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.