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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Defining Success in Photography

There’s an elusive goal that we all seem to strive for in our various walks of life. Success. We want to be successful in life, in our work, in love. We crave success, but are slow to actually work out what that success entails. It might be worded slightly differently, but I hear this clamour from photographers both amateur or professional, all seeking success. I am one of them, which is why I finally worked out that I actually need to sit down and figure out what it is that I mean by success.
Defining success it turns out, is very difficult. There seems to be three general measures of success: financial, recognition and fulfillment. Success can be to an individual any one of, or a combination of these three. So how do we define a successful photographer? Is it financial success? It seems to be the easiest measure of ‘success’ after all. If the photographer is wealthy they are successful. If a photographer is paid hefty sums to produce images (and some images which others may even question the artistic merit of - but this is art after all) are they successful? Conversely does this mean that a financially struggling photographer isn’t a success. Or do we assume that the struggling photographer lives through their struggle so that they become a success in their own death (the classic ‘appreciated after they are gone’ paradigm ala van Gogh). This also introduces the point that not all photographers want to make money from their art.  

A good example of the moneyed approach to success is Peter Lik. Before this year, Peter Lik was relatively unknown, but gained enormous exposure when a print of his sold for $6,5 million to an unknown individual through auction. In an article with the New York Times, Lik even admits that the entire sales stunt was literally to gain exposure. As wealthy as Peter Lik is, and with print sales of over $1 million annually he is very definitely that, it irks him tremendously that he doesn’t have the artistic recognition that he feels he deserves (read the article on this link). Peter Lik is the first person to call himself successful, and from a financial standpoint he most certainly is, but if he truly felt he was successful, he wouldn’t have the concern that he does over the recognition he desires (if anything his aggressive salesmanship has arguably earned him a level of notoriety instead of recognition). Clearly financial success isn’t the be all and end all of photographic success.

When I started out as a freelance commercial photographer, the financial realities of running a small business weighed heavily on me. I suspect financial success was a relatively simple goal to get through the starting years as a professional photographer. Tracking income and expenditure is simple in itself. Ultimately it is not how I would personally define success as a photographer however. The funny thing is we don’t know success when we do in fact attain it. Others might look at me and comment on my success (I speak partly hypothetically here), but I might not feel that sense of success that others seem happy to bestow on me. In an interesting conversation with a photographer a few years ago, we parted ways and as he was shaking my hand said to me that it had been fantastic talking to a successful photographer. I almost felt like I should look over my shoulder to check that there hadn’t in fact been another photographer present, because I certainly didn’t think that he was referring to me. Still, by certain standards as a photographer I am successful. I run a sustainable image-creating business with repeat clients, regular new clients and a small but growing fellowship of photographic workshop students. Clearly I must be doing something right (for the life of me I can’t quite figure out what though).

So possibly recognition is the more likely measure of success for a photographer. It comes with a heavy price though. Broad recognition can also breed contempt in some quarters. Put your images out on the internet and you will reap the same ill-feeling as accolades. If you seek recognition make sure you have a thick skin. Sell your work successfully and some may pour verbal poison over your abilities (read the forums regarding Peter Lik for a perfect example of this). Seek too hard and the industry turns sour towards you (no one likes self-aggrandizement).

Still, recognition is a fairly good measure. But, how do we measure recognition? Is it the number of Facebook ‘likes’ that you get? Is it winning an award in a photographic salon? The problem with either of these measures is the decided lack of objectivity in both. If you don’t make it into a competition it doesn’t mean that your images suck. It could just mean that your images were viewed late at night, at the beginning of a judging session, after an image that the judge really liked. It’s entirely possible that being viewed at a different time or with a different frame of mind the image would have scored higher (or lower for that matter). Alain Briot, an American Fine Art landscape photographer has penned his thoughts on the subject of photography competitions and he points out the difficulties in trying to garner recognition through competitions (link). As for Facebook likes, how many friends do you have? Don’t expect the world to gush over your images if you only have a handful of people that are likely to even see the image. Then there’s ephemeral nature of Facebook. An image is posted and in an instant it is replaced by another, and another, and another. The public gets the tiniest of glimpses at your work before it’s attention is flitted away by another story.

Recognition doesn’t have to be international or even national for it to mean something to the individual photographer (this is something I am slowly becoming more comfortable with). There are varying attitudes towards recognition and success. Some need the heady goal of recognition beyond their immediate peers, while others are satisfied by the quiet success of a healthy home and family and recognition amongst those they have daily interaction with. If my daughter looks up to me as a photographer (and father one hopes) and respects my work, is that not better than the respect of a million strangers? Like many artists I also go through periods of craving recognition. Then I have more sober moments when I realise how petty such recognition can be (apart from that given by those I love and respect). So recognition in the broad sense probably doesn’t define success for me either.
I have to mention my assistant here. Claire, who is becoming an extremely accomplished photographer, has said on numerous occasions that she doesn’t have the desire to break away and form an independent photography business (she could in a heartbeat if she wanted to). For her, success is being able to do what she wants to do, in the time that she wants to do it, and be able to have a strong family-life at the same time. Recognition doesn’t come into it. Certainly, financial security is a necessity but it doesn’t define her sense of success. Rather, it’s about the sense of fulfillment for her. A healthy family life is intrinsically linked to her fulfillment in making images as a photographer.

I love Maya Angelou’s thoughts on success in the above regard. “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it”. That’s fulfillment in a nutshell. Saying that success is Doing what you love to do every day and where being paid is a bonus is naive. Just about everyone needs to be paid. Somehow they have to earn a living. But not every photographer defines themselves as a professional, and great many of the them could easily be viewed as successful photographers. One such individual that I have had the pleasure to meet and work with is Chris Miller, an IT specialist, but also passionate photographer. He recently won the “rural” category and made it through to the final round in the 2015 National Geographic Traveler Photography Contest with an image of Son Doong Cave in Vietnam. Chris is a very talented and knowledgeable photographer, but he is not a professional. I rank him as a photographer far higher than many professionals I have come across. Similarly, several photographer friends of mine who spend their usual working hours doing things that don’t involve photography, are consulate and very skilled photographers in their leisure time. In fact, photography defines their leisure time. It is quite possibly this fulfillment generated through photography that makes them successful as image-makers.

Success can also be defined as the opposite of what it is not. Success is essentially the opposite of failure. If we deem success in this regard it doesn’t seem quite as lofty as an ideal than when it is some nebulous goal that seems ever unobtainable. As a professional striving to earn a living and some modicum of recognition and respect, I can probably say I am successful. To the photographer grappling with the concept of reciprocity and the understanding of light - when they suddenly ‘click’, they too are successful. Success is personal and objective. There is no true measure of one’s success, especially in something as ephemeral as photographic art (although maybe there’s a sign of success; when the transitory becomes permanent in the imagination and memory of the viewer).

So I have gotten no further in defining success after all. If anything, the above sentences only serve to highlight how illusive the concept of success really is. What it does point out is how personal the definition of success is to the individual, and therein lies the means by which you can be successful. As a starting point you have to understand what success means to you before you can be successful. If a photographer defines success financially, then they will only ever feel successful if they can surmount the goal of financial wealth. However, if the photographer’s goal is to be influential in the industry - and that is their measure of success - all the money in the world won’t help in their sense of success (well it might a bit).

Defining success may be all but impossible, but understanding what it takes to achieve success is well known. Winston Churchill famously said, “success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm”. The painter Ralph Waldo Emerson explained that “there is no way to success in our art but to take off your coat, grind paint, and work like a digger on the railroad, all day and every day”. Even the concept of the 10 000 hours to achieve mastery, described by Malcolm Gladwell, posits that to gain success in whatever outcome, is pure and simple hard work. But, that moment where success is achieved, when you stand on that mountain peak, is exultant. “A minute’s success pays the failure of years!” (Robert Browning - in the prologue to Apollo and the Fates)

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