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.