Those are just the fatalities; who knows how many are wounded? Who know how many end up permanently disabled or emotionally fucked up.

Still, it’s no big deal. We have something over 300 million people in the U.S. We can lose a couple hundred a year to mass murder and not even blink.

Could we do something about it? Sure. If we wanted to. But we don’t. Instead, we’ll continue to make it possible for kids to dye their hair red and dress up in ballistic armor and do their part to provide the media with all those great human interest stories.

how not to write a lecture

There’s a great deal to dislike about the American Midwest in general and Iowa in specific. But I have to admit I love Iowa’s dedication to bicycling. The city, the county and the state are all investing money in building, maintaining, and expanding a statewide network of interlinked bike trails. There’s nearly 2000 miles of bike trails in Iowa–some are paved, some are dirt, some are crushed limestone–and many of them connect with each other in some way.

So I was only mildly surprised yesterday morning. I set out to do a quick three or four mile ride–just enough to stretch out the aging muscles and clear my mind for the day. I had a lecture to write, after all, and homework to do, and chores to perform. So…a quick morning ride. Twenty minutes, tops.

I took a slightly different path than my usual ride–a trail I hadn’t ridden since last year. This particular trail leads through a suburban area with condos beside a small man-made lake around which young mothers push babies in strollers, or young women jog or walk their tiny dogs, or old folks in loopy hats engage in their daily constitutional.

I don’t mind riding slowly and dodging the women and their strollers and their dogs, but I rarely ride this trail because it also passes through a couple of strip malls–and is there anything less visually interesting than a strip mall?

Once you get through the malls, though, the trail splits. The longer part travels through open rolling fields; the shorter part, through a wooded area. Because I’d already done a couple of miles, I planned to just circle the lake and head back. So instead of a three or four mile ride, it would be a five or six mile ride–hardly any difference at all, right?

And if I’m going to do five or six miles, I may as well cruise through the short wooded area, because that’s just another mile or so. Not even worth mentioning, really. However, where the bike trail ended last year, I saw this:

The trail had been expanded. And it was awfully inviting. But I had a lecture to write and homework to do and fuck all that–who am I to refuse such an invitation?

So I kept riding. The trail eventually ended at a point where a couple of old disused railroad bridges crossed the creek (the bike trail generally follows the creek path). A passenger aircraft was passing overhead, so I waved just in case one of the passengers happened to be looking down and wondering if anybody was on the bike path.

So, end of the trail. Time to turn around and head back to that lecture and those household chores and fuck all that. I mean, look–there’s a creek and bridges and what sort of person wouldn’t want to walk around a bit and see what there is to see? It’s almost a duty. I’m not one to shirk my duty (and honest, I’d get the lecture written at some point).

Through close observation I was able to determine that somebody named Candi rules. I deduced that the area was likely used by young folks to engage in mind-altering experiments. I further discerned hints that these things were a source of regional vanity.

Among my discoveries, I encountered an astonishing variety of plants with thorns, and a species of small but violently insane insect that is attracted to bloody scratches caused by exposing bare legs to thorny plants. Swarms of the little bastards dogged me, and the quicker I moved to escape them the more thorny plants I encountered, creating still more bloody scratches, which drove the insects into an absolute frenzy.

I would have explored more, but I had a lecture to write, don’t you know, and chores to perform. Granted, it took slightly longer than expected to get back to the lecture, on account of as I was circling the condo-encircled lake I had to slow down for a couple of old ladies who were discussing the barn swallows that were hawking for insects beneath a nearby bridge.

I am as fond of a swallow as the next person, and I was in the mood to see insects eaten. So I made a slight detour.

You can’t tell from the photograph, but there were roughly a gazillion hungry barn and cliff swallows, all darting and circling and doing spectacular things in the air. A gazillion, and all of them busily eating what I like to believe were the same sort of miniscule sadistic villains that sucked a full pint of blood from my thorn-gashed legs.

After watching them inflict mass casualties on the insect population, I mounted my bike and continued lectureward, a happy and contented and mildly bloodied man.

When it’s completed, that trail will be about 35 miles in length. When it’s linked to the next trail system, it will total about 110 miles–and that’s before it links to the other 2000 miles of Iowa bike trails.

When that happens, it seems likely I’ll never finish another lecture.