Cocoa Laney is an American documentary photographer based between the Southern US and the UK.
In 2019, Laney was the recipient of the RPS Postgraduate Bursary. Her project ‘Belle’ documents a return to her home state of Alabama for a six-week road trip, navigating gender, religion and sexuality among young women and non-binary people - potent themes that permeate the Deep South.
Laney met and stayed with these women, capturing their stories and individual experiences, resulting in a perceptive body of work that highlights the contradictions, expectations and struggles of living as a Southern woman today.
To celebrate our 2020 Postgraduate Bursary call for applications, we’ve invited Laney to share her tips for project creation.
- Two of the most important questions to answer are 1. why should people care and 2. why you are the best possible person to tell this story. A good project proposal is not only interesting but demonstrates a passion and deep level of knowledge on the part of the photographer towards the subject matter. It's also important to write it in a way that conveys confidence in both your vision and your ability to realise the project.
- Beyond why your audience should care, why should they care right now in this moment in time? Being able to demonstrate why a topic is both interesting and relevant is another crucial skill when applying for funding.
- As a postgrad student, my course mates were invaluable when it came to writing project proposals and giving feedback on my work. Scheduling library sessions to read over each others proposals kept me on track, and it's always good to have an extra set of (trusted) eyes to offer suggestions. This was also true when it came to shooting and editing. Comments and constructive criticism from my course mates helped shape my final project, and we also provided vital support for one other.
- My tutor Edmund Clark would refer to the importance of being able to explain your project in a way that, if you had to explain it to your grandmother, she would understand and be able to go on and tell her friends about it. Nuance and complexity is important, but you also must be capable of synthesizing those ideas (especially for judges who are reading through hundreds of applications). Beyond the proposal stage, this is also helpful during the creation of the project. You will have the language to quickly and precisely convey what you are creating when approaching subjects and gaining access.
- If you are proposing a project that is still in its early stages, be as specific and clear as possible when planning while also allowing room for ideas to develop. Projects shift and grow; it's part of the process and part of the fun.This is also important when looking at the financial side of things. When it comes to proposing the allocation of funds, do plenty of research about expected costs but also make sure to allocate contingency money for things that you might not expect.
- Research is so important, even for personal projects. Knowing what other work has been made relating to your topic, as well as what has been written and researched on the themes or issues you plan to work on, helps you to make innovative and sensitive work.
- I photographed Belle over the course of a six-week road trip in Alabama and it was one of the most intense experiences of my life. When shooting a project, especially one that has strict time limitations, it's important to allow yourself room to breathe so as not to burn out. Keep in close contact with your support network and those you trust to give feedback along the way. Be (constructively) critical yet gentle with yourself, trust your intuition, allow the work to evolve naturally as much as possible, and take care of your mental as well as physical health.
- So much of being a photographer is about resilience at every step of the way. Rejections happen (a lot), mistakes are made, things break, and circumstances change. Sometimes thick skin and adaptability are as important as creativity.
The Postgraduate Bursary is offered by the RPS in association with MBP, and supports the production and development of a photographic project by a postgraduate student. The bursary provide a platform for exposure and professional development opportunities, with the recipient's final work published in the award-winning RPS Journal and showcased digitally across the RPS. The Postgraduate Bursary is open to UK and International students. Applications close 19 June 2020. Find out more here.
About Cocoa Laney
Cocoa Laney was born and raised in Alabama (USA). Her work focuses primarily on issues related to gender and identity. She holds an MA in documentary photography and photojournalism from London College of Communication and has worked for over seven years as a commercial photographer. Her work has been exhibited internationally and featured in The British Journal Photography, The Observer, LensCulture and the Independent. Learn more about her work here.
1) Jess, Mobile, Alabama; 2) Sarah, Huntsville, Alabama; 3) Letters that a participant in the project wrote to the next woman I would photograph, paired with one of the beds that I slept in over the course of the road trip; 4) Harper, Huntsville, Alabama. All photos © Cocoa Laney