The power of personal projects

Photographer Jenn Ackerman

On a Sunday morning in the middle of a Minnesota winter, you’re likely to find photographer Jenn Ackerman out on a frozen lake somewhere, peering through her camera lens with a broad smile on her face. She’s not there on assignment. No one has given her a deadline. She has simply chosen to show up.

From the earliest beginnings of her career, Ackerman has maintained a fierce dedication to doing personal work — long-term projects that are driven by her own interest and curiosity. Even now, it’s a commitment she prioritizes alongside running a thriving commercial and editorial photography business together with her husband in Minneapolis.

Ackerman’s belief in the power of personal work holds lessons for us all. It’s about showing up for ourselves and affirming that our ideas matter, no matter what anyone else might think.

“It helps when people start noticing some of this work,” says Ackerman. “But they don’t notice it before you create it. You have to create it first.”

The Power of Personal Projects: Jenn Ackerman’s Story

It all started in grad school. Ackerman, who’s now 33 was only 26 then, and pretty green as a photographer. She’d gotten accepted into a visual communications program at Ohio University and quickly concluded that she was by far, the worst shooter in her class. When I pressed her on this, she told me that she’s not just being hard on herself. She was really and truly bad.

Ackerman’s embarrassment about her weaknesses as a photographer drove her to pursue self-initiated projects, separate from what her professors were assigning. Initially, she kept this a secret. But after a few months, she revealed what she’d been up to:

“We had a portfolio review and I came with these projects that no one had ever seen images from. And everyone was like, ‘What? When did you do this?”

Jenn Ackerman documentary project

As a grad student, Ackerman began documenting a family of 12 living in poverty. This was one of her first self-assigned personal projects. She would later win an award for her work.

Soon, Ackerman’s images got stronger and her confidence blossomed. She started dating another photographer in her cohort named Tim Gruber. The couple began doing projects together. They married in 2009, a year after earning their Master’s degrees.

“There’s no place for us in this world”

Ackerman and Gruber’s graduation coincided with the Great Recession. They’d been groomed as newspaper photographers, but that world was unraveling. They both landed internships at The Dallas Morning News where they observed the hemorrhaging of photojournalism jobs up close. It didn’t take long for Ackerman to conclude that there was no place for them in the newspaper industry.

After Ackerman finished one last internship at the mothership of newspapers — The New York Times — the couple decided to put the breaks on their job searches. They were unsure about how to launch themselves as freelancers and had grown tired of waiting around for jobs that never turned into anything real.

So in the fall of 2009 they packed up their things and headed to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where they could live rent-free in a beach house owned by Ackerman’s grandparents.

Retreating to the Outer Banks

They anticipated that their time in North Carolina would be short-lived; maybe a few weeks or a month. They stayed for seven. It was a pivotal period where they wrestled with the biggest questions of what they really and truly wanted for their lives as photographers and as a couple –- not just what they thought they were supposed to want:

“We never really sat down to say what do we really want with our photography? It was just, ‘I want to be a photographer because I enjoy it.’ But you don’t really think about what it brings you in your life.”

During those winter months in North Carolina, they gave themselves intense writing assignments. For two entire days, they wrote out long lists of all the things that made them happy — memories, places, people — anything they could think of that made them excited about life. Ackerman remembers that there were  “lots of tears and lots of fights.” Patterns started to emerge that forced her to reckon with some uncomfortable truths:

“I always assumed that I just wanted to travel. I thought I could be a nomad. It would be so glamorous to travel from country to country and meet new people and learn new languages. How beautiful would that be? And then when you start realizing — that means you’ll have no friends and you won’t have a home base. I started realizing those are things I wanted as well.”

Accepting her feelings also meant giving up some fantasies:

“I think sometimes you think your life is going to be glamorous. But when it really comes down to it, you just want to be peaceful. And you want to be happy. And you want to have an amazing marriage. That’s ultimately what I wanted.”

Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber

Happiness = Minneapolis?

Ackerman and Gruber wanted to create their home base in a place where they’d have creative and financial freedom. Slowly and painfully, it became clear that affordable Minneapolis was the best fit. Minneapolis offered a mix of nature, potential Fortune 500 company clients, and family (Gruber grew up in Minnesota). On paper, the biggest downside was the long winter. Also, as a Virginia Beach ocean-dwelling native, Ackerman was apprehensive about moving away from friends and family on the East Coast.

Ackerman says that she never would have chosen the Twin Cities out of the gate: “Going to Minneapolis was not an idea that I was going to have or allow in my mind.” It took her about three months to fully accept the choice they’d made.

Jenn Ackerman photographing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

“It’s something that appeals to us”

During those winter months in North Carolina, Ackerman and Gruber reaffirmed their commitment to personal projects. It was a fertile period where they thickened their portfolios with fresh work.

We recognized that we loved the projects that we were doing. They’re projects that maybe don’t have a commercial appeal, maybe don’t even have an editorial appeal but it’s something that appeals to us. And so if we didn’t do them, we would not be creatively fulfilled and we probably wouldn’t get the work that we wanted.

And because she and Gruber had continued to steady themselves creatively with this personal work, by the time they arrived in Minneapolis in the summer of 2010, they felt confident about making it as professional freelance photographers, even though they were starting from scratch in a brand new city with no contacts:

In the midst of you working on a personal project, you become very confident that you can do this — this whole thing. That you can be a freelancer that you can be a photographer, you can be satisfied with it. Because you are being satisfied with your work.

Ice fishing in Minnesota

A still from Ackerman’s project “Frozen” about wintertime life in the Midwest.

“What’s your dream assignment?”

Early on, Ackerman encountered an editor who asked, “What’s your dream assignment?” Neither she nor Gruber could quickly answer the question. But then they realized that the personal work they’d been assigning themselves all along constituted a portfolio of dream assignments. The editor’s question motivated them to keep going:

“We realized that whatever we wanted to be doing, we should just be doing on our own. We can’t wait for someone to assign it to us. And we realize that now. We love our clients and we love the work that we get from them, but if we wait around for them to give us our dream assignment, it’s probably never going to happen.”

Ackerman says that personal work and paid work don’t have to live in isolated galaxies; that in a best case scenario, personal work can attract unexpected opportunities. That’s what happened when the organizers of the Miss Universe pageant hired Ackerman and Gruber to tell the story of their pageant after seeing Ackerman’s Emmy-award winning project about mental illness inside a Kentucky prison:

“You can’t just wait for a perfect opportunity

Since launching their business in Minneapolis in 2010, Ackerman and Gruber’s careers have soared. Their client list now includes the likes of of GQ, Bon Appetit, and Fortune. They recently photographed Rahm Emanuel for Esquire and traveled to Turkey on a commercial shoot for Target. In 2012, Ackerman was awarded a $25,000 McKnight Artist Fellowship to support her independent documentary work. She used the funds to pursue a long-term personal project called “Frozen” about the experience of winter in the Midwest.

Ackerman acknowledges that her devotion to personal projects would be more challenging if she couldn’t share these experiences with her husband:

“It helps that we’re a couple. We do this on our free time. We’re out there on a Sunday going to ice racing and photographing it. Whereas I think for other couples — your spouse is not going to go to ice racing with you, probably.”

Jenn Ackerman in the field in Minnesota

Ackerman’s advice is simple. Just begin.

“Ultimately people always ask us, ‘how did you start this project?’ Well we just started it. I mean you can’t just wait for a perfect opportunity to start a project. You just have to go out there and start photographing or start writing.”

And she says not all projects necessarily endure. The litmus test is whether or not she’s having fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?

“You know when you’re enjoying something if you’re just pushing yourself really hard and you don’t have to be. Like you’re out in a negative 30 degree day and you have a smile on your face and you’ve been out there for eight hours, you know that you’re doing something you want to be doing.”

Photographer Jenn Ackerman

Jenn Ackerman is a photographer based in Minneapolis. She is one half of Ackerman + Gruber —  which she runs together with her husband Tim Gruber. She says she uses her camera “to show people and social issues in the US that are often overlooked or ignored.” Her photographs have been recognized by the Inge Morath Award, Review Santa Fe/CENTER, Magnum Expression Award, the Honickman First Book Prize, Communication Arts Photography Annual and others for her ability to gain access to people and situations that the public rarely sees.

 (All photos courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber)

Editor’s note: Lately I’ve struggled with fitting personal projects like this blog into my life. But Jenn Ackerman’s example inspires me to persevere. If Jenn’s story, or any of the stories in this career transitions series resonate with you, I’d love to hear from you. So please don’t be shy about contacting me. And special thanks to my friend Ellen Guettler for her help with editing this post.

2 Comments on The power of personal projects

  1. Carrie Turner
    June 10, 2014 at 9:15 am (6 months ago)

    Great to be reminded of why personal projects – even if unnoticed by anyone else – are critical to preserving our connection to creative outlets as critical forms of personal expression and fulfillment. Got connected to this story as a fellow-OU VisCom alum. Thanks for posting!

  2. Eric Kayne
    June 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm (6 months ago)

    It’s great to hear Jenn’s story. Inspirational for sure. Go Bobcats!