Three Cheers For The Outsiders!

There is a lot of pressure on us in life to act like sheep, to follow the flock and accept the status quo. The photographic community has similar characteristics and I my experience does not seem to like outsiders who ask questions. This is strange as photography is filled with outsiders who have bucked the trends to become highly exalted. Not always at the beginning of their careers or whilst they are still alive, but eventually. I’m thinking of Robert Frank, Eggleston, Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter, William Klein, you get the picture and I’m sure you could add to that list. Photographers who questioned and ignored accepted practice and belief concerning what makes a successful photograph.

All forms of creative engagement require people to come along and shake up the mainstream. The outsider sees things differently and is unwilling to conform for the sake of conformity. I like that.

The term ‘Outsider Art’ was first used in 1972 as the title of a book by the art critic Roger Cardinal and has emerged as a successful art marketing category. For example an annual Outsider Art Fair has taken place in New York since 1993, and there are at least two regularly published journals dedicated to the subject. However, The term is also applied to work created by people who are outside the mainstream regardless of the content of the work, but the concept of the outsider is not new.

I am interested and intrigued by the outsider. Even though I may not always understand outsider work I recognise the need for it to exist, but photography seems to have a difficult relationship with the outsider. Whereas music, writing and art practice seem to accept the need for the outsider, photography seems to fear those that wobble the apple cart.

Some describe me as an outsider. They believe that I write articles such as this to deliberately stoke controversy. I am not and I do not. However, I am interested in asking questions and reflecting what I see based upon a level of experience with a desire to communicate with simplicity and clarity.

I seem to be an outlier in this so I can understand why some may consider me to be an outsider as I exist outside of the established structures of photographic writing. Independent and free from gatekeeper controlled institutions.

But there is a big difference between the outsider and the outlier. The outlier is on the periphery of established thought whilst the outsider is creating their own world. It is the creation of this new world that can seem intimidating to the insecure. It challenges the accepted and offers a new way that encourages risk and failure.

If a photographer becomes obsessed with the idea of the ‘good’ or perfect’ image such serendipity becomes the enemy of guaranteed success. This raises the issue of what is a successful image and who is to make that judgement. The outsider is not interested in meeting the established criteria for such judgement, they set their own rules guaranteed to frustrate and possibly anger those unwilling to be challenged. Those who are challenged are then faced with a choice, to decry the challenge or accept its possibilities.

Too often, sadly, the challenge is dismissed, rejected, or ridiculed with only the passing of time providing further opportunities for the outsider to be accepted or understood and their influence recognised.

Both the outsider and the outlier positions are hard to undertake. They require a sense of belief and commitment. They do not need mass acceptance, but they do need conversations to develop to allow a mutual learning exchange to exist. Conversations and debates, not attacks and insults.

Without the outsider creativity becomes stagnant, it becomes repetitive and formulaic. The outsider is the spark that starts the fire, and we need that spark to ensure that photography continues to evolve. Therefore I would like to make a suggestion. Let’s cheer for the outsider and encourage the outsider by adopting some aspects of the outsider’s approach.

Why not become an outsider? Question a little more, experiment more often and take risks by going against what you believe and usually do. Expand your comfort zone by feeling a little uncomfortable, and make decisions that contradict what others say is ‘correct’. In short why not step outside the safe room. You may be surprised how in control you feel when you reject what is and discover what could be.

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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022


  1. Being a bit of an anarchist at heart, this post resonated with me. When I see all the photography “should” books, posts, youtubes, etc., I
    tend to roll my eyes and move on. I do a self published printed zine for a small group of friends and family, stick them in little free library boxes, something tangible in an online world.

  2. Such a timely post. I’ve just been to two ‘outsider’ art exhibitions where the artists were unconcerned with being accepted – they just did what they did and the results were honest, raw and glorious. I also then went to the Vivian Maier exhibition in MK, and here was a photographer who seemed to embody at least some elements of the outsider – most obviously the non-necessity of being judged by the ‘establishment’. It is inspiring and I think it points to an increasing void in today’s photography/art practice – that of making work for the pleasure of making work, for the fulfillment and holistic benefit it brings to you as the maker. Everything seems now to need to be shown, to be promoted/marketed, to get likes, to be judged in order for the maker to be able to form a view as to whether it’s any good. The confidence to have that view yourself, or alternatively to decide not be worried about it, is very hard to attain. It takes time, work and effort (I haven’t got there at all!). Also though, you come to questions of agency – would outsider artists who are unable to form or voice their opinions choose to have their works exhibited and sold? Would Vivian Maier have wanted the hullabaloo that has surrounded her work since she died? Who gets to decide? It is nevertheless enormously exciting to contemplate being an outsider photographer…….

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