We are constantly proposed ways for becoming successful. YouTube videos, courses, books. The aggressive marketing of these products is a reflection of a great interest into this topic –– becoming successful –– but what is success? And how does it relate to photography?
When we think of success, we usuall picture money, luxury, nice clothing, beautiful partners, fame, and in the case of photography, also expensive gear. Decades of marketing messages established this image into our minds, an image of success that is strictly connected to acquiring and displaying expensive goods and lifestyle, supported by the inevitable alignment to the current aesthetic standards.
I think it is wise to leave these simplifications behind and evolve the concept of success a bit more. What I write can be applied to life in genera, but I will try to stay focused on photography, since that’s what this blog is about. Let’s see what we can do, starting with the case of commercial photography.
Being a successful commercial photography means that we can sell our photography services and consistently earn enough for keeping our business healthy, year after year. It doesn’t imply we must become famous and have celebrities booking us for shootings. Financial health is the main parameter for evaluating the degree of success of a commercial photographer.
Financial health is not necessarily connected to wealth, and even less to the display of wealth. At a very basic level, a financially healthy business is one that can cover all expenses, support the needs of the people it is meant to support, save capital for facing unexpected events.
Now let’s imagine this extreme (ad yet real!) case: there is a photographer that has no clients nor much experience, and yet his family is rich and he can acquire the best gear, open up a studio in an expensive city area, hire models, drive around in a supercar and so on. Is this photographer successful? After all, he did nothing for earning what he has, nor he is making the best of his possibilities. He just was born luckier than others.
Let’s think of another scenario: a photographer that works hard, always improving, slowly building a network of clients that trust her, earning enough for keeping her business alive and progressing. Is this photographer successful? Is she more or less successful than the previous one? Looks and reality do diverge.
The first one will be perceived by society as highly successful, while in reality he is just acquiring and displaying status symbols. The second one could be percecived as a struggling artist and depicted as not successful. So, what is real and what is not? The judgement on success suddenly becomes hard to express. That’s because success is a volatile concept if we leave it to external judges, and we must decide ourselves what it means for us, because what society calls success is usually an arbitrary definition that depends on many social cues.
I think to be successful at something means reaching goals we set to ourselves. Success can then be seen as a degree of accomplishment. Financial benefits are a possible consequence of success, they do not constitute success itself. Success does not depend on the gear we use and status symbols we display. We set a goal, we work toward it, the closer we get, the more successful we are.
So, according to this definition, the rich guy could also become successful, if he uses his wealth for reaching his goals. It could be his goal is to have people envy him because he is rich! So in his mind he could buy his success by acquiring status symbols. I personally think this is shallow, but I met people like that, and I am not judging them. Judging others is rarely a good idea, because we usually know very few about them. I can still think that it is a waste of opportunities and the success it defines is volatile and unstable: it is hard to really be fulfilled by something we didn’t work for.
To summarise: success for commercial photographers doesn’t depend on the availability of expensive gear or status symbols, but on the heath of their business over an extended period of time, plus the degree of accomplishment of set goals.
So it comes down to what we do and not what we have.
Things are a bit different for a photographer that is not strictly commercial. How can we define success then? How can we measure it? In this case we go back to the concept of goals: what are our goals? Are we achieving what we set ourselves to?
Goals are a tricky topic. As humans, we tend to have grandiose goals. Sometimes we don’t even understand how grandiose they are. I want to be a good portrait photographer. I want to be a great portrait photographer. I want to be the best portrait photographer. There are many degrees of grandiose projections we may imagine for ourselves.
As I already wrote in previous articles, doing photography means walking a path. Like many things in life, it is not a moment, it is a movement. It is the result of trial and error, personal growth, curiosity.
Setting a goal means to start walking a path and building success step after step. If our goal is to become a good portrait photographer, we need to study and work for this goal, until we finally achieve it: there is very few that can not be accomplished in photography, if we put our efforts into it.
Following with this example: our efforts learning to improve as portrait photographers will mean that people will appreciate our photos, and more will ask us for their portraits to be taken. When opportunity will arise we will be ready to take photos that we always dreamed of taking. We will feel pleasure in what we do and we will be confident and satisfied. This is success. And yet something will not be right!
We will see the work of other photographers and how they use light or how they interact with models, and we will realise we could also do that, in our own way, and so the goal shifts and we don’t feel successful anymore. So we start a new path, and so on. Because success is not a static form of mind. It is taking a breath and being at peace until we start moving again. There can be no final satisfaction, because that is not the way our mind works. A curious mind is always exploring and changing its aim.
But I digress, as usual! Let’s summarise. What is success for a non commercial photographer? I think it means you reached a goal you set yourself to. A goal you had to work for, that required efforts. The greater the efforts, the greater the success. Who is the judge of this success? You are, first of all. At some point, society will eventually recognize this too. And still, we should keep in mind that success is not a final state, but a good step along a path.
I would like to add that these two forms of success (business health and personal goals) can interact and cohexist. We can be financially successful but personally unsuccessful: for instance, we earn good, business is healthy, and still we are not satisfied with what we do, because we think we may do things better, differently. Again, success is not something definite. There are so many nuances. That’s why I find it amusing when it gets simplified to the availability of status symbols: people treating success in that way are not thinking enough about the topic, or thinking at all about it. They just conform to a signal, a message they received from their environment, acritically. And this kind of passive relationship with reality is rarely useful or meaningful.
But do we even need the concept of success? This question can be calibrated on the different kinds of success. Do we need to assign or to feel success connected to the ownership of status symbols? Do we need the concept of success when we look at what we do? We very likely don’t need many kinds of success.
Success is a polluted and volatile concept, as we saw. It may mean something and its opposite. It may require polishing and reflection before it becomes useful. But at the same time, it is important to have goals. It is crucial.
Psychology tells us that a purpose and the efforts to reach it are deeply connected to what we call happiness and well being. I suggest reading the extremely useful and inspiring Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is an extremely important book, no matter what you want to be or do in life.
At the same time, achiving financial success helps living a more serene life. So, having goals, may they be financial or personal or artistic, is not necessary but it is still absolutely important for progressing and living a meaninful and happier life.
I think I will come back again to this topic in the future. There is so much to be said, especially concerning success applied to photography.
For now, I would like to add just one thing: don’t let society tell you what is success, and don’t feel judged according to that. Look at your life, set your own goals, put effort in them and enjoy what you do. The joy you will feel in being successful at what you want is real and so much deeper than being successful at what society requires.
Wasting our time and mind energies following idealized concepts based on ephemeral values will bring us nothing. There is so much to learn and achieve. So many errors to be made and lessons to be learned. Showcasing expensive status symbols don’t make a photographer successful.
Learning to shoot the photos we want: that’s a first, bright, real step to success.
I am hosting a Ukrainian refugee family, and you can help us!
As many of you already know, I am hosting a Ukrainian refugee family with a baby that just turned 2 years old. I managed helping them escape war and reach Italy — I luckily have a little country home for them to stay as long as needed, where they can enjoy nature and safety, far from war.
We are thankful to the ones that already donated.
Thank you for your kindness and empathy!
Donations are still extremely important, because there is so much to pay for and everything is more expensive now: gas, electricity, warming, food, etc. I am using the donations wisely and doing my best for getting the most out of your generosity.
Thank you from the deep of our hearts.