Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail…

The challenge of the blank piece of paper cannot be under estimated. For both the artist, and the writer, the blank piece of paper offers a challenge to engage. The photographer does not have the blank piece of paper but they do have the camera, sitting, tempting them to use it. Both the camera and the paper need an idea to begin a form of creative engagement and that idea needs to be interrogated and questioned as to its potential.

The jump from idea to action is filled with risk, stress and potentially disappointment. It is by asking how, why, where, when and who of any idea that a plan comes to fruition. I call this ‘connected questioning’, a process of questioning that leads to further questions and possibly no answers, but which forces the questioner to take an idea and test its potential. The answers to these questions allow the initial idea to evolve, to grow and to develop meaning and it is this meaning that becomes the fuel for the project, ensuring that the photographer maintains resilience and positivity as the work progress’s.

To go out with a camera hoping something will happen is an option but it is one that is high in hope and low in return. Now, I am not speaking about street photography here, where the serendipity of chance is all, but even in this most uncontrollable of environments preparation is essential. Location, time of day, day of the week and weather are all influences to be considered.

Expectation is the one word that all photographers need to be aware of and most honest about. It is the expectation that should inform the preparation.

If you have no expectation then perhaps no preparation is required, but I am dubious of any photographer who says that they have no expectation of their image-making. Without expectation how seriously are you taking your work? There are of course different levels of expectation just as there are different levels of preparation, but as we all know, any task benefits from some planning.

Photographic preparation can take many forms. From the most basic decisions concerning equipment, formats and appropriate clothing to more complex considerations including theoretical frameworks and in-depth research, location scouting, team building, financing and eventual dissemination.

Many photographers tell me that they like a project or body of work to develop and that they do not want to know too much about the destination whilst they are engaged with the journey. That’s fine, but whatever your approach an element of preparation has to occur for the journey to seem meaningful.

I recently saw on a television photography competition photographers setting out to complete a body of work with the slightest of preparation, a vague concept and a confused idea. The resulting work was weak and meaningless, photographs for the sake of being photographed. One even set off in a storm in the Scottish Highlands with a camera in one hand and an umbrella in the other, as if he was strolling down a local high street on a rainy day. The one photographer who had identified a narrative of intellectual and emotional value, researched his location and the people he want to photograph created work with a reason to exist.

This was no surprise to me, but those who had not prepared had no understanding of the importance of the basic process their fellow competitor had undertaken. The mantra that acts as a title for this piece is an appropriate one for the committed photographer. The questions any photographer must ask themselves are how much preparation are you willing to do and how willing are you too fail?

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

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