How do you, as a photographer, define success? And I’m not talking here about getting clear, properly exposes images, nor am I talking about returning from a vacation with pictures that help you remember and relive. No, I’m asking, why are you a photographer? What do you want to get out of it?
For me, success has almost nothing to do with receiving accolades or making sales, having a gallery show or getting a grant. Those are still all okay, make me giggle for a minute or two, but their effect wears off very quickly, somewhat akin to getting a bunch of likes on social media, so fleeting, and, I suggest, a very shallow way to measure your life.
This attitude might have something to do with my near-death experience 10 years ago. It might also have something to do with getting older and giving way less fucks. And, anyway, I don’t think those things (sales, shows, grants, pats on the back, etc.) were ever really that important to me. I am just stupid and stubborn enough to believe that what matters most is being true to yourself, discovering what that might actually mean, and then letting the chips fall where they may.
So these days I define success as applying myself and expanding my understanding through that application.
On the other hand, there are those photographers who define success as the attainment of popularity and profit. Yes, it’s thrilling to build up your biz and your rep, and easy to keep track of your progress: profile and profit. It’s even possible (though mostly improbable), if you are a certain kind of photographer, to produce commercial or personal images for money that have some kind of metaphysical value. But if you mostly want money and profile, if that’s what’s important to you, you’ll probably base your working methods and the look and feel of your photographs on achieving that, whether you know it or not.
Anyway, I understand what makes our world go ’round. And it’s usually not learning. Learning only seems to be good (useful) if it can somehow be monetized. Too often these days getting paid for adding baubles to the status quo seems to define success.
Of course you might wonder, if that’s the case, Tony, if you only do it for yourself, then why do you make any effort at all to distribute your work, why do you hype it, why go to the trouble and expense of mounting an exhibition and/or publishing books? Why not just keep it to yourself?
I could give you all kinds of rationalizations here but won’t bother, because that’s all they’d be, rationalizations. Really, there is only one answer to that question: ego. Everyone has one, and it takes a special kind to go out into the world, register your reaction to it and then want to share that reaction. Yes, I have an ego. I admit it.
Seems to me, though, that problems arise when you fall in love with your ego. Once you stop questioning what you do, once you begin to believe it’s-good-because-I-did-it, once that happens you lose perspective. And as a photographer (or artist, or person . . . take your pick) perspective is really all you have to offer.
And here we circle back to definitions of success. And for me the problem with the fame/power/money version of success is that it warps your perspective. And once that happens you become something else. Or maybe, just maybe, you become what you really are.
Ever since, or maybe because, I changed the working title of my new project my confusion has increased. I see that as a good thing. When you get lost you often end up in a place more interesting than the destination you set out for.
The shooting for this project was always more open-ended than was the case with the last 4 or 5 series I’ve done. The subject matter is way less defined as I comb the world for things and situations that resonate with my premise. I’m still wallowing in the process . . . searching, guessing, wondering. And at this point I’m afraid to look at what I’ve done because the only hope for this project will be through an edit and sequence that somehow makes sense of the sensless. And I’m not ready for that.
This approach reminds me of how I shot way back in the 1980’s (see the B&W pix above). And once again I am getting images that are beyond me.
I see that as a good thing.