The ‘Next’ Level: In Search of the Photographic ‘Holy Grail’

How many times have you seen or heard the promise that someone knows how to take you to the ‘next’ level? People who claim to have the magic formula that will allow you to rise above your current level (whatever level that maybe!)

The following text is taken from a photography magazine’s website.

“Our aim is simple – we want to inspire you to get the most from your camera. We’ve got hours of ‘how-to’ videos, photography tutorials and expert advice from industry pros to take your skills to the next level…. You’ll get a week’s trial for free – then it’s £2.99 a month. Sign up for a year to save 20% – and pay just £28.99.”

The following text is taken from the Scientology Wikipedia page and BusinessInsider online.

“While there are fifteen levels listed in Scientology teaching, the Church only offers eight. The church has described the additional levels as forthcoming, and the Church has said that it will release IX and X when all churches have reached the same activity rate” and “there are 12 basic books in Scientology, and the package costs about $4,000.”

The fees may vary dramatically but the offers seem worryingly similar. They both share the promise of achieving a mythical level through expert advice, videos and mentoring in return for cold, hard cash! That is education I hear you say, there can be no problem with that and I agree, however the issue is not in the sharing of knowledge in return for financial renumeration it is with the selling of the belief of a series of ‘levels’ that need to be achieved to progress.

These are not academically accepted and recognised levels, rigorously examined and controlled such as a diploma, degree, PHD or professorship. The term ‘level’ in this case is used specifically to induce creative insecurity and technical inadequacy, with no defined description of what level you are going to be taken to, when you will arrive or of what use it will be to you when you do get there, if you ever do!

It is exactly this sense of not knowing where the ‘next level’ actually is and what it is that keeps those in search, paying those promising the Holy Grail that is being sought. The ‘next level’ is an addictive promise despite the ‘snake-oil-selling’ reality of that promise. 

So the next time you see or hear someone promising to take you to the ‘next level’ in return for a payment may I suggest that you ask them exactly where that level is, why you need to go there and what you will do when you get there. If the answer is to pay to get onto the ‘next level’ after the ‘next level’ than you know what to do. Just say no!

Photography is not and should not be defined by the idea of levels and it does not need to be reduced to a series of ‘tick’ boxes defined by self-proclaimed experts. It must be a personal journey of creative expression and as such should be enjoyed, explored and engaged with within formal education, as a professional practice or as a richly rewarding pastime without the search for a ‘next level’. Those that need a ‘level’ to aspire to and pay for have misunderstood the medium, just as those selling such an aspiration have misunderstood their role within photography.

Neither creative fulfilment  or spirituality come through the use of a credit card, only the ‘next level’ of debt.

Image: Being John Malkovich

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Professional Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at

© Grant Scott 2019

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