Failing to succeed doesn’t mean failing to progress. I think for many of us the last few pandemic years have spotlighted this sentiment, especially as when it comes to photography “success” is already such a broad and nebulous concept.
My own interpretation of the criteria I would need in order to consider myself successful has changed many times over since I first picked up a camera in 2015. It’s only quite recently that I feel I’ve been able to establish a few goals to work towards and consistently put work into those directions.
This means I sometimes feel regretful about the five or so years of my early work: I have changed entirely since that work to the point that I barely consider it to be “my” photography anymore. Not just the look, feel, and method behind the work but those images lack the actual purpose my current work contains. If only I had started sooner along the path I now walk, how much further along I would find myself; how much closer to my goals I would be.
Framing this time as wasted is a genuine weight, a stress on the way I apply my time in the present, worried that I’ll look back on now the way I look back on then, with regret. It magnifies every misused frame of film, every page of darkroom paper, every hour waited in place for elements that didn’t fall together in the way I would have preferred. I’m very aware of these events: because a successful outcome is well defined for these on a smaller scale a failure is that much more tangible.
I am able to dwell on these because the successes I am after overall will take years to manifest in the form of long-term narrative expressed through printed results, so through this lens, I can identify far more wastage than I can validate, far more disappointment than satisfaction.
The longer I work on my projects the less I shoot, down now to about half of what I used to end up with from a month, to achieve about the same ratio of success/failure as when I worked digitally. This is actually a great accomplishment, but it doesn’t always feel like it because of the way I’ve been framing wastage. I need to remind myself to avoid thinking of waste in this way, but to reframe the process as a whole to a series of some positive and some negative outcomes that would not exist without the other.
There’s not a realistic way to look at my early years and not see that while I have changed since then that change would not have been possible without that original process. Those original successes, which I now look back on as waste, brought me to where I am today. The time spent leading towards every photograph I’ve ever been happy or satisfied with cannot be considered a waste, whether it’s a long-term or short-term failure.
Even if I never achieve any of my future goals, the process of working towards them is absolutely something I can view as a success, a good and valid use of my time. There doesn’t always need to be a short-term payoff or even a long-term payoff — and in the kind of work I am applying myself to there is rarely anything besides that satisfaction in the moment, being present to apply my craft to a story I want to tell.
There is magic in not getting the 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 part of why I reframed the way I view and value my audience towards intimacy rather than a huge but vaguely defined crowd.
True waste would mean a situation where my time goes towards something useless. Discovering a use for those failures in the process of success, or finding them as valuable lessons, removes that weight from my perception. I need to be free to fail otherwise I’ll end up locking myself into one way of doing things. If I stop experimenting due to the pain of feeling like I’ve wasted my time, then that’s just as much a waste of my time, because I would lose out on the joy of discovery, of changing as a person and a documentarian.
Previously I would automatically frame sitting quietly in a white cube to be a waste of my time, but now I can see that there are always aspects to take away, even from a sensory deprived experience. I’ve traveled abroad, photographed many frames across hours and thousands of pounds spent, only to have a few keepers by the end of it, and no use for them in those quantities. Only the experience remains with me, which means I can decide that time was wasted, or I can find a value in the experience and recognize that where I am now is built on the foundation of then, a place where I can and have learned from those experiences, and where I am open to continuing to fail in order to learn from that too.
All of the photographs accompanying this article are individual successes, but all have the potential to represent a waste of my time if I don’t go the rest of the way to incorporate them into the projects they ought to belong. Individual photographs are less a point of pride for me than they used to be, now I have to know they live their best life on the page before I am satisfied. This means a constant dedication to the work, constant exploration, and interrogation in order to produce the most fulfilling final pieces I possibly can.
Using this mindset to shape the use of my future time, to plan out and account for failure and waste as part of the process automatically leaves me in a position when even if I do waste time I spent less time stressing about that wasted time, refusing to continue that cycle. I still really feel my time passing me by, and still try and avoid an excess of downtime even when I know it’s probably healthier to let myself have a break. Wasting time by not being out photographing is one thing, but I still feel it very deeply when I’m out shooting, developing, printing, sequencing, putting the hours in, and still feeling like it’s wasted time — that’s something I still need to work on.
I have found that this outlook has been really positive for the kind of long-term thinking my documentary projects require, and allows me to line up long-term payoffs by planting metaphorical seeds today that I know won’t be of use to me until many years down the line. Things like building connections with publishers and galleries when I know I’m still a long time from needing to showcase my work in that way means relationships I may never even use, but I can still enjoy those connections 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 those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.