Photo Guilt. Is It A Thing?

I ask this question because I recently saw someone use the term, one I have not previously seen, read or heard. Had the writer I saw using it, made it up? Or am I just naive? Well, if like me you are unaware of the use of the term here is an explanation. ‘Photo Guilt’ is evidently a feeling experienced in retrospect when you have missed the opportunity to make a photograph.

yes this make sense to you? My answer is yes and no! What I mean by this is that I have missed out on making photographs just as we all have, but I feel no guilt. As in life, as in photography we cannot expect to achieve everything, succeed in everything or be in the moment all of the time. Such expectations could only lead to failure, disappointment and potentially poor mental wellbeing. That does not sound like a good way to live or approach making images to me. There is an argument to say that it has never been easier to capture every moment in our lives thanks to the ever present smart phone, but is that something we should aim for?

I don’t think so.

To me, informed image making with purpose seems to be to be a more feasible and reliable approach to adopt. But perhaps I am missing the point. Is the idea of such guilt based not in a desire to capture everything but in a belief that the successful photograph must capture only the decisive moment? If this is the case, who is to decide upon that moment of decisive success? The photographer or the viewer? Lots of questions and very few answers I hear you saying and you are right. I am not trying or perhaps succeeding in saying anything new here. This is an article of unravelling thoughts.

The problem I always have with photography is the sense that success is determined by pre-conceived rules. The expectations of others.

Guilt comes from the belief that those expectations have not been met. There are many understandings of the word ‘guilt’ and none of them are very helpful with relation to a creative endeavour. Here are a few, ‘the unhappy feelings caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something wrong,’ ‘The state imputed to a person who has done moral or legal wrong,’ ‘a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong.’ The key word that jumps out at me here is ‘wrong’!

Is it wrong to miss a moment with your camera? I don’t think so, its just life. Is it wrong to make an image that does not conform to the aesthetic or technical judgements of others? Again, I don’t think so. You may be disappointed by both outcomes but you should not feel guilty about either situation. Just, reflect, question, learn and move on.

‘Photo Guilt’ may be a thing for some but not for me. I understand the concept of regret, the regret of missing a moment, but that is different from guilt. Regret creates a sense of melancholy, not positive but understandable. Guilt has a sense of retribution attached to it, and I don’t feel any need to be punished by myself or others for missing a moment with my camera.

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.

Scott’s next book Condé Nast Have Left The Building: Six Decades of Vogue House will be published by Orphans Publishing in the Spring of 2024.

© Grant Scott 2023


  1. Interesting thoughts. I know that a sense of guilt (or something) at missing a photograph sometimes lead me to taking far too many photographs, firing away rapidly without paying as much attention which ironically means I still miss the photo!

  2. Guilt when I miss a picture is partially alleviated by appreciating that I saw it in the first place. A greater guilt comes from the unwelcome intrusion I I am tempted or forced to make for my own creative satisfaction. Asking shows respect but spoils the picture. There is often a price to be paid and the actual value of what we want to achieve considered rather than thoughtless self-indulgence.

  3. I had a dream last night I was in a media huddle photographing Nigel Farage. I was in a good central position but realised my battery was dead and I’d have to give up my position to swap it out. Nightmare. I’m actually still feeling the anxiety after effects.

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