What Is Success in Photography?

Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject
Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject

Dear friend,

I was walking the streets of Hanoi today, with the question: “What is success? How would I define success? How do we know when we are ‘successful’? And is “success” a modern concept— and should we even have the word “success” in our vocabulary?

Success in photography

How do we know when we are “successful” in our photography? When we have a million followers on social media? When we own the most expensive camera out there? When we are “world famous” and known all over the world? When we’ve published a book, had an exhibition, which got critical acclaim?

Do we gain “success” once everyone in the world sings our praises? When we will be put into the history of photography? When we are dead, young photographers will still look up to us?

What can you control?

The problem with the definition of “success” (in terms of photography mentioned above) is that these things are not in our control.

No matter how hard we try, we might never get a million followers on social media, afford a $30,000 camera, or have exhibitions all around the world. Many of us are bounded by different things — by different physical health, financial considerations, as well as opportunities.

But let’s do a thought experiment. Assuming you did achieve everything in terms of “success” — would you feel fulfilled for the rest of your life? I don’t think so.

“Success” as a daily pursuit

I think a lot of people see “success” as a state of being — once you can achieve a “goal” of being “successful.” Meaning— we see success as a state when we achieve fame, monetary wealth, and the external admiration of others.

The problem is that once we have achieved a certain amount of “success” — we will quickly revert to baseline. That will become the new “normal.” As humans, we are hard-wired to be dissatisfied. No matter how much we achieve or succeed, we will always want more.

Therefore I much prefer the idea of trying to be “successful” (according to your own standards) on a daily basis. For me “success” is the effort you put into your work, the love and soul you put into your creative pursuits, the love you share with your loved ones, and making the best out of what you (already) have.

We should try to be as “successful” in our lives and photography as much as possible. What is the smallest possible thing you can do today, to be successful?

This might include the following:

  • Going out and taking photos to the best of your ability
  • Re-arranging your portfolio, printing your best work, and editing down your images to your personal favorites
  • Start working on a photo-book, in terms of layout, sequencing, or publishing
  • Figuring out ways you can uplift and motivate other photographers — by sending them constructive critique on their work, by offering time to teach photography to someone else, or by blogging about photography
  • Teaching yourself a little more photography — by reading a photo book, by watching YouTube interviews with famous photographers, or by signing up for a photography class or workshop.

Success is a state of mind

Above all, I think “success” is a state of mind — in which only you can judge yourself.

Success means looking into the mirror in the evening and asking yourself, “Did I do everything in my power to make the best of today? To do my creative work? To be useful to others? To share my heart with those I care about?”

Forget the word “success”

But let’s say you don’t like the idea of “success” — in that case; I don’t think it hurts to remove the word “success” from your vocabulary.

Just work hard on your creative work, on a daily basis. Don’t think of “success” or “failure.” Just do the work. Don’t be attached to the results. Just put in the best effort that you can. I think this is the ultimate way a Zen Buddhist might approach the idea of “success.”

Don’t be a slave to the opinions of others

Above all, don’t let the opinions of others water down your own opinion of yourself.

Who cares if millions of people admire you, when you don’t admire yourself? Who cares if everyone tells you that you’re successful, but you don’t feel successful in your own heart?

Follow your own gut. Your own voice. Your own soul.

Be the best photographer you can possibly be— and judge your “success” by your own inner-scorecard.


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