Photography Projects as Research Projects?

14 March 2023

Dear Drifters,

I met Rosa standing in front of the Templo de San Ildefonso in Quillacollo. She and a group of photographers — a syndicate of photographers, according to the logo on their matching vests — were taking tourist photographs of pilgrims who visited during the Festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña. After taking a photos of pilgrims standing in front of the church or its altar, the photographer would print it on the portable Epson printer they schlepped around with them. They sold each photograph for 20 bolivianos, or about 3 US dollars.

Rosa saw me, a solitary foreigner also taking portraits of pilgrims, and waved me over. The questions ensued.

Where are you from? What are you doing here, of all places? Why are you taking photos of the pilgrims? Etc. Etc. Etc.

I told her that I was doing research on sacred mountains, taking photographs of the festival, and documenting my 30-day trip across the Andes on my blog.

If it sounded vague, that’s because it was.

At that point, I knew I wanted to document the pilgrims and practices of the festival. And I wanted to take portraits of dancers and musicians in their folkloric costumes at the festival’s famous parade, the Entrada Folklórica. But I didn’t know that my plans would fail… or that my work would transform into something wholly different: my photobook project, The Hill of the Skull.

Recently, an internet buddy mentioned to me that he felt photography projects — the interesting ones at least — are research projects in disguise.1

This comment was insightful.

After all, the word research comes from the Latin circare: to circle around, to wander here and there. The early French versions of the word, which the English language borrowed, meant “to travel through searching” or “to be on a quest for something.” During the Renaissance, research came to mean the act of looking for something or someone closely, which only recently evolved to mean critical, scientific investigations.

Perhaps I am biased because I have an academic background, but I think framing personal photography projects as “research projects” is helpful. This framing is especially helpful for non-commercial photography projects that involve fieldwork, movement, uncertainty, and travel.

Photography is not unlike research. It is a quest, a pursuit for and into the unknown. It is a close and critical look at something.

Like research, photography demands from us our attention. It involves listening, not just to other people and the world but also to ourselves.

Though, as one inevitably discovers while doing research, you never know where you will turn up in a photography project.

If photography projects demand that we follow leads, then they can also lead us astray, to dead-ends and disappointment.

Photo projects are the process of testing our hypotheses and assumptions, and the process of asking new questions when our assumptions are wrong. They are the daydream of letting the universe lead us someplace new.

Research and photography both involve planning as much as they involve abandoning plans. Here I am reminded of that Dwight Eisenhower quote: “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

Dancers at the Entrada Folklórica. Quillacollo, Bolivia

Rosa and I hit it off, and for the rest of the day, she took me under her wing. She and I entered a syndicate of our own, taking photographs of pilgrims together, and riffing off each other. We gave pilgrims an offer the other photographers weren’t making. Pilgrims would not just get a physical photograph from Rosa, but they’d get a digital one from me, sent via WhatsApp. All for 20 bolivianos.

Our approach yielded more customers than the other photographers.2 And it ruffled some feathers.

A few days later, as I took photographs of pilgrims at the capilla de velas behind the cathedral in Quillacollo, I caught a photographer from another syndicate glaring at me.

I apparently crossed some unseen line.

Suddenly, the photographer shoved her camera in my face and snapped a photo. The flash blinded me. Then another. As my eyes adjusted to the darkened chapel, the photographer fired questions at me: What is your name? What are you doing?

I was expecting her henchmen to emerge and rough me up. “Who are you working for?” they’d say before punching me in the gut.

I stammered something unintelligible, and retreated to the starting point of the parade, where I’d disappear into the crowd and continue my work.

I was rattled.

At the parade, I did continue my work. I did take some photos of the dancers and performers wearing traditional costumes. But the photographs were not what I had envisioned. My anxiety was high, and there were simply too many people at the parade to get the shots I had planned.

Despite my failure, I learned a lot from Rosa. In a few short days of shadowing her, I learned how to approach strangers — strangers deeply suspicious of foreigners with cameras — on the street. I learned how to take rejections, for there were many.

Most importantly, however, I learned that personal photography projects are always in a tenuous state of uncertainty. I learned that they push you away and pull you into new directions.

Photography projects are like research in the proper sense of the word: they are quests into the unknown.

Here is a photo of Rosa, who I stumbled into a few days after we met:

Rosa, Quillacollo Bolivia Photographer


  1. Hey, Daniel! 👋 ↩︎

  2. But that wasn’t saying much, as most pilgrims refused our offer. And, of course, I didn’t demand to share any of the proceeds with Rosa. ↩︎