What Is the Definition of a Successful Photographer?

What Is the Definition of a Successful Photographer?

How do you define success as a photographer? How do you know when you’ve reached the goal you’ve set for yourself when you first started your journey behind the lens?

This is a question I think about a lot. Too much. I say too much not because I keep myself up at night considering the elusive definition of success. But rather, the sheer elusiveness of the concept means that any time I spend devoted to trying to answer the question definitively is destined to be not much more than a mental exercise. Yet still, the sheer open-ended nature of the proposition gnaws at me. And just like I obsess over how to execute a new photographic technique, so do I tend to haggle over the more abstract equations of life.

The concept of success starts as a fairly simple one. Being successful means having a lot of money. Or, at least, that’s what society seems to tell us. If success is so intangible, why not put a specific numerical value on it? The first year you pull in $100,000 from your business, you are officially successful. Why $100,000? I don’t know. It’s a completely arbitrary number I just made up for this example. But, the fact that any number I put in the previous sentence would be arbitrary is an indicator of how difficult success is to define.

When I first picked up a camera as a hobbyist, my only real goal with photography was to be able to recreate images like the ones I saw in magazines. I didn’t give much thought to artistic voice or pushing myself towards individual creativity. I never imagined I could ever do what they did. Instead, I would just marvel at something I saw Annie Leibovitz do in Vanity Fair and spend endless hours trying to find a way to recreate it. This was long before I understood that the nature of art and what makes individual artists special is not something you can copy by simply learning a technique. But that’s an article for another day. At that moment, I was just a guy who enjoyed photography. So, when I was able to create an image that I felt was of Vanity Fair quality, even if my subject was my sister as opposed to a celebrity, I felt I was successful.

But then, a funny thing started to happen. The more confident I grew in my ability to create good images for my friends and family, the more the little voice in my head started wanting more. No longer was I happy with just shooting for fun. Now I wanted to put a dollar amount on my newfound skillset. I didn’t have any particular target number in mind. I just wanted to be able to have a dollar sign attached to my work. The qualifier of success was no longer whether or not my friends liked my photos on MySpace. Now, I wanted the IRS to know I was a photographer as well. And my definition of success shifted.

As years went on and the IRS became very aware that I could make money from photography, the goalposts in my mind shifted once again. I didn’t want to just make some money from photography. I wanted to make all my money from photography. That meant that success was again redefined as being able to leave my day job and support myself completely with the income generated from my camera. I’ll be honest, all those years ago, when I found myself driving home from my last day of work at an office job, I thought success would be just being lucky enough not to starve. I never imagined that I would be able to pull it off. I had enough confidence to bet on myself. But I had no idea what would be the result of my wager.

I definitely wouldn’t have thought I would have gone on the shoot the type of assignments that I have for the clients that I have. I mean, if you told me all those years ago when I was shooting blurry practice portraits of my sister in my garage with some old film lights I’d scrounged up but had no idea where to place, that one day I’d be shooting for my dream client, have my images featured in publications that even my parents read, have images plastered around the globe on billboards for all to see, and even get a chance to win the same awards as those photographers I’ve spent so much time idolizing, I would have said you were crazy.

But I would think you even crazier if you told me that after accomplishing so many things well beyond my wildest dreams, that I would still find myself unsure of whether to call myself a success. By almost any objective measure, I had ticked the vast majority of items off of my bucket list that I once used to define a successful photographer. But what I didn’t appreciate back then is that the very idea of success is not a fixed destination. Sure, I’d shot for my dream client. A lot. But then I found myself wishing that clients would hire me for projects with more scope. Yes, I got to shoot cover stories for publications I’ve been reading since I was a kid. But, I still wanted to shoot more of them. Sure, I got some major assignments. But there’s that annoying competitive streak inherent in my nature that I want to be shooting all of the big assignments. Like, everyone. This is a ridiculous impulse, to be sure. But it’s built into my psyche nonetheless. There’s the adage that “when one door closes, another one opens.” Well, I’ve found that more accomplishments don’t automatically bring you any closer to “success.” They can push you further away from it, because the more of your dreams that become reality, the faster they find themselves replaced with even larger dreams for you to pursue.

And, in many ways, that’s how it should be. Our careers as photographers (or our creative journeys if you’ve made the wise decision to keep photography as a passion rather than a profession) are marathons, not sprints. The ebbs and flows of our careers continue to fluctuate with the current, just as our lives away from the camera may chart a similarly unpredictable course. Just like when you were 18, the life you envisioned for yourself at 35 is likely quite different from the one that came to fruition, as it’s impossible to tell what the future might hold. We have dreams. We have aspirations. We have set definitions of what we have set for ourselves as a measure of success. But dreams change.

So, if our definition of success is endlessly eluding us like a speeding bunny rabbit dangled out in front that every dog in the race is trying to catch, then are we, by definition, doomed to never truly feel successful? Well, I guess it depends on how you define it. I don’t mean how you define it in the sense of what arbitrary numerical target you’ve established. I don’t mean how you define it in the sense of what genre of photography you have chosen to pursue.

Instead, I find myself asking the question of whether or not the very definition of success itself might need an overhaul, at least in the way it plays out in my mind. Perhaps success isn’t reflected in the clients you attract, the fees you charge, or the awards you take home. Perhaps success is in the very pursuit itself. Success isn’t so much a matter of achieving a dream as it is having the courage to act upon it.  

In my early days of photography, I was by no means good enough to achieve the results that these days I find routine. But, can I say that I wasn’t a success back then? After all, I was putting in the hard work to get better. That hard work paid off as I, regardless of professional achievement, objectively got better as a photographer. So, I was "successful" at improving myself. And, perhaps more importantly, I had identified a dream. And rather than ignoring it or letting whatever talent I had gone to waste, I applied myself to fulfilling it. And, in the end, could that not be a definition of success in itself? To push yourself to get the most out of what life has given you and to do your best to make dreams into reality.

With all due respect to Webster’s Dictionary, there are as many definitions of success as there are human being, perhaps before I even end this paragraph. But one thing I have learned over the years is to not limit the idea of success only to the whims of inherently arbitrary benchmarks. Value the process as much as the product and you can be successful every single day.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Great and honest article, Christopher! After reading it, I would say: You are successful. But I can understand that the understanding of success changes and that you somehow feel that this is not all and you want to go further. You are lucky, I would say. What takes you further makes you successful. But one day in the distant future, you can't go on like you did all those years before. You begin to look back. That is the moment when you should be fair to yourself.

Thanks Jan. It is interesting how our perceptions change over time.

the real successful photographer is one who does not need even a cam to shoot, but stores the image in his memory :))
time ago I read in some zen-buddhist blog.

I like that

Quality work, as always, Christopher.

I define success in photography as *continuing to make images*, and *continuing to evolve as an image maker*, in an area (photography in general) which is beyond saturated, and for which I don't get great recognition or following (probably because I'm a grumpy bastard).

Occasionally, someone will ask to buy a print out of nowhere, and that's always a nice bonus, but it's not within my measures of success.

That's a great way to look at it.