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Kill Your Darlings: The Challenge of Curating a Photo Project


If there’s a challenge in selecting the best images from a day’s shoot, then that challenge is amplified when it comes to actively curating a huge body of work into something coherent and presentable.

At the point at which curation on a project begins, you will usually be working with images that already represent a distillation process, having survived the test of the initial contact sheet cull, and any progressive assessments of what work is worth thinking about, and what should be forgotten. 

This means that any photograph you’re likely to be considering for inclusion in a final piece holds some kind of merit and cannot easily be discarded. At this point in the process, it stops being about the weight of individual images — the focus must shift towards a coherent sequence. 

For a photobook or zine specifically, selections must be made in a very different way from a portfolio or similar highlight reel: the photographs, and any accompanying text, must connect and flow, from one page to the next at a minimum — this connection doesn’t need to be obvious as long as it makes sense to the author.

Small vignettes within the sequence, segways, mirrorings, any other intricacies in the organization can be worked in afterward, but the overall flow is far more important than making sure you include every 10/10 shot you’re proud of. 

The analogy I use while teaching is that individual photographs contain or can “act as” a sentence-worth of information (the best ones for me tend to be complicated and interesting). Sequencing then becomes the process of stringing those sentences together in a way that treats them both as descriptive of the content, poetic in terms of the form, but also logical in the ordering, the syntax. 

I recently collaborated on a publication with three other photographers, and we needed to balance the story arc against our favorite images, as well as our egos. We started with just over 400 prints and ended with a sequence of 86 — so not just a cull and curation, but an organized, coherent result.

We achieved this by critically dividing the images up between different kinds of things they were saying – for example, characters, energetic scenes, detail shots, contextual semiotics. From here we started to pair images together into diptychs, and then when two diptychs made sense we were able to combine them into four. When we had a collection of maybe a dozen sequences of four we started to look at organizing those sequences as part of the bigger picture.

One of our main challenges was when we found two photographs that said basically the same things but in different ways. At these points, it became a weigh up of the more aesthetic values of those images rather than what they brought to the story. We found that often it wasn’t an ego battle, that we were able to accept which images were more effective than others. 

Images can be paired in a few ways, the main ways being thematic or aesthetic. Either a shared visual element in each image can create a connection or a shared idea that could connect or build on what those images are trying to convey. We divided the prints by theme and then worked on connecting elements between those so that the flow would have an energy as you move from one page to the next. 

At points we had a good set of sequences, but they lacked cohesion in order to arrange for the overall order – here we looked at the images we’d discarded and often found that photographs we overlooked had something to offer. Revisiting previously discarded images gave us the punctuation that was needed to bridge the gaps between some of the ideas we were working with. 

For clarity, and to understand how this would read, we used a blank sketchbook and blu-tacked the prints into the pages. This gave us a working prototype and we could really feel out any issues with the sequence. We studied what was offered by each double-page spread, and what was revealed with each page turn. This helped us with the removal of even more images which broke up this experience.

By the end of this, we had a finished sequence of 86 photographs — which meant that just over 300 photographs had been discarded. That represents a lot of work, but just because it wasn’t included in this publication doesn’t mean that it’s entirely worthless. It just means that it didn’t fit into the story we ended up producing, including images that would have broken the flow, or lead to dead ends. 

Some of these 300+ images were actually really standout images, and it was difficult to see them not included – but again, it would have been damaging to the whole if we had. They still have merit as breakout individuals, for prints or maybe future projects if the theme ever applies. We needed to go through that process of killing those darlings in order for the finished piece to stand as its own artifact.

Thanks for taking the time to read about the curation of our project! At this time we still have copies of BARDO: Summer of ‘20 available for sale on our website. If you enjoyed the images above then you should definitely check it out!

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.