Why Ambition and Success Do Not Have To Be Dirty Words In Photography…

When connected with the creative arts the concept of personal ambition, and resultant success can leave a bitter taste with some. The idea that creativity, and commerciality are distant bedfellows can be strong within the art community, but less so amongst the commissioned world of photography. Perhaps the commissioned world is more honest in its relationship with economic benefit from creativity. It can accept the harsh reality that their creativity has a value which it is happy to promote. An ambition to gain from creativity with financial rewards places an aspect of success upon the work being created. Validation comes from the commission and subsequent payment. It allows the photographer to describe themselves as being ‘professional’ as their engagement with photography can clearly be defined as a profession. Success.

The art community sees their practice differently, or does it? An ambition to reach a point of independence from the system is a common refrain within the art based photographic community. Enough financial security to allow the ‘practitioner’ or ‘artist’ to explore their work, is the dream, without the need to ‘sell out’ and accept commercial commissions. Such financial independence could come from inherited wealth, family financial support, or by getting lucky on the roulette tables, however, it is more likely to come from selling work. Success.

The selling of prints, or published collections of images in book or zine form is a staple if limited income for most art based photographers. The ambition to sell and engage in a commercial transaction is a natural response to bills that need to be paid. Success.

Just as the commissioned photographer receives validation of their work from a client, so the art based photographer receives validation from their customer. In this sense the client and customer fulfil a similar role as a patron of the photographer. Of course the client usually expects to set or influence the creative agenda, whereas the customer in this case is buying into a previously created artefact, but both are intrinsic to the photographers continuing practice. Success.

We all have our own ideas and beliefs on what constitutes success, some of you will have no interest in the concept, but I think that we can all agree that the ability to continue with your photographic journey in some form has some form of success attached to it. However, the journey can give creative rewards as well as financial ones. Success.

Ambition can so easily been seen as a negative trait, associated with aggressive marketing, self-centred actions and focus purely on financial reward. Success is a similarly sensitive word when used alongside a creative practice. The definition of success is as nebulous as that of love. It means different things to all of us, and yet society places its own interpretation on the word. That interpretation is often aligned with an ambitious intent in which recognition, praise, awards and cold, hard cash become the grading device for levels of success. I have no issue with ambition or success, but my interpretations of both words are open minded, and open ended.

I often speak of photographs being successful or unsuccessful dependent on the intended content. I never use the words ‘good’ or ‘bad’, both of which are in my opinion subjective judgements of little if any value.

We are all ambitious for success, but we also have different interpretations of both of these words. To dismiss both would be to approach them with a pre-defined understanding based upon a societal definition. It would also be detrimental to the sense of discovery and achievement so essential to all areas of photographic practice.

Ambition is important and success can be rewarding, but both can have a negative impact on work and the self, an impact that should be watched out for, but they should not be dismissed or derided. Ambition and success are intrinsic to photographic engagement, but you can define these words in whatever way that you wish. What is important is to never look at the definitions of ambition by others as the definitions you have to adopt or define your success through a narrow point of focus. As Bob Dylan said, “Well, the moral of the story, The moral of this song, Is simply that one should never be, Where one does not belong, So when you see your neighbour carrying somethin’, Help him with his load, And don’t go mistaking Paradise, For that home across the road.”

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 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

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