How To Find Interesting Themes And Connections In Your Photo Archive

How To Find Interesting Themes And Connections In Your Photo Archive

In my latest book 100 Creative Photography Assignments I make the recommendation that when you do an assignment you should aim to make six good photos that fit the brief and work together as a set.

Of course this isn’t compulsory – they’re your assignments and you’re free to do them in your own way. 

But it’s worth thinking about because there are four good reasons that making sets, rather than individual images, benefits you and your creativity: 

1. Making six photos is a challenge, but it’s achievable. If the thought of making six good photos is daunting, then cut it down to three. The idea is to give you something that’s both challenging and fun to do, not to put you off doing an assignment altogether.

2. Working in sets encourages you to make a series of photos that have variety yet work together. It’s a bit like giving yourself an imaginary brief to shoot an article for a magazine. The photos should all look like they were made by the same photographer, and work together to explore different aspects of the brief.

3. It gives you a goal to aim for. You can say that the assignment is complete when you have a set of six photos. 

4. It teaches you to edit your photos (as in choose the ones that go best together). Let’s say you do an assignment and end up with ten good photos. Narrowing that down to six makes you think about which photos work together best, and which ones should be left out.

Back to the past

Thinking in sets is also beneficial when you start looking at photos in your archives. The briefs in 100 Creative Photography Assignments are designed to inspire you to go out and make photos now. But you can also apply them to your photo archives.

I only started to understand how well this works as I looked back through older photos to illustrate the assignments. I began to see themes and ideas that I explored in the past, but never developed into longer term projects. There are themes that I had shot unconsciously, and never taken any further.

A good example of this is assignment 39 from the book, Urban decay. I’ve already shared some urban decay photos from Alaska and Chile with you in my newsletters and articles. But here are some more from Argentina (above) and Bolivia (below). 

Photo archive urban decay Argentina
Photo archives urban decay Bolivia

If I could go back in time and tap myself on the shoulder I’d point out that I’d found an interesting idea to explore and that I should continue with it. 

Finding new connections

Another benefit of looking through your archives is that you start to see connections that you never realized were there. 

Some of those are visual connections. You might find that you have photos where the subject is unrelated, but the color and composition are similar. They look as if they’ve been made by the same photographer. 

You’ll also find more thematic connections. For example, as I looked through my archives for photos made in Argentina and Bolivia I found some images of old cars and other vehicles that I’d forgotten about. 

Photo archives old cars Argentina
Photo archives old vehicles Argentina
Photo archives old vehicles Bolivia

I also saw a theme that I hadn’t seen before in my Bolivia photos – signs on buildings in streets. 

Photo archives old signs Bolivia

The benefits of a brief

Having a brief encourages you to look through your photo archives with a specific goal in mind. Ask yourself does the photo fit the brief? If it does, then add it to the shortlist. If it doesn’t, does it suggest another assignment or brief (like my earlier example of signs in Bolivia)?

This exercise gets you thinking about different things and seeing connections and themes in your photos that you hadn’t noticed before.

Connecting past and future

Going through your archives and looking for new themes and visual connections has another benefit – it sparks ideas for photos you can make now or in the future. 

When you look at the photos you make for a particular theme in the past, and compare them to those you’re making now, you’re drawing a line that connects your past with the future. My urban decay photos are a good example of this. You can follow the line that connects my past travels with my current life.

The theme of urban decay is a good example to work with because I have lots of photos that fit. But you’re just as likely to find ideas that you explored in the past that didn’t result in enough good photos to make a set. Or it might be that your photography and composition skills have improved. You might have some interesting photos in your archive, but the photos don’t meet your current standards.

In that case your past photos are links to the past and signposts indicating where to go in the future. Perhaps you have two or three good photos that fit a specific assignment. Now you can set yourself the brief of making another three or four good images so you can complete the set of six.

Or those older photos might inspire you to explore the assignment in a different way, making a new set of six photos. 

Either way it gets you thinking creatively. It helps you see the links between you current work and stuff you did in the past. It also helps you see where you’re going by suggesting themes and ideas you’d like to explore in the near future.

Further reading

Creative photography ebooks

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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