Theron's Personal Project: This Wild Idea
I think like most great ideas, it was a little bit of a slow ramp up. So I photographed... I keep saying it so, I'm just... So I photographed the project with my... Here's how it went down, I photographed the project with my grandfather, went back to Idaho to my job, decided to leave that job and just go start anew. And the first iteration of it was like, okay, well I'm actually gonna go do this you know, photograph... Meet and photograph someone like my grandfather just intersect their life for 30 days. And I named that project, this wide idea. 'Cause I was like, oh, that's kind of wide idea when like you're traveling just to try to meet people and tell a couple hours of their story where you've... Where you kind of just bumped into them into the world. Like someone you never knew existed that day before you woke up. And I did that for 30 days, And you know, I was... At that time I was sharing it on a WordPress blog site that me and my buddy had built this very simple ...
place for the photos to land and Wired Magazine on their Twitter account, retweeted the project. And I was like, oh like that's the first time anyone had ever acknowledged that my work existed outside of people, you know, I was immediately around be it professors or friends. And you know, I think anytime you get celebrated for doing something, you're like wow, I'm gonna do that a lot more because I love it when dad says I did a good job and that's exactly what I did. I think, you know, that, you know obviously it can become very unhealthy but it's also can be a great drive. And for me, I was like, I'm onto something, let me keep going with this. And that's when I dug deep and found, you know, the resources to go do this project for an entire year. You know, obviously like having funding for ideas for your project is really important. And you know, there's a couple layers to this and, you know, just to my story of how I made this happen, one, it was a very different season in my life. I was far younger, you know, I was in my early twenties and, you know, I felt 10 feet tall. Like I could do anything, you know, was never worried about you know, any kind of debt or owning a house. I just like was very free and open season of life and willing to take a lot of risk. And in that chapter of my life, it was far more important to make sure I was creating something I really cared about than what the future was gonna bring or like trying to like obtain any kind of like financial security. So like that was just in that season of life, which you know, was the perfect time to wander and to make something that I really enjoyed. So my funding came from two places. One I worked and saved my own, you know my own money to spend on the road. And the other I used was Kickstarter, which, you know I don't know if I wanna be critical of Kickstarter but like at that time it really was very much a platform to fund creative ideas. You know, now it seems like maybe like a little bit more, like industrial design focused. Pre-ordering, you know wonderful and valuable things, you know, board games or video games, or you know, some gadget for, you know, a camera or a phone. But in that like early chapter of a Kickstarter really felt like people had creative projects that they wanted to go do and shoot, and they could, you know find funding through friends. So I posted, you know, this wide idea, 365 story and, you know just shot a simple video for it that I wanted to go to all 50 states, photograph one story a day every day, post it and travel the country. So it was a way that... Through that I think I raised, we could say around 15 grand. So I think that first year on the road, I lived off, you know with gas and food and sleeping in my truck about $20,000. And part of the reason that I think I was able to get funding and most of it was through people I had known or my friends very generous parents was because the project wasn't easy. It had scale, it had an objective and ultimately I saw it through. So literally that entire year, I met one person I didn't know, photographed them, recorded a short story of their voice and then that night I would post it on my website. And the next day I would get up and I would be like I need to go meet somebody else as like I'm traveling, you know, small back roads of America. And it just made me incredibly uncomfortable. And it also like challenged me with becoming comfortable with asking people that I didn't know to take their photos and like the important components of this wide idea project were scale, it had parameters and it wasn't easy. And like I'd never met anyone else that had done a project in that capacity. Like Robert Frank traveled America and made some of the most compelling images as an outsider of how he saw America. So his project Americans had scale in parameters and I needed that for mine. But I think with the... With taking on a personal project, like you have to try to like meet the zeitgeist of the day and make sure like you're attempting to be relevant. Yeah, it is very much akin to opening a restaurant. Like here in 2020, probably not the best idea to open a cupcake shop. I don't like, I don't know like that, maybe that, you know I'm okay being wrong (chuckles) I should be so divisive with these kind of example. I don't wanna offend anyone trying to open a cupcake shop today. It could be their dream and they should live their dream. But I don't know, maybe this has, maybe this is true. I'm trying to only speak for myself, okay. So like, I think it's just critically important for the project not to be easy, you know, not to be physically easy. There has to be a challenge to overcome. And that's what my project provided was the scale was this enormous. And I was committing to do it for a whole year. And in the end I saw it through and I went to all 50 states, I photographed 365 people. I edited their stories. I posted their stories. I put a blurb of them sharing their voice online and just really celebrated everyday Americans. And that was just the right mix and the right current of what was going on in the moment. And I think that was 2012. And if we could backtrack and kind of look at the swirl of images being made at the time, like that chapter and advertised definitely was very much like documentary focus, every day focus not using professional models. And like, that was the impetus for advertising the next couple years after that. And so that was like, one of those like right place, right time, right passion where I just intersected what was gonna be happening commercially, to happening personally with my own work. And that was in the end, still tied to, I wasn't doing it to get commercial work. It's really tied to, I love the idea and I believed in the idea and I made the project. You know, part of taking on that large scale project. Like, this what I did 365 50 state project, like for me to go create a body of work, I looked back at all these photographers in the history of image make in photography and looked at all the FSA photographers Dorothea Lang, Walker Evans, you know, guys like William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander. There's this great image like where he photographed like his mirror in his car and it just has all these layers. And when you look at their work, it's presented in large bodies of work where they've developed a style and you can tell that they are the ones that shot the image. And I knew that, yeah, for me to get any traction and for a project to be shareable, 'cause you know, my goal was to make work that other people wanted to see and be involved in and follow along. I knew that it couldn't be easy. it had to be a challenge, it had to be something that no one had ever done before. And when taking on a personal project and giving yourself assignment, I think that is important. And you know, it can feel daunting or feeling like we're in a space where everything's been done, everything's been said, which I, you know, which is like a little bit of like a postmodernist, like, you know, dilemma. But you know, I think in the end it's not true and there's still room to share with the world how you see things. And that's the beauty in photography, it's a way of seeing. And I knew that part of the recipe for a successful personal project was for it to be a challenge. It couldn't be on the nose, it couldn't be something that everybody else was running out wanting to do. It had to be something unexplored and at a scale that was difficult. So doing that project every single day of my life for a whole year, it really gave the project legitimacy. And by month eighth, 9, 10, 11, you know, it just grew. And I was just getting ton of traffic to the website at that point. And I think at its peak, it was like one month it had like a terabyte of data being pulled off of it, just from people loading the images on their personal website which was a huge server bill at the time for me because I definitely... It was like... I think that might have been a little bit pre Amazon S3 but I just, I like my, the data plan that I had paid for it just far exceeded it and that was a funny lesson to learn. But I think the world is different now with that kind of... With pricing. But you know, like having something that was shareable in scale, you could follow along, be involved with and check in on every day, just made the project shareable and it kept it fresh day after day. And it wasn't something stagnant that you shoot, post, done. It was an ongoing project. It was like a, you know, the recipe for like a TV channel or TV show or a YouTube channel where you're constantly doing updates. It was that same idea but in the form of something that I loved, which was still photography. So that project having just like being really bold and not easy gave it visibility. You know, ultimately the project was named National Geographics Travel Project of the year, which at the end of this year of doing this project, I was like grateful and ecstatic, you know. I ended in Hawaii and it was also kind of like, I didn't know what I was gonna do next. Like then I felt very lo... Like I instantly lost my sense of purpose. Like, 'cause I was doing something every day now it's finished and like, what's next? So like having National Geographic fly out to Hawaii tell me like I won this award and they photographed me and they told my story just like neatly encapsulated everything and it became my graduation. And it just kind of like legitimized it and it just felt so fulfilling to have obviously an organization that I admire and you know have forever wanted to be published in kind of tipped their hat to me and acknowledged that I existed. And like what I created was valuable to somebody else and that was really fulfilling. And that like just went like, man, like I just spent this year of my life doing something really worthy. And I know that that would not have come together if I was just like, "Yeah, I'm just gonna like casually maybe sometimes photograph like one person in my town if I'm feeling like it." You know. Like I really had to go all in and make it what I was gonna do with my time for that year. Yeah, so I mean, that's my story. Like, you know, it started with, the foundation of it was like a love for photography and then it was taking a love for photography and wanting to find growth up as image maker through a personal project. And then I took those personal projects and made that into my commercial career.