Jacki Key and Adrian Hatwell on the importance of following the heart when it comes to personal projects, and how doing so leads to various projects and many journeys
Pursuing your passion as a career seems like common sense if you want to do work you will love, but that advice can have a painful double edge: when what you love becomes your day job, passion may quickly be smothered by toil. For photographers, making time for personal work can be key in fighting off nine-to-five malaise, as it keeps the things they care most about in the frame and ensures their love for the craft stays alive. This has been true for Tauranga-based photographer Jacki Key, who — despite running a busy commercial photography practice servicing clients throughout the country and abroad — is steadfast in committing time and energy to personal photography projects that help her process the larger issues of the day.
Key is midstream on a project titled Clarity, examining the pervading influence of water in our lives, and our impact on water ecologically. The project was born of the photographer’s aquatic observations while roaming on her full schedule of commercial shoots.
“What inspired me was, whenever I travel (and I travel quite a lot) the thing I would notice was the quality of water wherever I went, whether it’s the ocean or the rivers or the drinking water,” Key said.
Some jobs took her to places where the pristine beauty of crystal-clear water amazed her, while other destinations offered troubling glimpses of pollution, contamination, and scarcity. Looking back through her images Key noted how often her lens had been attracted to bodies of water, and was struck by the stark contrasts between between natural beauty and human-inflicted damage. Gathering her existing water shots together, she felt the clear tug of a new awareness-raising mission.
“It’s something we take for granted, but it’s really our future.”
Once the photographer seizes upon her idea, it lives in the back of her mind wherever she goes. Whether travelling for work or personal reasons, she’s always busy collecting images for whatever side projects currently occupy her mind, and it’s not unusual for her to have several on the go at any time. As a result, Key has already shot many instances of water for the project — from raindrop, to stream, to sea — in both its ideal and tainted states.
One of the most stunningly immaculate bodies of water that she has had the chance to shoot is the Sorgue, a river passing through the village of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, southeast France. Sitting at the foothills of the Alps, the resplendent river originates from the largest spring in France, and its radiant character made quite an impact on the photographer.
Key hasn’t always had to go so far from home to find her liquid inspiration, citing the Waikato River’s roiling Huka Falls as another instance of water at its most inspiringly beautiful. The Waikato River itself perfectly exemplifies the dichotomy at the heart of the Clarity project: the country’s largest river runs the gamut from stunningly pure to environmentally dubious.
“The beginning of Waikato River compared to the end of the Waikato River is amazing: it starts off so beautiful, it’s hard to believe it’s the same river at the other end,” the photographer observed.
She knows the chance to capture water-related imagery can crop up at any time, and so is never found without her camera at hand, along with a cache of her favourite gear. Shooting primarily on a Canon 5D Mark III with a 1D backup, her kit always contains an array of lenses, including a 100mm macro (“you never know when you’ll come across an interesting little detail”), a tripod, and a few neutral-density filters.
And while she is ever ready to shoot images for Clarity while on other jobs, the photographer understands it is important to give personal projects their own space to breathe. She will set aside specific periods of time to focus solely on her personal projects, often in the form of a travel adventure.
“I’ll decide, ‘yes, I’m going here to do this’ and I’ll set aside a week or a month or whatever. I’ll work and put money aside to fund it, then I’ll go and do it.”
When we spoke, the photographer had just returned from such a trip to Niue, where she was working on both Clarity and another project documenting traditional cultures that are disappearing. Over there she was able to examine the theme of water from the perspective of a small Pacific Island faced with the encroaching tide as a result of climate change.
“Rising sea levels aren’t going to swamp the island, but the sea water is contaminating the fresh water,” she explained. “There are no rivers or lakes, they rely 100 per cent on rain water, and it is becoming salty.”
When following a branch of her personal project into unfamiliar territory like this, Key said she has no real system for discovering her subjects. Instead, she focuses on meeting new people and hearing their stories.
“I follow my heart. Meeting different people sparks thoughts that I develop. In Niue I met an elderly man who is teaching the old ways to his grandson, and doing a tourism thing to try and teach people about sustainability — using flax plates instead of plastic plates, and things like that.”
At this point Key is not sure what her Clarity project will look like in the end. It has already taken her in many different thematic and aesthetic directions: so far she has collated natural landscapes with lush rivers, elegant macro shots of raindrops in foliage, human interactions with the water on both exploitative industrial and playful personal levels, as well as graphic abstracts of water surfaces marred by pollutants and rubbish. She has tentative plans for the collection down the road, but for now is content exploring new thematic directions as they emerge.
“I aim to have an exhibition with it and maybe do an article of some sort, but I can’t see an end to it. It’s an ongoing thing, because it’s such an important issue for the planet.”
With a healthy list of satisfied clients, and a number of thoughtful personal projects on the go at any given time, Key seems to have found the ideal balance of commercial and personal gratification to keep her ardour for photography stoked. Her advice to others looking for similar success: join a professional association.
“Your senior peers have a wealth of knowledge and advice to share with you. The more we share, the healthier our industry. If you can, work as an assistant to photographers who inspire you.”
And to those looking for a code of conduct that leads to a fulfilling photographic life, Key’s guidance is simple enough: always behave with integrity and good ethics, and never be afraid to shoot from the heart.
Keep an eye on keyphotos.co.nz for news of the Clarity project’s eventual release.
Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 210 March-April 2016