Not succeeding does not mean not progressing. I think for many of us, the last few years of the pandemic have brought this feeling to light, especially since when it comes to photography, “success” is already such a broad and nebulous concept.
My own interpretation of the criteria I would need to consider myself successful has changed many times since I first picked up a camera in 2015. It’s only very recently that I feel to have been able to establish some objectives to achieve. and constantly work in these directions.
This means that I sometimes regret the five years or so of my first work: I have completely changed since that work to the point that I hardly consider it “my” photography anymore. Not only the look, feel and method behind the work, but these images lack the real purpose that my current work contains. If only I had started earlier along the path that I walk now, how much farther would I be; how much closer I would be to my goals.
Considering that time wasted is a real burden, a stress on how I apply my time in the present, anxious to look back now as I look back then, with regret. It magnifies every frame of misused film, every page of darkroom paper, every hour of waiting in place for elements that didn’t come together in the way I would have preferred. I am very aware of these events: because a success is well defined for these on a smaller scale, a failure is all the more tangible.
I can dwell on these because the successes I seek overall will take years to manifest as a long-term narrative expressed through printed results, so through this lens I I can identify a lot more waste than I can validate, a lot more disappointment than satisfaction.
The longer I work on my projects, the less I shoot, down to about half of what I used to do in a month, reaching about the same pass/fail ratio as when I was working digitally. . It’s actually a great accomplishment, but it doesn’t always look like it because of the way I’ve framed the waste. I have to remember to avoid thinking of waste in this way, but to reframe the whole process into a series of positive and negative outcomes that wouldn’t exist without the other.
There’s no realistic way to look back at my early years and not see that even though I’ve changed since then, that change wouldn’t have been possible without that original process. Those original hits, which I now consider waste, got me to where I am today. The time spent preparing each photo that I have been happy or satisfied with cannot be considered a waste, whether it was a long-term failure or a short-term failure.
Even if I never achieve any of my future goals, the process of working towards them is absolutely something that I can consider a success, a good and worthwhile use of my time. It’s not always necessary to have a short-term reward or even a long-term reward – and in the type of work I apply myself to, there is rarely anything other than this satisfaction in the moment, being present. to apply my craft to a story I want to tell.
There’s magic in not getting shot, but only if you decide to structure things that way for yourself. To see goals outside of acclaim and popularity, awards and reach. This is partly why I reframed the way I view and value my audience towards intimacy rather than a huge but loosely defined crowd.
A real waste would mean a situation where my time goes to something useless. Discovering a use for these failures in the process of success, or finding them as valuable lessons, removes that weight from my perception. I have to be free to fail otherwise I will end up locking myself into one way of doing things. If I stop experimenting because of the pain of feeling like I’ve wasted my time, then it’s just as much a waste of time, because I’ll lose the joy of discovering, of changing as a person. and as a documentary filmmaker.
I used to automatically frame sitting quietly in a white cube as a waste of time, but now I can see that there are always aspects to take away, even from a private sensory experience. I have traveled overseas, photographed many images over the hours and spent thousands of pounds, only to have a few keepers in the end, and no use for them in those quantities. Only the experience stays with me, which means I can decide that time has been wasted, or I can find value in the experience and recognize that where I am now is built on the foundations of then, a place where I can and have learned from these experiences, and where I am open to continuing to fail to learn from them too.
All of the photographs accompanying this article are individual successes, but all have the potential to be a waste of time if I don’t go the rest of the way to incorporate them into the projects where they should belong. The individual photographs are less of a point of pride for me than they used to be, now I have to know they are living their best life on the page before I am satisfied. It means constant dedication to work, constant exploration and interrogation in order to produce the most fulfilling final pieces possible.
Using this mindset to shape the use of my future time, to plan and account for failures and waste as part of the process automatically leaves me in a position where even if I waste time, I spend less time to stress about this lost time, to refuse to continue this cycle. I always feel like my time is ticking and I always try to avoid excessive downtime even though I know it’s probably healthier to take a break. Wasting time not shooting is one thing, but I still feel it very deeply when I’m shooting, developing, printing, sequencing, putting in hours and still feeling like it’s a waste of time – it’s something I still need to work on.
I’ve found that perspective has been really positive for the kind of long-term thinking my documentary projects require, and allows me to align long-term gains by planting metaphorical seeds today that I know will be of no use to me until many years down the line. Things like connecting with publishers and galleries when I know I don’t yet need to showcase my work in this way means connections I may never use, but I can still take advantage of these relationships while I have them, even if they end up useless in the way I originally intended.
About the Author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Groupand on Instagram.