Forget About Rules and Aim to Fail!

I recently saw a tweet by the film and paper company Ilford asking “what is your best photograph that breaks the rules?” In itself inoffensive click bait created to instigate some follower interaction, but it is a question that illustrates a traditional approach to photography that in my opinion restricts the progression of the medium. An imaginary creative straitjacket.

I interacted with the tweet, but not perhaps in the way that Ilford wanted me to by asking “what rules?” They did not respond.

I was being serious with my question, what are the rules in photography that they are referring to? The rule of thirds? Rules of composition? Rules of cropping? The Golden Ratio? I Googled the question, and these are some of the answers I was given. Considerations, yes, rules, no, I am afraid not.

Following rules prevents the opportunity to fail but it is through failing we learn and progress. To follow someone else’s rules is to rely on a structure aimed to provide creative success within a safety zone of homogeneization.

Of course, if you are someone who likes rules, then you are going to find comfort in a step-by-step guide to success. The problem is that you will judge that success on your ability to follow those rules, not on your development of a personal visual language.

I like chaos and anarchy. I like to be challenged and I have no fear of failure, I have failed too often to be open to that issue. I don’t read guides and like to break rules if I know them, but only if they seem to be guidelines rather than sensible dictates. I have no idea where to start judging my work on the basis of rule breaking, and I have no intention of starting that process. You may be the opposite to me, and that’s okay, there are no rules as to how you have to engage with photography, just as there are no rules as to how you make your photographs.

Dr. Grant Scott is the 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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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