Making photographs is all about personal decisions, like what subject matter you choose to photograph or which of your photographs is good enough for others to see. Along all the paths in the creative process there are many failures. In fact, failure in successfully creating good photographs is an integral part of the process, as is the need to let others see your photographs. Getting your photographs out into the world for others to appreciate is an important part of the process and inevitably leads to many comments. From family and friends, these comments are usually good but can be a heartfelt deception. Although meant with the best intentions, these comments are not a true, unbiased critique of our work and can lead to inflated egos. The true test of our photographs comes from seasoned photographers and from people in the creative arts industries. The only way for us to individually assess if our work is good enough is to study the work of experienced master photographers and compare our work to theirs.
We create photographs for a variety of reasons. Some people make photographs only for themselves and really don’t care if their pictures resonate with others. This is the motivation behind many social media photographs. Making photographs for pure fun is a good way to achieve personal well-being from photography. Creating photographs for your own pleasure is a very valid reason to make pictures and is a good way to enjoy this medium. For example, parents taking photographs of their children is perhaps the purest form of photography; they have no preconceived ideas, but they do have a true and real connection with their subjects. This type of connection with the subject is natural and well understood by the photographer, who has no real goal except to document the moment.
Yet others want to go deeper with their photography and create a significant body of work, one that creates joy in others and that leads to some form of recognition or potentially a dialogue bringing to light social issues. There is a tendency for many photographers who want to achieve the latter to become arrogant, as they have been filled with false pats on the back from people who don’t really take the time to give honest critiques of their work. Social media likes add to this false sense of success because a quick look at small photographs on smart phones does not lead to meaningful critiques; one cannot even truly assess the impact of the image. Social media “friends” provide no real assessments, just quick likes and happy comments, before people move on to the next image. Soon, the photograph is archived and left in an ever-increasing mound of rarely glimpsed digital images on the web.
If a photographer wants to achieve more with his or her photographs than just personal well-being, that individual needs to seek honest criticism and be willing to work hard at improving and understanding the photographic process. But even recognizing the need for improvement is difficult if a photographer is either arrogant or defensive.
Running a juried photography competition over a four-year period for a local photo festival brought the arrogance of photographers to my attention. Many of the photographers who entered the contest complained about the selected winning images, even though the selection and judging process was carried out by three professional, highly experience photographers who were well recognized in their field. Some of the entrants went as far as contending that their photographs were better than those of the selected top three winners. Further, they questioned why the winners were designated the best of the show. Of course, art is in the eye of the beholder, and people have differing opinions about what is best, but these complaints were caused, I believe, because the egos of some of the losing photographers were falsely inflated. The reality was that their work was of average quality, and they were only at the beginning of their journey to acquire photographic knowledge. But what really upset me the most was the inability of these complaining photographers to take the loss and ask how their photographs could be made better. Having an openness and willingness to hear criticism really needs to be part of the process of improving. Failure isn’t personal, but not winning seems to be more challenging when judges critique a photograph.
“The biggest danger for a photographer is if they start thinking they are important.“
– S. Salgado
Separating your emotional connections from the photographs you produce is essential to knowing where you are on your journey to photographic excellence. You also need to study the great and successful photographs of highly respected photographers and then spend time assessing your own images, throwing most (except for a choice few) in the garbage. Failure is part of the process, and we can produce only a limited number of truly good photographs. Being humble and taking the time to assess each photograph’s merits properly is essential to creating a significant body of work. There is a tendency for new photographers to believe every image they make is great. They falsely belief they have been gifted with the vision of a Jedi photographer. Every time they pick up a camera, they magically create a classic photograph. Recognizing this tendency is a clue to discovering this arrogance within you. Instead, treat each time you pick up a camera as a learning process. Understand that you have the potential of creating great work but that photography, like any craft, requires practice and honest assessment. Practice and putting in the time are the keys to producing better work, and there are no short cuts if you seriously want to achieve success in the field.
Photography can be deceiving in that the process of making a picture seems simple. The two main elements are when to take the picture and where to stand (the angle) when taking the picture. Mastering these two simple elements, however, requires a dedication that can be successfully achieved only through experience.
Being humble in photography is essential, and I have been humbled by responses to my own photographs over years. Commercial clients, for example, don’t thank you or compliment your photos. They just pay you and use the images as they see fit to satisfy a specific need. Sometimes these clients don’t even utilize your best work because it doesn’t fit their needs. Contests can be won and lost, giving you fleeting moments of accolades. Selling prints is wonderful but doesn’t necessarily lead to more sales or recognition. My main point here is your images must stand on their own for the world to judge, and being humble is important – a concrete step on the road to accepting the reality that there will be many failures. Perhaps, believing your images are the best is part of the process, as eventually you will be knocked down to earth. However, after many years as a photographer, I think it is better to get your work out there and accept the results, and not to have high expectations. Showing someone why your images are the best is arrogant and doesn’t let your photographs stand on their own; ultimately, this is what they must do. To simplify, we create photographs, get those pictures out into the world, and leave it to others to judge both the value of those images and our photographic abilities.
I notice the mistakes associated with arrogance because of my own experiences. In the beginning I made the mistake of thinking my own work was of high quality. In reality, the work was average and only on rare occasions did it rise to a good level. Instead of working to improve on less that successful photographs and studying hard, I believed that a kind of Jedi-warrior vision allowed me to create a masterpiece, whenever I picked up a camera. Selling average and even clichéd photographs to calendars and commercial clients added to this inflated feeling I had of being a master photography.
Another mistake I see a lot of first-time photographer’s making is feeling that they must explain their photographs. If an image is good, it will be able to stand on its own. The feelings and emotions the photograph creates will speak to the viewer. If you need to explain the purpose of a photograph, then its message is simply not clear enough. Remember, though, that ambiguity of meaning might be a purpose in itself. Simplicity and, in direct contrast, ambiguity in a photograph are key elements of success and lead to the proper communication of a concept.
Being humble in photography instead of arrogant is important. Ask for and be receptive to criticism, embracing failure as part of the process. Becoming a good photographer has its ups and downs, meaning that success is fleeting and difficult to sustain. These words by Alex Webb get me through the difficult times and remind me why I love to create pictures:
“Photograph because you love doing it, because you absolutely have to do it, because the chief reward is going to be the process of doing it. Other rewards – recognition, financial remuneration – come to so few and are so fleeting. And even if you are somewhat successful, there will almost inevitably be stretches of time when you will be ignored, have little income, or – often – both. Certainly, there are many other easier ways to make a living in this society. Take photography on as a passion, not a career.”
Author’s Note: The images attached to this article are from my Bay Street Series. In early 2016 I felt a strong need to photographically explore a 15-block area in Toronto, known as the Financial District. I wanted to better understand the environment where 250,000 people worked and commuted each workday, in its unique Canadian context. In particular, I wanted to understand the people who worked in this district, the characteristics of our society reflected in this influx of working people, and the nature of Canada’s largest financial district.