Plan to fail, please.

12 08 2010

I was dropping my son off at his driver’s education class this morning (may God protect us all) when I saw that old bumper sticker standard on the car ahead of mine: What would you try if you knew you could not fail?

It’s a fun question to ponder. I’d jump off a building. Do a double back flip. Gamble with the high rollers in Vegas. Wrestle an alligator. Audition for American Idol. (That was a joke.) Then the thought crossed my mind that “fail” has many different meanings. One can be an un-failure at jumping off a building and still be flattened on the landing. You can “win” in a wrestling match with an alligator and still lose a limb or two.


What is failure, where photography is concerned? Is it missing an exposure, missing a moment? Is it falling into a creative rut? Not meeting the client’s expectations? Shoot long enough, and you’ll experience all these things and more, probably sooner rather than later.

In reality, there’s no more effective way to learn than to fail, and to do it well. Every artist should risk failure on a regular basis. And since you don’t really want to do it on a client’s dime and time, that means having regular, on-going personal projects.

For some reason, as soon as we photographers start trading photographs for dollars, we seem to stop shooting personal projects. The reasons (excuses?) usually fall along the lines of being too busy, having family obligations, needing to put work first over “fun.” It’s as if shooting for for our ourselves is massages and caviar: a nice luxury, but who can afford them?

Here’s the problem. If you don’t take risks and explore/fail/learn on your own time, you’ll eventually either 1) produce stale, uninspired, “safe” work, or 2) fail on your clients’ time. Neither of those sounds like fun to me. We have to give ourselves opportunities to explore and expand without dollar signs attached.

I’m a firm believer that every photographer should have at least one meaningful, challenging self-assignment in progress at all times. Musicians don’t only play when they’re on stage; photographers shouldn’t only shoot when there’s a client. Call it “practice” if you’d like.

If you’re too busy to shoot for your own growth and joy, then you are too busy.

Let’s make time for “failure” and commit to a personal project that requires heart, soul, and a few alligators. Find a theme, a self-assignment, something near and dear to you. Stick with it. Pursue it and explore the range of possibility. Shoot outside your comfort zone. Enjoy the freedom of knowing nobody but you will give a damn if the images work.

What would I do if I knew I could not fail? Be bored out of my mind, probably.

– CJ




20 responses

12 08 2010

I needed to read this tonight. Thanks!

12 08 2010

An inspiring read. I have never quite looked at what I do as “planning to fail”, but I see where you are going with this. Thanks for the blog-post!

12 08 2010

The late great Garry Winogrand said it as well… “you have to risk failure with every frame.” And he gave up assignment work to make the pictures He wanted to make, taking a big risk. In the end, of course, his pictures are among the most important (and fun) in the history of photography. Great post, Cheryl.

12 08 2010

I happened upon your work a few days ago and immediately loved it. Your work has heart as well as mood and range.

I did a series on the question of failure last year. It started as a small question and grew to include quest bloggers and lots and lots of growth. The result was changing my career path to full time photography.

Your work is an inspiration.


12 08 2010

Plus, good photos come from bad photos; in fact, sometimes they’re the same thing. It’s a matter of perspective. As the great Charles Harbutt describes a core principal of his remarkable workshop:

“Almost all good photographs started out in life as “bad” photographs, unlike whatever was accepted by critics at the time. In a sense, this workshop is about taking “bad” photographs in ways uniquely your own. In the long run, that’s more satisfying than taking “good” pictures the way someone else does. Besides, the history of photography is made by such photographers, not by critics or curators or communications theorists. However knowledgeable and well-intentioned they may be, they are after all consumers, not producers of photography.”

Take pictures, take “bad” pictures, fail — a lot.

12 08 2010

Thank you, Cheryl. Your words mirror some things Jock said to us in a workshop a couple of years ago.

When one of the students mentioned being afraid to experiment:

You have to leave with a good photograph. So, make the easy one first, then experiment with the riskier stuff.

-Jock Sturges

Another student asked why he doesn’t use professional/paid models:

As soon as people are paid to pose, they lose the right to say no.

-Jock Sturges

I think that works the other way around, too – as soon as we are paid to make photographs, we give up the right to say “yes” to the whole of our vision. Payment changes the nature of our responsibility to the people we photograph.

It is important to make time for producing personal work, just as it is important to make time for making money – and the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Paid sessions can put food on the table today, while personal projects can evolve into residual income over the long term (e.g. gallery sales and books, to name some traditional methods of generating income from photo projects).

12 08 2010

Many thanks for the gentle kick in the rear.
I’ll be contemplating your post today and passing it on!

12 08 2010

I’ve been taking pictures for some time now. I almost miss my first year of diving into photography because I seemed to have a more experimental relationship with the craft. I didn’t really even think about ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’. It was simply about learning and getting better and I never did learn a lot of important aspects of the technical side of photography until recently and now I am much more aware of ‘fail’. and I never wanted to try to make any kind of living off of photography because I didn’t want to worry about pleasing anybody but now that is the risk for me because I have decided to do just that and my personal projects have become intermingled with getting someone to notice and like what I do and hire me. It’s just a strange thing to get paid to do this. I’ve only been hired for a few jobs so far and I certainly felt uneasy when on those jobs. Where is the line between what I want to create and what the client expects? and what happens when these concerns completely muddle my vision and and therefore the ability to take visual risks. and how does someone set themselves apart with so many people taking pictures? Hasn’t every angle, pose and lighting condition been covered by now? Yet many of us still feel drawn to create images. I know I can’t stop… Important stuff to think about!

12 08 2010
Bonnie Berry

Hear, hear sister.

12 08 2010

Thanks Cheryl for this good reminder.

12 08 2010
Stephen S. Mack

That goes double for me, also. (Although a LARGE number of my photos are failures, so I must be doing something right! ;<) )

Which reminds me: I've still got the abandoned buildings project on hold…

With best regards.


13 08 2010

Well, I guess this makes me feel a lot better about the last 3 rolls I shot, which were all just brimming with failure. There was so much failure there I can share some. At least I’m not playing it safe, right?

15 08 2010

always inspiring you are….and mind opening. thanks for your thoughts and words. i am off to try my luck as some failure.

15 08 2010

hi cheryl,

i found you recently and immediately starting looking forward to your wise posts in my inbox. most of my work are personal projects as i am just starting to make myself available for commissions – baby & child portraiture. regarding the former – yes, there certainly needs to be a great deal of risk-taking and room for failure.

however, i see there being two categories for failure – successful failures & not so successful ones. a successful failure is when i start with an idea, concept or intention and the result doesn’t quite hit the mark. this helps to push me forward & hone in more. on the other hand, unsuccessful failures are the ones where repeated technical mistakes occur without improvement. it keeps me stuck in a groove. i seem to be caught in this dilemma. ugh. i know you have written about the importance of technical know-how so as to free one to create (paraphrasing here).

thanks much!

with kind regards from shana

16 08 2010

Shana, absolutely. Failures are what you make of them. You can choose to learn from them, or you can be silly and hope you get luckier next time. It’s a matter of investing the time and energy.

15 08 2010

Hi there,

I hate to ask this totally nerdy question but what are you using for these beautiful indoor shots? Film/camera/ISO? They are really lovely.

I’m really excited about shooting 5×7 portraits these days, and have definitely had a few failures. Shooting LF is so totally different than shooting with a DSLR, since I more or less stopped photographing for money and started doing portrait projects just for the love of it, I’ve gotten to accepting the chance of failing. Mostly I photograph people I know, so I will always have a second chance. I hate to use the word, but there is a zen-like quality about shooting one piece of film, one shot, and moving on. I’m still usually shooting a 2nd one, just in case, but really try to make that first one count.


16 08 2010

Paul, I agree completely. I love the simplicity and (believe it or not) the pressure that comes from getting one chance to get the image right. It forces discipline and excellent technique, especially if it’s for a client.

The images on my site and blog are almost entirely shot with my trusty Bronicas, either the ETRS or the SQ-Ai with a 75mm 2.8 or 80mm 2.8 lens respectively. There are a very few large format (4×6) images there, and a few Bronica shots with other lenses; really, though, I adore extreme simplicity in my work. I like the one-camera, one-lens, one-film (Tri-X), one developer (Tmax) approach. That’s largely because I’m incredibly distractable.

18 08 2010

Gotcha. Thanks! That’s awesome. The pictures are really beautiful. I’ve been using my Mamiya C330 in low light a bit lately and really am surprised at the results. I got it in my head that only digital could do low light well. Obviously wrong!


13 02 2011
David Cavner

Just a simple quote that I remember from somewhere. The lessons we learn are far more important than the mistakes we make.

19 12 2013
To 365 or not to 365? | CJ's Workshops

[…] from a deep, honest place.  Rather than rewriting all of that here, I’ll just link you to this post.  I would love to see photographers commit to one really meaningful image per week, or even per […]

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