Through current technology, the availability and ability to take a picture is phenomenal; today, most of us own or have easy access to a camera in some form or another; smartphones, tablets, webcams and DSLR’s are now quite common household items. So it is not surprising to read that approximately 728 million public photos were uploaded to Flickr in 2015.

With so many photographs out there, trying to find an original idea for your photography project can be increasingly difficult. Just a quick search online may yield scores of images on the subject that you are investigating; perhaps even a series from a photographer, along with an artist’s statement that echoes those thoughts you have had in your head for ages.

What happens now…?

Well for a start, I typically hear from students upon discovering that their project already exists, an all too familiar line:

“It’s already been done, I can’t copy them, and so I might as well give up…”

After a metaphorical slap, or two! I typically point out, that even though their idea appears to have already been done; they should still pursue it, as it will not be the same. Even if the visual appearance and/or idea are what they had in mind; so what, it will still be their creation, formed from their experience and skills as a developing visual artist.

Does this sound familiar? Well it happened to me last year at an exhibition, which I will discuss later in another blog-post; I’m digressing now… Anyway, let us look at a couple of projects from two photographers, which although they appear similar, they really are quite individual.

The first project, presented as very tightly cropped, black and white triptychs; titled ‘Marked’ 2009-2010, by Claire Felicie, documents three stages of a soldier’s facial appearance taken before, during and after a tour in Afghanistan. The first portrait was taken five months before deployment, the second during their tour and the third taken two months after their return.

Marked By Claire Felicie
Marked By Claire Felicie

The second project, presented as tightly cropped, colour triptychs; titled ‘We Are Not The Dead’ 2010, by Lalage Snow, documents three stages of a soldier’s facial appearance taken before, during and after a tour in Afghanistan. With the first portrait, the majority were taken in March of 2010 before their deployment; the second was shot during their tour in the June and the third was taken in October after their return.

We Are The Not Dead By Lalage Snow
We Are The Not Dead By Lalage Snow

So on the surface, we have two, nearly identical projects both in appearance and theme. They both explore the effects of war through examining the facial changes of the soldiers. They are both shot at three distinct stages, the before, during and the after. They are both presented as triptychs in a standard linear order, read from left to right and in both, the soldiers depicted were all deployed to Afghanistan.

So are they different?

Well, YES, they are. Although they appear similar, the catalyst for their formation, the process in which they were made and how they are presented changes significantly. It is not until you start researching further that you discover these subtle differences.

One difference is the timing between the before and after picture, with Felicie’s images the time gap is thirteen months and with Snow’s the gap is eight months. So almost half a year’s difference; I now ask, does this difference make more of an impact, does it show more contemplation in the eyes of these soldiers? Is there a point, a marker in time where these explored changers occur?

Other differences, which could evoke alternated readings:

The soldiers in Felicie’s series are the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Company of the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps and in the Snow’s series they are the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Felicie’s eldest son is a marine, this was the catalyst for her producing the work; perhaps this now touches on the theme of motherhood. Snow worked as a freelancer for the French international news agency AFP and spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan and witnessed, first hand the effects of war on soldiers.

An important difference is in the presentation, particularly with Snows, in which each image is accompanied by text from the soldiers at each stage. This text anchors each image and gives clarity to what we may have been speculating in our reading. Now you can view both Felicie’s and Snow’s project as being unique, they are different and are both original in their own right.

Another two projects, which are very similar in their appearance and thematic structure is ‘Animalia’ by Mikel Uribetxeberria and ‘Translocation’ by George Logan.

Animalia By Mikel Urbetxeberria
Animalia By Mikel Urbetxeberria
Translocation By George Loagan
Translocation By George Loagan

So when you are researching an idea you have for a photography project and believe it has already been done, look further, conduct more research and basically just get on with it and start shooting. As through the act of creating you will develop and evolve, your methods and intentions will differ and in the end your work will not be a copy; it will stand in its own right.


  1. Vicki M 10 February 2016 at 9:46 am

    Enjoyed this post, Russell. I had considered doing a project very similar to the first mentioned, I live very close to the RMA in Sandhurst. So your discussing originality, and finding the differences really struck a chord. It’s a dilemma may of us encounter, and I know we just need to make it our own.

  2. Jesse 10 February 2016 at 11:43 am

    Really interesting bodies of work which I wasn’t aware of – particularly the portraits. The ‘before and after’ approach reminded me of the research that OCA tutor Keith Roberts is doing into the Hardmann high street portrait studio archive (see: http://kwr71.blogspot.co.uk )

    But yes, originality is a common anxiety indeed. But I think that when one accepts that everything has been done before, but nothing will be done by you unless you just give it a go yourself, in your own unique way, then it’s quite liberating.

    Look forward to hearing more about your own project…

  3. dougslr 10 February 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for the helpful post. I guess we all sometimes think that we are wasting our time and much better images are available simply by a quick search on the internet. Certainly, when taking images of wildlife and birds I wonder whether simply buying a book wouldn’t be easier and cheaper. However, there is little challenge in that and maybe that is another reason to go on: the challenge in doing it better (or differently) to those that have done it before.

  4. Catherine 10 February 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks for this Russell, it reinforces the message not to give up. It’s interesting how knowing the context changes the reading as, at first, I thought, “How do we know they’re soldiers”. There is a little more contextual information in the triptych by Snow though – a portion of uniform can be seen, plus all of the face. this, with the colour, makes them more realistic for me.

  5. Sarah-Jane Field 11 February 2016 at 6:45 pm

    I think I’ve realised there are no original
    ideas from looking at work constantly and when a much more experienced photographer than me copied my own work last year. (flattered!) I guess it’s an important lesson and once learned frees you up to go where your imagination and influencers take you. A friend posted the following which I retweeted because I thought it was such a great thing to read – it’s all about the idea of originality and allowing yourself to be influenced by others. https://twitter.com/fieldsarahjane/status/694938997202804736

  6. teresalanham 12 February 2016 at 7:52 am

    Many thanks Russell – it’s an interesting point and one that many Level 1 students like myself struggle with. My own view is that if you have a personal link or empathy with your subject this will inevitably bring a difference into the way you approach your work and your recommendation to just get on with it is the best advice there is.

  7. annag1611 12 February 2016 at 10:39 am

    This is a great relief as I would have assumed that trying to justify the rationale behind each individual project seemed like trying to defend that could be seen as plagiarism. I wonder how many people stop to see the subtle differences?

    On a totally different tack & what actually grabbed my attention was your first sentence”Through current technology, the availability and ability to take a picture is phenomenal;” Trying to do quite a technical exercise just 2 days ago showed up how frustrating it is taking a picture that you want with the new technology. I recently changed from a Canon 5Dmkii to a Fuji simply because of the weight, & the frustrations in figuring out the differences were quite debilitating – you can’t hurry a passion!

    1. Nicholas Poulcherios.Life writing course 12 February 2016 at 2:12 pm

      I just loved that baby elephant. Nothing happens on the street and the neighborhood I live. Only Lorries and mums driving kids to school. I would just love to see an elephant in my front yard. I bought a new camera for Christmas,and I am exploring…hoping for a beginners luck. Thank you for sharing.. It is now also up on my Facebook.

    2. Nicholas Poulcherios.Life writing course 12 February 2016 at 4:14 pm

      Hello, annag,1611,
      I know very little about Photography, and nothing about its tricks with technology. But I know for me it was magic!, And I really wondered how on earth that little elephant happened to run loose on somebody’s …out buildings and Barns!?…Vivid imagination, on my part perhaps? Oh! No, that was for real at first sight. I have now a Canon,G3X which when having time to spare, I shall study the guide book. But I used to have real fun and excitement with my Camcorder. I have still kept my Brownie..
      Discovering the truth as you explained above it was a surprise but not a shocking shock like me discovering there was no such person as Santa Claus, at the age of four; as they let us believe when we were little kids. I thought, writing, fantasy, beautiful stories,, romance and almost everything else , creatively done.is, and must be praised,, enjoyed, and appreciated as works of art.So I think now why not in photography? The only think is I just loved the daring guts of that little ..Runaway-piggy, Remember?Just like that little piggy on the way to the slaughter House with a herd of others?,Well it jumped off the lorry-track and vanished into the woods, in its pursuit of freedom and happiness. I do believe one of the small dailies adopted in the end.
      Before we end our little conversation,I was very interested in a book I have seen in Nauticalia magazine, making us, readers, aware of MIKE JONES,photographs. They baited the reader with a catch phrase”Sail the World from the Comfort of Home.” Well that was enough for me to want it. Sold out! They advised me to try Amazon. I am waiting for it!.It measures 12×9, has 136 stunning waterscapes! They call it coffee table book. Nicholas Life writing course, O.C.A.309678

      1. annag1611 12 February 2016 at 4:33 pm

        Enjoy your explorations of photography and anything else which your vivid imagination seems to be trying!

  8. starrybird 12 February 2016 at 2:50 pm

    A very useful article and as applicable in Fine Art as photography.

  9. starrybird 12 February 2016 at 2:51 pm

    as Photography. No disrespect intended, just poor typing.

  10. Claire Borlase. 12 February 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Hi, as I approach my first level two landscape assignment, I have been musing this issue and this is a very timely post that gives my mind permission not to get too heavily influenced by aesthetic similarities and to consider the differences in the narrative. Thank you.

  11. CliveW 12 February 2016 at 4:56 pm

    Authenticity is a good word, if one works from ones experience rather than trying to think up a ‘clever’ idea then it’s not a problem.

  12. pauladaviesphoto 13 February 2016 at 9:51 am

    A much welcomed blog. This was my first query and frustration that I needed to discuss with my tutor. and CliveW I like your quote. I might copy and paste into my notes if thats ok with you.

  13. CliveW 15 February 2016 at 12:07 pm

    Good work on your blog Paula. A quick fix for whited out skys bleeding into a surrounding white background and so destryoing the integrity of the frame, is to reduce the white point to about 247 to differentiate it from the ‘paper’ white. It doesn’t noticeably degrade the highlights contained within the image and means you aren’t stuck with putting a keyline around the image or a whole series ot maintain continuity.

  14. Truevisionphotography 18 February 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Thanks for the article. I think that its relevant to all of us, especially photographers. Who hasn’t sighed when seeing that the idea you have is already out there! But I don’t think that’s the point as Russell points out. If I give up a process because someone else has done it, I miss an important process which is that of the expression of my own ideas. Also, the images we produce can have a universal relevance or message and perhaps its no bad thing that quite a few are thinking and expressing the same thing albeit from different angles.

  15. kevinbyrne1971 15 March 2016 at 5:55 pm

    Yep, really nice stuff, thanks for that!
    Especially like the conclusion about just getting on with it (something I really need to do!)
    And let’s be honest, what is an original idea anyway? I’m not a cultural sociologist, but I imagine that if we primarily hail from the west, then there’s going to be some similarities when talking about ideas in general. Surely, on a more individual level, there will be more variety, more idiosyncracy?

  16. Lucy 11 August 2017 at 11:50 am

    Very interesting read. I have wondered why photographers stay with a project over many years. I suppose its not looking for something new, but rather developing further what you have. Looking at some of the exercises I am going through now, I realise that looking back and developing some of my previous work, helps ME grow and develop, looking at what I did then to how I approach things now. After listening to Elena Brotherus’ full presentation to students on YouTube, I see how she has used/developed work she did at the start of her learning, incorporating it into later works.


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