‘You Are Probably Going to Fail’ Is Martin Parr’s Advice to Photographers

You are probably going to fail may not be the advice you want to hear, but it's an important pill to swallow. Take note of what world-renowned photographer Martin Parr has to say in this interview.

When legendary photographers like Martin Parr do interviews, many take note of what they have to say. In this piece with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Parr is asked what his advice for emerging photographers is, and the answer is rather surprising. Instead of the usual "work hard and be lucky" we often hear, Parr starts with the sobering fact that most will probably fail. He then goes on to talk about the importance of obsession and how good connections you feel strongly about are crucial.

I like how Parr talks about how the majority of the time, you are going to come home from a shoot feeling disappointed. This is a refreshing take on the life of a photographer we don't often hear. He also talks about a good year of photography for him is if he creates just a handful of good images. Again, this is something photographers need to hear, as many of us seem pressured to produce amazing work for social media on an almost daily basis. Parr ends the piece emphasizing the history of photography and how that can feed into your work to help you make your own voice.

Regardless of the type of photography you do, I think this video is well worth adding to your bookmarks to watch from time to time. Such pep talks jam-packed with truth really are worth their weight in gold. I know some will think such advice is demotivating, but a healthy dose of reality gives you the best chance of success in this industry.

Lead image by WikimediaImages, used under Creative Commons.

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20 Comments
Jacques Cornell's picture

I did a one-year full-time program in photography at a world-renowned photo school. Near the end of the year, I asked the director, "What percent of grads are actually working as photographers five years later?" His answer: "Five percent."
I'm a Five-Percenter. And, based on what I know of where my classmates ended up, I'd guess he was right. If you have ANY other career options that are even modestly remunerative and satisfying, take them. Photography, as a career, is essentially for folks like me who simply can't be happy doing anything else.

Trey Mortensen's picture

That's about where I'm at. I am an engineer at a major OEM but shoot gigs to pay for more gear/extra money/fun. As much as I love photography and shooting events, I know I wouldn't love being a full-time professional. More power to those who can.

Studio 403's picture

So refreshing to hear an honest man tell the truth about professional photography. I came to this understanding about 4 years ago. I shoot for fun and love the craft and improving my skills shooting. But I cheer on anyone wanting to be "full time" photographer. There is tons advice "what your dong wrong" "how to achieve this" on and on. I see more and more YouTube channels bloated with advertisements, banner ads etc. I am all in on ad revenue for anyone. But I am not watching a lot of good shows for the nutty ads running. Fstoppers ad placement seems to be growing. Hooray! I like making money and in this passive income. Warning! At some point Web sites become so bloated with pop up ads, etc. Folks leave. A tricky balance. Must be diffucult with all the back end money invested to produce a quality web site, and build ad revenue and keep balance.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

This year for me marks my 30th year making a living 100% from photography. I never looked for fancy, flashy photography or any YouTube fame. I find interest in boring photography the same way as a project that will end up on a cover or a billboard. I meet and know a lot of people who want to make the jump but can't start to even comprehend the business end of it. Thing is, business can turn bad any time in this industry, can be your fault, can be someone new that decides who to use for photography and a bunch of other things you can't control. Same way, you can benefit from anyone's mistake, get hired for an emergency shoot and the client calls you for the next twenty years.

Christian Lainesse's picture

"Never tell me the odds." -Han Solo

Jacques Cornell's picture

That is exactly the required attitude.

Alex Cooke's picture

"FINALLY, ZERO CHUCKLE
FOOD, WILDLIFE
ONE GLAMOUR
GOLDEN YEARS OVER
CREATIVE RIVER
GOOD LUCK"

If you string all the arbitrarily capitalized words together, they kind of sound like a weird poem.

Mark Tulk's picture

Excusable, because no italics, or other means to emphasize words, easily done if speaking.
His comments are valid, even IF caps distract you...

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Nah, no stable person needs to emphasize every other word. If you paid any attention to Jerry's history of comments, any intelligent person can conclude Jerry is pissed, therefore is shouting.

Rodney Johnson's picture

The best way to make you hate something you love is to try to make a living doing it...

Jacques Cornell's picture

Oh, no, I still love doing it. It's the tax filings and hunting for new clients part that I hate.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

That's a non started of a concept.

Mark Tulk's picture

Good observation. Specially true for the arts, and related - music, theatre, photo, dance, studio Art...

Neesh Ko's picture

Sounds like complete loser talk to me which is the only truism about "most photographers"

Jacques Cornell's picture

Do you have any idea who you're talking about?
The simple fact is that the vast majority of folks who study photography fail to make a living at it. Further, even those who succeed, on average, make very modest income. The important takeaways are that it's extremely difficult, and you better have 1) a plan B, and 2) something special to bring to the effort, whether it's exceptional motivation, skill, talent, market savvy, and/or tolerance for disappointment and financial hardship. Wannabes would do well to heed Parr's advice by either upping their game 1000% or looking elsewhere.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Looks like Neesh Ko could be one such victim. One comment, nothing to show. Not that I should judge by profiles, but comments and profile combined seem to define some level of amertume, bitterness.

Mark Tulk's picture

"The Truth hurts", old saying, but here a fact.
Thanks for this refreshing article. Even back in the days of FILM, there was such a volume of stock images, that commercial customers would be fools to pay more, just for an "original" image. There are more photographers than executives needing portraits.
Shooting weddings should drive any truly creative person to psychosis.
Putting a high quality, digital camera into the phone that almost every person carries, closed the coffin on Photojournalism as a career.
If a photog is truly good, lucky, and works hard, they might make enough money to pay for their equipment and gas money, ie break even.
Thanks for the good, honest article.

Mike Martin's picture

It should always be a passionate hobby if it works out to be more great. But of course its crazy to just wake up and decide hey I'm going to pay my bills doing this. I like to photograph the outdoors and with the mountains in my back yard that is what I tend to photograph alot of, but I would not try to make it my main income. For me it will always remain a hobby I love.

Damir Spanic's picture

Evil old fart.

Jacques Cornell's picture

He's saving a lot of wannabes from a world of hurt by opening their eyes to the harsh realities. I never tell aspiring photographers not to go for it, but I let 'em know that if they aren't EXCEPTIONALLY committed, they should consider Plan B. Photography is, after all, entrepreneurialism, and if you're not ready for failure, things are gonna be rough.