By Katelyn Umholtz
From Mary Ellen Mark to David Burnett, personal projects have long been an important part of a visual journalist’s career. They can start off as something small, putting time in when one isn’t on the clock. They can also turn into the biggest works of one’s career.
A professor at Kent State University, David LaBelle often tells his students to think about what they’re passionate about when brainstorming for photo essay ideas.
“Students will tell me they want to do stories, but they don't know where to begin,” LaBelle said. “I tell them to get out a piece of paper and to write down the five things they care the most about. Until you identify what you're curious about, then you're just waiting for someone to hand you something.”
This is also how Jane Therese, now a scriptwriter, takes on personal projects. Outside of her newspaper and freelance jobs, she often did stories about young people and families with autism. She started with a boy named Jamie, and that eventually branched out into documenting other families experiencing autism.
Jaime Lara, 10, so full of energy, has a hard time sitting still during music therapy on at The Eden Institute in Princeton, NJ. Jaime, who is autistic, has no verbal skills and is severely impaired cognitively. Photo by Jane Therese
“Not a lot was being said about autism at the time,” Therese said. “So I took on a personal project about autism and began that one around 1993. That was outside of work, but then I proposed the project to my editor, and they approved it.”
Therese said she was told “no” many times in the newsroom. When she wanted to go to Rwanda to cover the genocides, they told her no because she was a single mother. Instead, they gave the job to her male co-worker who did the nighttime Photoshop editing. He didn’t even shoot pictures, she said.
“I did not and will not let somebody's ignorance ever prevent me from doing work on what I feel is important,” Therese said. “[Women photojournalists’] voices are really important. Use those negatives voices as the fuel that makes you the best you can possibly be.”
LaBelle, who has been in the industry for 40 years, has done around 20 personal projects. The ideas for them come easy to him.
“I'm more of a story generator,” LaBelle said. “I've never been somebody who has said ‘Give me a story.’”
Working at multiple newspapers that allowed him this creative freedom, LaBelle brought them stories that mattered to him. This included stories about car crashes and cancer victims, and these could take anywhere from a few months to many years. Many of his projects are based around one person and a tragedy they are dealing with. Telling stories so people’s voices can be heard is important to him, and it’s what he’s passionate about.
Bruce Millspaw in Utah. Photo by David LaBelle
“One was about a young man in Utah who was a part of a cleanup and got cancer,” LaBelle said. “He believed that the government caused it because there was nuclear waste everywhere, and the government denied it.”
Male or female, the best way to go about personal projects is to look at issues you’re passionate about, said Therese. For her, those were family and community issues, which lead her to documenting different families facing different severities of autism. For LaBelle, that was documenting the struggles of everyday people.
“They don't often fall in your lap,” LaBelle said. “We just gravitate toward what we're interested in. If we're going to really authentic, we're going to do stories that we're interested in.”