How to balance passion projects with paid opportunities

July 28, 2022
By Callie Morgan

Pursuing self-directed work can feel like an impossible feat for some freelancers. How do you find the time and resources to pursue work on your own when paid opportunities can already feel scarce and unreliable? Award-winning Nigerian photographer Etinosa Yvonne believes not only that it’s possible, but that personal projects are the most important ones. A former social media marketer, she entered the photography field in 2017 and has since pursued dozens of personal and commissioned projects, receiving several grants and awards for her work.

Yvonne discussed the many benefits of self-directed work in a CCIJ hour-long professional training session last Thursday, providing tips on how best to sustain and leverage these projects, while working on paid opportunities. 

Here are some of the key insights she shared.

1. Passion projects allow you room to grow and make mistakes.

It’s difficult to change course when you’re being given explicit direction. But changing course is often a necessary part of helping a project reach its full potential. After all, you don’t always get it right on the first try. Personal projects provide space for you to develop your ideas, as you make mistakes and deepen your craft. 

Yvonne learned the importance of this lesson when working on “Unboxed,” a personal project focused on the perception of male bodies in Nigeria. She originally went into the homes of her subjects to photograph them, but upon realizing that her images were flat and boring, relaunched her project in a studio setting. Using professional lighting elevated the quality of the photos in a way that allowed her to achieve her objective – to bring viewers into the minds of her subjects. She wouldn’t have reached this final form without the space to take time away from the project and the flexibility to rethink her approach.  

2. These projects also help you develop an artistic style.

While Yvonne is not confident she has a definitive artistic style, she’s spent the last couple of years developing it. And this has only come through trying new things. Getting too comfortable with certain approaches can be very limiting, she says. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and allow room for exploration in every project. Over time, you’re likely to notice that your pieces are in visual harmony with one another, whether that’s in theme, style or presentation.

3. Passion projects can lead to new clients who trust your vision.

One of the many benefits to cultivating an artistic style is that it gives clients an idea of what you’re able to deliver. While some are stricter than others in terms of what they’re looking for, Yvonne has found that many of her clients reference her past work when describing their vision for a piece. If they’re able to notice and appreciate the patterns in your personal work, they can trust that you will use this vision to create something that meets their needs.

4. Publish, promote and preserve your work.

If you want people to engage with your work, don’t let it live on your laptop. Start a website and use social media to showcase your pieces. Think about the best ways to display each project. Is it through a book? A video? A photo series? Whichever path you choose, making your pieces accessible in various mediums allows them to live on long after you stop working on them.

However, it’s important to find a balance between presenting and protecting. A hefty social media presence may limit opportunities for collaboration and publication – and water down the impact of your in-person exhibitions. Yvonne recommends posting five to 10 images from each project to showcase the depth of your work to viewers and potential collaborators without giving it all away. 

5. Connect with trusted mentors and colleagues.

“No man is an island,” Yvonne says. Find people who you admire and respect to provide feedback.

Portfolio reviews, formal mentorship programs and social media platforms are helpful tools for getting feedback. Simply reaching out to colleagues who you admire to introduce yourself and your work can go a long way when it comes to improving your projects. And if you’re able to sustain these relationships in the long-run, they can take you far. Yvonne has leveraged her marketing background to build an extensive network of people in the photography world who have helped her achieve success.

But not all feedback is equally valuable. Sometimes harsh comments from a colleague can cause you to turn your back on a project that means a lot to you. Be careful about the kind of feedback you seek out, and don’t feel pressured to ask for advice if you fear it may ruin your relationship with your work. 

6. Apply for grants, residencies and exhibitions.

Opportunities like these have been instrumental for Yvonne’s growth. She credits some of her initial success to the Women Photograph Grant she received for her personal project, “It’s All in My Head” – a piece documenting the impact of cruelty and conflict on mental health in Nigeria – which led to her work being published in major media outlets like NPR. These kinds of programs give you the opportunity to advance your work, gain invaluable mentorship and get your name out there.

7. Schedule time for your passion.

“There’s no shame in hustling,” Yvonne says. All freelancers need assignments and commissions to sustain their careers. But it’s important to set aside dedicated time to work on personal projects in between these gigs. Spend a while working, take a break to pursue a paid opportunity and return to your piece with a fresh perspective on how to make it better. This cycle has allowed Yvonne to cultivate her successful career, one where she has the time and space to both support herself and build her craft.

Thank you, Etinosa, for sharing your wisdom with us. We appreciate your time and your words. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for more, and view her portfolio here.

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