Make Personal Work

Work work vs. personal work. It’s funny how when we refer to commissioned jobs we return to rudimentary childish terms. For example in school when you had a crush on someone you didn’t like them, you like like them. Anyways in a recent conversation I had with fellow photographer we went back and forth on how pursuing photography for a living goes from being something you’d jump out of bed for to work work [The Unexpected 9 to 5.]

I wanted to talk about the importance of making time to create personal work, which in turn will help you book more work work or a job job (okay I’ll stop with the elementary school colloquialism.) I have friends that fall into two categories:

1. One group is not finding fulfillment in the current jobs that they make a living from.

2. The other is losing that original spark that attracted them to photography.

The solution to both of these issues is simple: make time to do creative things for yourself. Personal work, passion project, whatever you want to call it –do it. Personal work is any project you take on that originates from yourself and isn’t commissioned by another party. There are many benefits of starting (and finishing) personal work such as:

1. Reigniting Your Passion


When you’re constantly shooting anything and everything to make a dime  you’re going to end up burning out and your camera will probably leave a bad taste in your mouth –Like Miley Cyrus and the hammer! However if you take the time to remind yourself what brought you into the creative field in the first place you might start opening doors for your commercial career.


This actually happened to me a few months after I finished school and got my first decent paying office job. I found a 9-5 office job as a retoucher that eventually sucked my soul away and caused me to despise photography. I eventually ended up quitting, taking a creative sabbatical [The Power of Time Off,] and then finally returning to photography to shoot things that I was interested in. With nothing better to do I teamed up with (at the time) fellow unemployed companions, Benny Luo and Julie Zhan, and founded the online magazine TheOtherAsians. OA served as a platform for me to photograph subjects under my own agenda and direction. Ultimately it reminded me that what brought me to photography was meeting and building relationships with different people.

2. Expanding Your Portfolio

Melly Lee - Edward Hong

Making up your own assignments will beef up your portfolio with work that enjoy making. When you’re truly passionate about the photograph you’re making it will show in the final photograph and in the way you talk about the image. One my friends that helps me review my portfolio says she can always well tell when I had fun making the photo. For me I’m constantly shooting a searching for character/personalities to photograph in loose narrative-portrait-tableau ways.

In the above photograph my actor friend Edward Hong and I decided to collaborate on a series of photos featuring his love of tasty Cinnabons. I just wanted to play around with levitating foods and then creating a bountiful meal of said food in post. We ended up creating images that we both could use, Edward likes to market himself with a pastry with teeth. Our set of photos even caught the attention of Cinnabon’s social media team.



3. You’ll Get Hired More and More for Things You Like Shooting



Above is a photo of actor Lawrence Kao dressed in chicken suit on Hollywood Blvd for our collaborative series [Hipster or Homeless.] I like shooting stories, portraiture, and generally my images have a splash tongue-in-cheek humor. IRL I’m a terrible person who loves puns.

When you shoot things that you enjoy a personal style starts to emerge. Art directors, editors, marketing heads…etc. look to hire based off of prior work that matches what their needs for a project are. They want to be confident that they’re hiring the right person for the job. In my case based off my environmental, quirky portraits I was hired to photograph marketing material for Warner Brother’s Lego video game and Scribblenauts.

Melly Lee - Hulk


The conversation went something along the lines of:

WB: We like how you capture personality in your work. Can you give personality to a toy?

Me: Absolutely!

 Melly Lee - Scribblenauts

4. Pushing Your Limits

This year I collaborated with my friend Jenny Ong of Neonblush for a huge passion project. For the longest time both of us wanted to create a group editorial spread involving personalities and fashion. Earlier this year we took on the challenge and named the project Foundry. I can confidently say that this little “art project” was more intense in terms of production and direction compared to any prior job I’ve lead in the past. It was a bit intimidating to take on such a large feat, but since this was a collaborative passion project I was relived of the fear and pressure of thing such as ROIs (return of interest), commercial success, meeting an outside deadline, etc. Because I had no one else’s expectations to meet I was able to give Foundry all of my attention and take bigger risks.

Whatever your interested in photographing… DO IT and never stop making projects for yourself. Personally I’ve been working on expanding my portfolio with ladies down to make something with taste, humor, and a hint of sexiness 😉



If you find content like this helpful or enjoyable, please consider purchasing gear from B&H or any of my other my affiliate links. Anything you purchase after clicking through these links helps keep the lights on for the blog –and you get to treat yourself to a new toy!


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