Why bad photos matter
There’s a joke that makes its way around photographic circles. It goes something like this:
Q: What’s the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur?
A: The professional only shows off their best work.
Once the chuckling subsides, you realise that it’s actually a bit of a slight dig at both professional and non-professional photographers: that the pros actually take bad photos but cannily show only their best ones, and that the non-professionals somehow are unable to differentiate between (or care about) bad vs good images.
There seems to be a lot of stigma attached to bad photographs: those images laden with perceived flaws and faults. I say “perceived” because that’s what I think makes people hesitant to show their work — it’s both the perception that your own work isn’t “good enough” or the anxiety associated with having critical commentary directed at your work.
Let’s look at each of these “arguments” more logically:
1. That your work isn’t “good enough”
Any assessment of creative work needs to have a yardstick – a standard by which its strength can be measured. For many, this yardstick seems a little nebulous; often, we measure our work against the work produced by others out there (usually those who are already masters of the medium and producing work that’s top notch within the genre), and we realise how far we have to go to bring our work up to _that_ standard.
It’s a fair enough realisation. But what do you do with it? Give up and wallow in the fact that your work can never match those of photographers you admire? Or do you try and consider this: those very photographers you look up to had to start from somewhere. They were, sometime in the past, at the same point in their photographic journey as you are at now. And they chose to push forward, refining their skills, knowledge, ability and understanding so that they could realise their vision through their chosen medium of photography.
I’m a bit of a comic book/pop culture fan, and I’m always reminded of this line from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, where the young Bruce Wayne takes a tumble down an old shaft and is rescued by his father, Thomas Wayne, who comforts the boy with these wise words:
“Why do we fall, Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Your “bad photos” matter because they motivate you to pick yourself up and help you consolidate a map for your onward photographic journey. You need to create “bad photos” to learn from them; to find out what elements in them don’t work, what elements do, so that you can develop your visual literacy in photography. If we don’t make mistakes, how can we ever learn from them. If we never fail, how can we ever define success?
It’s a pity that, as a culture, we have learned to devalue mistakes and failure. In fact, in this era of social media, we have come to attack and mock failure.
This is most unfortunate because if we do not fail, if we do not make mistakes, if we do not produce bad work, we cannot learn from them, we cannot correct mistakes and we cannot produce better work.
Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.
Which brings me to:
2. You’re nervous about having your work criticised
Why do we fear criticism? Why is it that having the faults, flaws and errors that we have made pointed out fills us with shame and anxiety? Because, again, we have grown in a culture that devalues error-based learning: we believe that making mistakes is embarrassing, that failing to live up to a perceived standard is failure.
When you put your work out there and ask for critique, you’re asking for someone’s response to your creation. Isn’t that the reason we make photographs — so that we can share our vision with others? It’s unfortunate that in this era of social media, responses tend to be framed in two-word sound bytes (eg. “great shot!”) or, even worse, the press of a “Like” or “Fave” button. We have become so used to being told how good we are via such facile and meaningless channels, that we’re no longer sensitive to the value of considered responses and feedback. We become so obsessed in building an online personality/reputation driven by Likes/Faves on our shared photographic content that we have forgotten what spurred us to pick up a camera in the first place and to create images close to our heart.
So, ignore the Likes and Faves. Turn a blind eye to two-word praises. Seek more meaningful feedback. Ask your viewers to tell you why your photographs work or do not work for them. Seek feedback from those whose vision you admire — find out what they enjoy about your photographs, and what they don’t and reasons why.
Remember that old chestnut: “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again?”
The English language is full of similar proverbs. Try again — all it takes is time and thought. Your time and your thought. And try again with deliberation, taking on board what you have learned from your mistakes. You fall in order to learn how to pick yourself up.
Bad photos matter because they’re not bad. They’re works created on your photographic journey, each of them a marker on the map, a milestone achieved that shows you the next stage of your journey.
Perhaps that joke I mentioned at the start of this article needs some revision to make it more relevant to ALL photographers.
Q: What’s the difference between a REAL photographer and a fake?
A: A real photographer shows work that will move them forward in their photographic journey.
And for those of you who are open to taking such a journey, to stumble and fall and to learn to pick yourselves up, I offer you this Gaelic blessing: