If you’re having trouble deciding on a personal project, think about taking on a smaller one for a start. A short-term photo essay can be a visual profile of an idea, a person, an event, or a business; a “day in the life” of an artisan, musician, community leader, or heroine; or a portrait series of a certain group of people. It can be still lives, landscapes, or other groups of images with a common thread that ties them together.
You can come in with a clear point of view or idea for documenting the subject by focusing on one aspect or one person, which usually leads to clearer coverage of that issue. Keep it simple; less is more. It can be presented chronologically or thematically, but the images need to work together. Look for subjects and environments that you’re going to enjoy and have fun with.
Access really is everything, and it helps maximize your shooting possibilities and strengthen the work. It’s best to choose a subject that allows unfettered access. Maybe it’s a 24-hour laundromat or diner, a street corner, a nature conservatory, a bus or train line.
If there’s an event that’s coming up, you can target that for your photo essay. When it was election night in the United States, I went to Harlem to do a short essay on the faces in the crowd on that historic night.
Stories that have a resolution that you can document—a pregnancy, sports stories, an election night, events that begin and end—let you concentrate your time and energy. There are no rules. I’ve seen great essays where images were all taken from the same window, with a photographer riding on one bus line all day. It’s really up to you.
Also, consider taking on small projects alongside more comprehensive ones.