What is the Difference Between a Photograph and a Successful Photograph?

I know the answer to this question is subjective but I think there may be an objective approach that is worth considering.

I’ll start by suggesting one word to consider, and that word is intention. In so many aspects of our lives success is measured by the ability to achieve and demonstrate an outcome that correlates to the initial intention. I want to repair my car, I undertake to make that repair, the car is repaired and that is a success. Simple. However, the arts in general and creativity in practice are not that straightforward.

Your successful image may not be my successful image and your unsuccessful image may not be my successful image. There is no correct answer, only belief. It is why I see no reason in ever arguing about a photograph. If it works for you then fine, no problem. I could express my opinion but if you don’t want to hear that opinion there is no point in me offering it. Of course if you really want to hear it then I am happy to let you know what I think but you don’t have to agree with my comments. In my mind anything outside of this understanding strays into the territory of controlling others and that is not something I want to do.

Therefore the successful photograph can only be determined by one person, the person who made it. Others may agree or disagree but that has no impact on the success of the image. You may argue that a successful image connects and the more people it connects with the more successful it is. That is one formula that can be adopted but what if the photographer has no intention of their images to connect with an audience? Something, I have been often told, perhaps from a position of truth or maybe to present an explanation of non-connection. Either way then the formula fails. Disconnection defines the success.

It’s annoying and frustrating isn’t it?

Of course there is money in telling people that there is a formula to success, one that can be purchased and repeated. If you want a quick and ‘easy fix’ then that may be an option, but there is no sense of true achievement in a ‘quick fix’ based on replication. I feel good when I manage to construct a piece of IKEA furniture but it is nothing to the feeling I would have if I designed and hand-made one from scratch to my own design.

The key to a successful photograph is not to create something to be liked by others and certainly not to search for social media likes. This is a search for validation not true success.

The aim should NOT be to replicate the work of someone else. Do not see success as being the faithful recreation of someone else’s lighting set up, post-production aesthetic or choice of location or model. That may be seen by some as technical success but it is not pure photographic success. It is once again, replication, nothing more and nothing less. Now, you may say that is your intention and therefore that a definition of success, and you would be right, but it is photography without personality and where is the fun in that?

Only you will know if a photograph is successful and you are the only one who matters in that decision making process as long as you are making that work purely for yourself and not for a client or to a brief. In both of those cases the rules change. Then success is declared by others, but that only matters if they are footing the bill.

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 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023

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