Thursday, 10 February 2011

What is success?

Many claims are made for photography and the role it has played in world events. Some say photography ended (or at least helped end) the Vietnam War. It brings photographic evidence to human rights abuses, it convicts and it accuses, it bears witness and it provides a memory. Photographers justify their projects by talking about how their work brings awareness to a subject, so creating outrage and action that results in change.

On the other side, there are many criticisms of photography.Susan Sontag famously labelled photography imperialistic, treacherous, voyeuristic and predatory - all in a bad way. Barthes, John Berger, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Allan Sekula were equally dismissive (and Susie Linfield summarises their thoughts succinctly right here), while more recently Broomberg and Chanarin called for a rethink of documentary and photojournalistic practice - which Tim Hetherington responded to here.

Then there are the more academic and artistic outcomes of a project; the language of artist statements where photography can be an exploration, an examination or an investigation. It can deepen our understanding of space, relationships, beauty, humanity; it can challenge the way we see or understand the world.

The only problem with all these words is that they are just that. The musings of Susan Sontag make for a great reference for an essay, but essentially she pulled these words up out of a hat. They required no research or evidence. Similarly all the claims that have been made for photography are just that - words with very little reference to reality, with no evidence to back them up. These pictures are exploitative? Are they? How are they exploitative? In what way, with what outcome? These pictures will raise awareness? Will they? How? Who for? And is that a good thing? And if it is, why is it a good thing?

In the past, success was measured by targets. In the UK, this is what Tony Blair was all about, hitting targets. So if you have a blog - this blog for example - the number of pageviews would be a target. The trouble is half the page views might be 3 seconds (if that) of people looking at, in the case of this blog, pictures of Amanda Knox, Lamprou's British wife and Juliana Beasley's Lapdancers. Naked women and crime in other words.

Similarly a photographer might measure his or her success by how much money they made and how many people saw their pictures in The Sunday Times or whatever. However, the reader seeing the pictures of flood victims in Pakistan or demonstrations in Cairo might consider them a confirmation of the essential backwardness of Arab/Pakistani/Asian/non-white/Muslim peoples. So how good a guide are the numbers? Maybe having the pictures published will merely confirm the stereotypes of viewers (this is part of what Broomberg and Chanarin wrote about) and so publication will actually be harmful.

So after targets came outcomes. In the voluntary sector in the UK, or in education, or the arts, or when one applies for grants, one must become familiar with the idea of outcomes. Outcomes are measurements of the change you have brought about - they are applied to charities by fund providers. In education, outcomes would be the changes effected by teaching (and they would go beyond mere exam results). So if you are an arts charity working with disadvantaged young people and are applying for funding you have to have specific outcomes relating to how your puppet-making workshops are going to result in increased school attendance, self-confidence, decreased mental health problems, ability to resource help groups and so on. The charity can't say, oh we're just doing it to make people happy and creative - or if they do do this, then they have to say exactly how they are going to do this, and provide some way of measuring it. In the UK, anyone who applies to the National lottery fund must learn how to do this (and questionnaires figure largely in outcomes measurements).

It's a nightmare, but it does make things somehow more tangible. The question is what outcomes are there in photography, what are the measurements we can make.

It seems to me this ties in with what photographers determine success to be. Is it something financial, or how many people see the picture, or the effect a picture or project has on those who see it. Or is it how many new audiences it reaches, or touches? Or maybe success is measured by some internal tangible or intangible aesthetic critieria. Or possibly even how it might change people.

So with that in mind, I emailed a few friends in the world of photography, put the question What is Success to them and waited for their answers. I don't know how many of the answers are measurable but I was quite touched by the responses. Which I will put next week.


David Campbell said...

Hi Colin;

A really interesting post that asks one of the most profound and difficult questions re photography: 'what is it that photographs do, and how do we know?'.

I think this basic issue is one of the least explored, and any discussion to date - as you argue at the outset - tends to revolve around grandiose and unsupported claims on both sides.

I think its a question we must explore in great depth, but I am cautious, and even nervous, about turning to metrics, targets and outcomes as discourses of impact. I fully appreciate you are just posing questions about those too and not advocating them either. The experience of these dimensions in the arts, humanities and education is that they downplay or overlook the unquantifiable elements of cultural practices like photography, and often become weapons to beat creative practitioners into a dull conformity where economic indicies reign supreme.

I'm looking forward to hearing about your colleagues' responses to your question. It may be the forcing this issue into the open and asking how we pose the questions and proceed with the discussions is the best way to address the concern.

colin pantall said...

Thanks, David. There's a great post above which answers a lot of your questions and mine as well.

I don't think there's anything wrong with outcomes as such(targets are different), the problem lies with the institutions that apply them and the economic and cultural indices that are part of that institutional baggage - and those institutions can include media and art institutions.

It is just a posing of a question and it can be answered in different ways by different photographers with different practices - very often the 'outcomes' (and it is a horrible word for anybody who has to deal with it) are vague, intangible and emotional. At the same time that intangibility has a human element that could be made more concrete in some form. Which would be useful.

I think that is important with the advent of new funding models. Are these going to simply become a substitute for past NGO/Media funding of projects, or are they going to become something new, funding new projects, new photographers in new situations with a new measure of success. We know the outcomes of this type of funding is going to be new, so perhaps some other things should change as well.

How do you measure success in a project, David? Let me know at I'd love to get your perspective on things.

Stan B. said...

These days, one must also be particularly leery of who's measuring the outcomes, and to what end. THE BELL CURVE garnered much hooplah here in the states as its "evidence" cleary indicated that early education and other support progams for disadvantaged youth had no positive effect whatsoever and was therefore a complete and total waste of public funding. The Right had a field day with the much touted "proof" that was cited- it didn't matter that the "research" was faulty, biased, misleeding and in many cases, completely fraudulent.

colin pantall said...

I agree Stan. The Bell Curve was never about outcomes as such, it was a narrow results-based curve that worked within a predetermined set of factors that ensured that there would be a Bell Curve (of some sort )no matter what.

But I agree that outcomes or any evidence can be manipulated to whatever end - in photography, if we take the claims people make about photography to be some kind of outcomes, then these are outcomes that are manipulated at the moment, but the end is flaky to say the least.

Peter Williams said...

Hi Colin,

I liked Henri Cartier-Bresson's more personal and emotional take on 'outcomes'.

Exceprt from "Famous Photographers Tell How" 1958 audio interview

Interviewer: Now, for example as a photographer, you yourself, the basic thing you want to do is communicate, I suppose like any artist in any field.

HCB: Yes, communication has been an important thing. You want to give something, and to know that it is accepted. It’s not recognition. a way, success is dangerous. Success can affect us.

Interviewer: In what way, you mean..

HCB: Success is in a way as unjust as lack of success. What is important (becomes the recognition.) You want to give something to know that somebody will accept it. In fact, when you love somebody, somebody will not turn you down, your love is accepted. And this is communication to me. To give something which is..

Interviewer: To give and then be requited.

HCB: Yes. And not recognition.

End excerpt.

Personally i find that trying to stop a project becoming a slave to it's intentions is hard enough. I think about the outcomes when the work is done. Then I will find my outcome, and hopefully left space for others to form theirs.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Peter, that is lovely. Then recognition and communication becomes the measure of success. Excellent.