Photographer Cait Oppermann on the anxiety and reward of sharing personal work
by Tobias van Schneider
Client work vs. personal work is a creative person's ever-present inner conflict.
How do we make time for side projects between work that pays the bills? Does our personal work need to have a purpose, or is the pleasure of doing it enough? And, importantly, what do we do with our self-initiated work? Should we share and if so, how and where?
It's a conflict Cait Oppermann is familar with. The New York-based photographer has plenty of client work from companies like Nike, OFFHOURS, GQ, Rapha, and Outdoor Voices, among many others. But the importance of personal work doesn't change with skill, success or a busy schedule. In fact, it might become even more important.
Here we talk with Oppermann about the unique anxiety of sharing personal work, her approach to self-initiated projects and how they've shaped her career. She also shares her latest personal project with us entitled "Dead Sea," a series of photos reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Let's get into it.
"Your own work is often what drives more meaningful client work, so over time I’ve found that being overly precious with my own projects doesn’t always help."
You said in a previous interview that you’ve always struggled with your own work and what might be the right outlet for it. What is the struggle or fear when it comes to your self-initiated projects?
My own work is always a personal investment in pretty much every sense of the word. It takes time, which I have less of as my career grows. It takes money, which one gets from working more, and working more means there’s less time. A cycle which repeats and repeats! Then there’s the investment of myself and pursuing work that means something to me. Of course, I care about everything I make, client work or not, but as it gets increasingly more difficult to carve out time and space to make my own work, it becomes more and more precious to get it done and hopefully get it right.
Knowing when and how to share your work is a big source of angst for many creatives. What have you learned is helpful when deciding when, where and how to share it with others? What works for you?
I’m still working through this and what I’ve learned is that there’s no right answer. It’s always a matter of weighing what I’m capable of pursuing at a given time. Ultimately, your own work is often what drives more meaningful client work, so over time I’ve found that being overly precious with my own projects doesn’t always help. It could be that a client sees that project of my own that I cared deeply about and reaches out with a commission or project that feels similarly close to my heart. I’ve been lucky enough to have that happen a few times, and I have my own work and dedication to my own practice to thank for it.
It was your personal project shooting the National Women's Soccer League that landed you more sports projects and made that a specialty of yours. Was it just a matter of showing up, shooting the event and putting it in your portfolio? How did you get it out there and how did it get noticed?
This project is a great case study for my last point. For this particular project, I had a deep interest and connection to the world of professional women’s soccer in the U.S. and it fueled a desire to bring more attention to that world. It was a deeply grassroots situation in which I did research to find the appropriate contacts at the various NWSL clubs, set aside money from paid commissions to fund it, strategized where and when to travel, then worked with each of those clubs to find subjects who would let me into their homes, as well as work with the coaches to allow me access to training.
I didn’t want a press pass that any local photographer could get to shoot from the sidelines. I wanted something more intimate and did the work to bring that to fruition: getting to know my subjects, being patient to develop relationships before bringing out the camera, etc. It was an absolute hustle and took time but, in the end, I made something comprehensive that never deviated or compromised what I wanted from the beginning.
"Sometimes time forces some of that pressure out of us to do the 'perfect' thing. The perfect thing is intangible and doesn’t really exist!"
Tell us about your recent Dead Sea series. Did you take those photos knowing you wanted to share them publicly? Or did you just shoot the scene for yourself and decide to make them public later?
I initially visited the Dead Sea during my first trip to Israel while visiting my partner’s family there and didn’t even bring a camera. Once this idea of returning to this spot popped into my head, I started plotting my next trip back with a very loose idea of what I wanted to achieve. As a photographer, I always shoot with the intent of making something I feel is good enough or interesting enough to at least want to show someone – I suppose that’s part of the drive, to want to take a subject and get others to be interested in the same way I am.
It took until just before my last trip there to really hone in on what to focus on, which was a result of showing some of the progress of the series to a friend whose advice I really value. After a few trips over the years, I knew I didn’t want to keep shooting the project forever and promised myself that I’d wrap it up on that final trip, partially because the place started to drive me a little crazy – the conditions of the Dead Sea are actually kind of brutal when it comes to being outside shooting all day for several days.
I didn’t know what form the work would take in the end and to be honest, I waited two years after finishing to finally make the call to publish them. I didn’t end up making a book or something more overtly physical but that’s because it didn’t feel right at the time.
After two years, I decided it was time to be less precious with the work and let it see the light of day by putting it out there myself, as well as allowing a few publications I respect and have relationships with to publish write-ups on the work. Sometimes time forces some of that pressure out of us to do the “perfect” thing. The perfect thing is intangible and doesn’t really exist!
"My career has been fruitful because I started out making my own work and doing what I’m good at."
Say I’m an aspiring photographer but I haven’t scored any paid projects yet. What is your best piece of advice for me? How do I gain the confidence and experience to stop calling it a “hobby” and pursue photography professionally?
Step back and think about what you like to shoot, what you’re interested in, what you can bring to the table that others might not. Ten times out of ten, a photo editor or someone with the power of commissioning projects will want to see what you’re interested in shooting, because that is inherently what you’re best at shooting.
There’s a reason why I’m never asked to shoot still lifes in the studio... that is precisely because I’m bad at it and I’m bad at it because I hate it. My career has been fruitful because I started out making my own work and doing what I’m good at. For some people, they love to shoot what they know and what they’re comfortable with. For me, I take my best photos when I’m pushed just outside my comfort zone. That’s when I’m excited and when my eyes are wide open.
The only way to figure this out for yourself is to try that out. Photograph the familiar and the unknown and learn how it is that you like to make photos. Trial and error is what will point you to your own process.