Finding success as a photographer: It’s not what you think

You want it, right? Oh you know what I mean, success in your life as a photographer. You catch yourself dreaming about it now and then, all the good things that will surely come your way if only you can achieve it. BUT. What is success as we know it was misguided? Here's how I believe we can find success as a photographer, and it's probably not what you think!



Dreams of grandeur

When I started as a photographer, I dreamed of making it big. I wanted to be known and be well paid. It's not that I actually really wanted to be both, it's just that I got caught in the spirit of the age, which says that success is all about being rich and famous. I say spirit of the age because it's what is sung everywhere from car ads to even toys. Don't believe me? Look at any of Barbie's houses and try to imagine the kind of cash a house like that will require.


Success, it seems, is all about being known and to be well off, it follows then that to be a successful photographer you need to be popular and well paid. Granted, there's a few photographers that fit that bill very well, they are both very well known and probably earn a large income, you can probably name me a few. God bless'em….but I think this idea of success is probably not what it is all cut out to be.



The Failure of success

Glitz, glamour, money, the life, right? While it might sound nice at first, it might not be worth all the fuss. Does anyone remember Robin Williams? Didn't he have everything from money to fame? Isn't weird he took his own life? Cynthia Heimel, a long time NYC resident has seen many stars go from being nobodies to superstars, here's what she had to say:


“I pity celebrities, no I really do – Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Barbara Streisand, were once perfectly pleasant human beings. But now their wrath is awful. I think when God wants to play a really rotten practical joke on you he grants you your deepest wish and then laughs merrily when you realize you want to kill yourself. You see Sly, Bruce, and Barbara wanted fame. They worked, they pushed and the morning after each of them became famous they wanted to take an overdose. Because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and happiness had happened and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.”


Isn't this an eye opening quote? Personally blew me away. Now I am not saying you can't be happy being famous and wealthy as a photographer, there's a few I am sure who are pretty happy and still are cool dudes and dudettes, but such quotes as above warns of the dangers of going for success as society in general defines it. Let's take another example of success and see if we can extract something from it. Tiger Woods. Millionaire. Famous. Talented. Here's my question to you, is he a success? What do you think? Or closer to home, how about someone like Daido Moriama? He's got everything going for him too, right? Is he a success?




Success is relative

The answer is Yes they are, and no they aren't, it all depends on what you call success. If we observe them under the lens of what society says is successful, then they are. They are rich (dunno about Diado for sure but he is famous). But if we examine them with the lens of being great family men, they are failures. Tiger Woods cheated on his wife, Daido let his family slip by for photography. My point is this: Success is relative. Whether Tiger and Daido are successes or failures is relative to what matters most to you.




Towards a new definition of success

Let me suggest to you another definition of success, rather than achieving a goal of fame and fortune, success is daily walking according to your values. I think success is a path that is walked on rather than a destination to reach. Your values are whatever you value most: Family, Freedom, Fun, Balance, Discipline, Beauty, etc.


That means, depending on your values, success is simply being consistent with those values. Say your values are Fun and Freedom you don't need to make a dime to be successful photographer, nor to be known. But that again will come from what your values are in photography. If that's being famous and making money, then not making anything and still being unknown is failing in your book.


Here's the question: What are your values and what does success in photography look to you? Remember my dreams of fame and fortune? You know, I believe if you want that kind of success you'll probably achieve it, but as I grew older, I started to value other things rather than the cash and the glow. For me, some of my values are: Family, Kaizen, Creativity & Legacy. For me it's all about making the finest images I possibly can daily, to constantly improve my craft and share it….. but that also means I put my family before my photography. That's why my image output is not what it could be, but that's ok with me. In other words, for me when it comes to photography, if I make the best images and take care of my family and help others, I don't really care much about the rest.


It's probably not much if you don't see the success the same way, but for me nothing can take away the feeling I get when I know I made a good image, or the feeling I get when I have quality time with my kids, knowing full well I could be out shooting. Plus seeing success as a road rather than a destination has the side effect of leaving you fulfilled, because not reaching what you perceive is your goal can leave you quite bitter. Check your Facebook feed for one too many bitter photographers spewing rants.





I don't think success is a goal to reach but more of a path to walk on. Society probably conditions us towards wating fame and fortune, but while there's nothing inherently wrong with that if you can manage it, for most it sounds like empty promises, as sometimes the biggest stars of the world sometimes candidly admit. Find your values, walk in them daily and define your success as a photographer, whether that is making the most striking street photographs or to make an epic family album for the ages, or both. Scroll down and hit reply with your comment, I would love to know your values and what you define as success. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.


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8 thoughts on “Finding success as a photographer: It’s not what you think”

  1. I really like your thoughts here. For me Photography is a hobby, a creative outlet. Oh yeah sure I once thought I MIGHT be able to make money out of it, but now I know I don’t need to. For me I get enjoyment from going out taking a walk and shooting what I see and coming home loading those up on the old computer screen and then the process of creating what my minds eye saw at the time of hitting the shutter button. Its a process that I enjoy. I then enjoy sharing them on my blog, if others comes along leaves a comment or hits the like button that is nice, if not, oh well. Life goes on.

  2. A nice insightful read Olivier. The key words are towards the end of the quote from Cynthia Helmel “… and they were still them”. Photography is a great tool for self learning so when we change and grow as human beings we become more satisfied and in my view, more successful!

  3. Like your take on the pursuit of happiness. I love to take pictures of people and people like me to take them. So we are both happy and if they want to pay me, it’s great if not it’s ok as I had fun with my camera.

  4. To me success in photography is the ability to carry your camera anywhere you go and constantly thinking about photography and making pictures that they will live forever. Yes I find it exhausting but it keeps me going and making better pictures by practising frequently.

  5. as so often, i really enjoyed your words.
    making money is a need for our daily life.
    if you can make enough and have plenty of time available to do the stuff you really like and make you happy, then you’re pretty successful.
    as for photography, if your photos give you that special feeling then you getting there.
    i’ve been quite serious about photography for over 30yrs. a few yrs ago i started to take photos every day(and started to shoot fully manual)
    the photographs i see, think about and take today, really satisfy me.
    what a good happy feeling.

  6. Their is a saying that goes something like this: ” the terminals ( bus, train planes or ships) may change but our baggage remain the same”. In other words we carry who we are wherever we go or as you quoted” ..they we still the same.”
    Thank you for your inspiring words that carry wisdom and remind me that the journey is important.

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