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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

What is Success: Part 1 of 2

In relation to this post on crowd-sourcing, and this post on outcomes,  I asked some people about success in photography. This is what I sent people

I'm sending out a little questionnaire on what constitutes success for one of your projects/photographs?

It might be financial, or how many people see the picture, or the effect it has on those who see it, or new audiences it reaches, or emotional, or how your family see it, or how you see it, or be due to some tangible or intangible aesthetic critieria. It could be political or something completely different.

It's a stupid question I know, but it arose out of a blog post I did  which got no answers. So I'm coming to you for answers. I would be ever so grateful if you could answer - I'll put all the responses I get up on my blog.

These are the answers people gave. I found these answers heart-warming.

Part 2 will come tomorrow. All answers are in alphabetical order. And if you are reading this and have a different answer or even the same one, do post it in comments.

Scroll down for the answers from:

For a living I work as a commercial photographer...I take photographs that people hire me to take. For my self expression, I tend to consistently work in extended photographic projects. I need the structure: a working title, a goal, an arc that I am trying to discover, a way of working and a way of getting the images made. When I have that structure, I find it easier to put one foot in front of the other and get digging deep into that project. But what to do when it is done? Will anyone care? Will this work reach anyone, or really just speak to me?
After spending my days making photographs for others, my projects really need to be fascinating to me. They can allow me to dig in to something, learn about myself or learn about the thing itself that I am digging in to. And if the fascination continues...if it has legs and continues to feed me...that is when I tend to think it is successful. I'm enriched, I'm digging, I'm the one trying to figure the things out...so its me who needs to be happy. When I'm done...that's when these projects need to get shared out into the world. Sometimes people grab on and relate to them...other times not. A solidly negative critique, where the viewer is saying " I really just don't see what you are up to here " is a blow for sure. It hurts. And often times those are the projects that don't get celebrated up into the stratosphere. But if they served my purpose at the time...I can still feel good about them. Would I call them successful? No. But I would call those projects useful. But when a completed project goes public and is embraced or reflected upon in a variety of different ways by a variety of different people...and you can feel people's fascination with it...in ways different than your own...wow...then I think that project is successful.

Stan Banos

Seriously, I just want to make a picture I like- simple as that. It has to be aesthetically appealing- or at the very least... amusing. Anything else is the proverbial icing on the cake. All other considerations, political, topical, or otherwise, can change with the wind. If others like it- great, all the better. If not...

I've been doing this too damn long now without support or fanfare (except for the occasional shout out from the blogosphere- which is no doubt, much appreciated), so really, it might sound "selfish," but you do it for yourself. I mean, it would be great if my stuff could be used to "better" the world, but it really doesn't go there. My "professional" life deals with that, and that effect, is of course, always questionable at best. It be nice to be considered for the occasional show, or rejected less often, or...* Maybe someday, someone, somewhere will connect with it. That is what photography does best, to whatever extent it does- preserve the past. Shit, I bet Maier has inspired a helluva lotta people!!!

It's fun... most of the time... some of the time, however much of the time, it's still a kick- when it's not frustrating.
What was the question again?

The success of my photo projects is multi-faceted and depends on several factors. Otherwise, I don’t know why I would pick up the camera and involve myself in telling a story.  For money?
When I feel that I have found a project that resonates to me on a personal level, I am driven with the compulsive and therapeutic need to involve myself fully. For example, in my two projects, Lapdancer and Last Stop: Rockaway Park, I had the dire need to connect emotionally with my subjects. Human connection with the tool of the camera is my first aim. The process of working for many years on a long term project like the two I have just mentioned gave me the opportunity to discover a reflection of my own persona in the people whom I photographed.  These shared creative experiences were psychologically therapeutic, providing a reflection of myself in the subjects.
            Of course, I have the personal wish to create images that are not only evocative and aesthetically pleasing to my eye but also to others. Simply, I want to have an end product that makes me feel good about my work
            When the project is complete and is an entity unto it’s own, I would like my work to act as an impetus to more complex ideas about the subject and evoke more interest in the story.  I want the work to be thought provoking and informative. I also have the need to inform myself and open my mind. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons that I have engaged in long term projects. I feel conflicted about whether I have clearly and honestly said all that I needed to say in a story.

Andrew Buurman

What makes a great picture? Kittens

When I was working as a photographer at The Independent the chief photographer was brilliant but could also be little terse. A student had written to him with the same question: What makes a successful photograph. He looked at the carefully prepared sheet of follow up questions and ,in large bold black biro, wrote "Kittens" and sent it back. 

Obviously it was a flippant answer though he had a point. The natural reaction when seeing kittens is ,what a friend would call, "a big girlie aaah".  It's one of the reasons you see gift shops with books of cats and dogs. This shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. These images cause a response, they get  a reaction.

These days we are bombarded with thousands of images per day.  Photographs can have more impact than the moving image because you can come back to them time and time again. You can  transpose your own values, ideas and judgements on them but what picture do we stop at? Surely one that creates an reaction.  War photographer Simon Norfolk produces beautiful large format photographs about the awful power of military technology. I've  heard him talk about the beauty wanting to initially draw the viewer in and then the subject slap them on the face.

On the front cover of my book  "Allotments" there is  a man looking lovingly  at the chrysanthemums that he has grown.  His name was Mark. He was a lovely man who had a passion for growing flowers. He encapsulated the way that most people think about allotments as a retreat, an escape, a rural idyll in a urban environment. I wanted the book to explore this as a metaphor for how we view England. It might not be a face slapping subject but I wanted the immediacy of the image to get the viewer to look at the pictures closer and ,maybe, get interested in my ideas of what allotments what they represent in the UK.

Mark was down the allotments quite a lot when I started the project and less so at the end. I later learnt, from his son, that he was ill.  When he passed away his son got in touch and asked for a print to put on his coffin.

The picture always gets a positive response whenever I show it. For me its a successful photograph even though there are no kittens.

 David Campbell

Overall I think this is a very difficult question to think about in the abstract. I doubt there are criteria that would effectively judge success across the board for all projects. Indeed, I think reflecting on 'success' should be part of the thinking surrounding each project. It brings to the fore the question of 'what is it that photographs do, and how do we know?'. So the first step for outlining success re a specific project is for the photographer to ask - 'what am I trying to do with these images, who is my audience, and how can I reach them'. Although this might strike you as a bit vague, I believe strongly that posing the question and reflecting on the issues is an essential first step. 

The next thing to say is that metrics have their place but they have to be used very carefully. Numbers can be become 'facts' far too quickly. One of the problems with numbers about attendance, circulation, readership, page views, unique users etc is that they often tend to assume that more is necessarily better. That is not always the case. It depends on how you answer my original question about who is the audience and how you reach them. If the audience is specific and limited, then having huge numbers may be irrelevant if that mass reach doesn't get to the right people. An example - consider Marcus Bleasdale, working in conjunction with Human Rights Watch, and putting on an exhibit of his Congo images in Geneva so that the staff of global mining companies could view them (see http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=102102). In that case it might have only taken a few hundred, maybe less, people to be affected for the work of those photographs to be counted as "successful". 

At the same time, while Marcus's photos might have helped change the policy of one company, they did not end the war in eastern Congo. And that points to the fact that the all too common, and frankly rather mindless universal claims, about photographers "wanting to change the world" - as though a single thing or person or picture could alone alter the course of history - need to be dispensed with in favour of much more reasoned judgements about what particular photographs can do. Who wouldn't want to change the world - but we all need to carefully assess our place in the world and what our work can do. 

I strongly believe that 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. We won't find a set of metrics that will provide a neat, quantitative answer, and if anyone proposed one I would be both nervous and sceptical. Making overt the aims and audience for a project is the essential starting point. 

'Success is the moment you let go.'

'Success' for me is the emotional high I get from seeing other people enjoy something I have done. Sometimes this is bolstered by some financial gain, sometimes not, and certainly after my 'Snakebox Odyssey' the pleasure of delivering the profits directly to the headmaster in Ghana who is building his own school.

  "I could work forever on most projects. Success is determined by how I feel about a project a few months after I abandoned it, abandonment being necessary from the fact that whatever I might add or change, the change would be small and irrelevant. Sometimes, I feel
the project has been a success right when I abandon it, and in those cases that feeling of success remains. For example, I'm still very happy about my 'Higher Education.' What that success really is I can't easily describe; it might come closest to me being happy with the
project, me feeling that I accomplished something even if it might differ vastly from the original idea. It's a feeling of 'That's it!' when seeing the work - instead of 'I think this should have been different,' say. Usually, it's connected to the many changes and iterations the project went through, when there's a process and I'm a different person than when I started it.
  "How other people view the project or whether there is an audience I don't care about so much. If people like the project that's nice, but it doesn't matter all that much for me. I will say, tough, that it gets slightly irritating when people like a project that I deem a failure.
  "It's different with writing, I should add. Writing is such a different beast. There is no abandonment, I just know when it's done, and I suppose there are much more formal qualities that I could use to describe whether something is a success or not."

a photograph is succesful,

- when it changes someone's perspective
- When you've been true to yourself
- when you've been daring
- when it wins contests.
- when it gets sold in exhibitions.

Good question! My personal idea of success has changed a bit over time--a few years ago I was fairly caught up with numbers; I thought the more people who saw my work the better. It caused me to become overly invested I think in submissions--success meant being in as many things as possible, with a large viewership. Now that I'm older and (maybe) wiser, I care more about the effect my images have on people. Of course I always cared that people were touched by my photographs, and in some ways even during my "numbers game" time the emails that I'd get saying my images had had an impact meant more to me than any acceptances to shows and the like--I just think I didn't equate that with "success" per se, but more with the personal impact those emails had on me. 

My idea of success has now become sort of warm and fuzzy and self-helpy, in that I've turned away from the more typical definitions of success (recognition, power) to recognizing that "true" success is whatever feels the best, and though recognition feels fantastic, in the long run what's more fulfilling is knowing that someone saw something they could relate to in my photographs, something that moved them, and also that the pictures themselves mean something to me. So I suppose the short answer to your question is that the emotional impact is the most important thing to me now, and ultimately whatever is most important to me is what I'd like to think of as success. Though honestly a little money wouldn't hurt either...

I'm going to dash off my first thoughts on your question because I'm pretty busy and my brain is so full these days.  The proviso, of course (and I state this on drool, over and over) is that I reserve the right to contradict these thoughts at any time.....

It's kind of all selfish.....success to me is going out into the world, having interesting encounters with people, lots of social intercourse and coming  away with some images that remind me of that. Souvenirs, if you will.

That I like to insert myself into places and situations that might make others uncomfortable seems to give the images a certain amount of weight and, seemingly, contribute to a broader social discourse.  This is a side effect.


This is a difficult question, with no one answer.
For someone like myself who works on long projects, I have to at some point make a decision about when to stop shooting. This is never easy, my projects evolve over the course and my head is constantly buzzing with new ideas. So, is this when I can call it a success, no.

When the shooting stops, I like to give myself a long editing period, living with the images, re edit after re edit until I start to feel that I am giving a  genuine voice to the work. This involves questions around the social, political and emotional content and narrative that I am trying to construct. 
On top of all this, is the language of photography, am I adding something to my knowledge of the medium. If I feel this has all come together, and has moved forward my dialogue between photography and myself, on a personal level, I feel a sense of success.

But with documentary work, judgement of success can never rest with the author alone, it demands a audience and a dialogue.As I tend to work on projects centred on countries at any given time, the most valuable and rewarding aspect that allows me to judge whether the work, is the response of the audience from that country, the people it's about and addresses. Only then do i know whether I have really succeeded. 

I think success for us happens on a lot of different levels. Being published would definitely mean a certain level of success, but ultimately, just getting the stories out there and reaching a large audience is what we're aiming for. We want queer youth to feel good about telling their story and be proud of who they are. Having kids tell us how much the project means to them -- that's always really awesome and in a way, that's the biggest measure of success, just being able to impact people in a positive way. 


Clive France said...

Fascinating. I'm tired, it's midnight in Tokyo, and I'm going to bed, but I know some of these opinions will still be with me when I awake in seven hours.

duckrabbit said...

Bu Clive ... tell me .. what about you? What do you think?


Jenny Lynn Walker said...

Success is when you look at your own photographs and feel love or compassion no matter the subject.