Street Photography is a funny old game. Some people are exceptionally good at it, whilst others, well, need more work. With the introduction of social media sites like Instagram (IG), we have seen an influx of images carrying #streetphotography. On IG alone there are over 40 million images all stating their case to be recognised within this wonderful photographic sub-genre. Unlike other fields in photography, a street photographer does not have clients. They are the masters of their own brief, and whilst this gives creative freedom, it can be very difficult to understand what level you are at. So, without a constant stream of clients - how do you measure success in street photography?
“This is why many call it Lens Vulture”
Two weeks ago LensCulture announced the winners of their annual street photography awards. Lensculture is one of the main players when it comes to photographic content and prestige, but with that comes a lot of criticism. Many street photographers, some who have been in the industry for decades, question the legitimacy of the competition. You only need to go on social media to see the hordes of people suggesting the competition is ran more on a who you know not what you know basis, with others having the feeling the whole competition is just a money making scam. Frustrated with the set up and ethics of the competition, one person commented “this is why many call it Lens Vulture”.
Congratulations should go to the winners. The winner of the singles series, Maciej Dakowicz, entered a superb image, one that few would have any argument for suggesting is was not a worthy winner.
Competitions in general seem to get a bad rep. Many photographers see it as big business, something of a cash cow to organisers and a form of exploitation of the artists. If you win one, it should be great. It should elevate your confidence, give you a bit of cash and put your name out there. But if there is a large section of the community unwilling to recognise competitions as a legitimate avenue of success - does winning really mean much at all?
Street Photography festivals are on the rise, with more and more seeming to be cropping up around the world. They tend to be not for profit organisations, marketing themselves as a place that brings the community together and showcases the best in authentic, raw, street photography. All of them provide a wide range of categories for you to show off your work, offering cash prizes to the winners. Festivals tend to be a more respected form of exposure and measurement of where you are at, but even they are not spared criticism. Street photography for a while now has been tainted with an image of being a middle class white man's world, meaning the previous lack of representation of women suggests the playing field is not fair and the best of the best are not always rising to the top. That said, many festivals have attempted to overturn this view, with many including more females on the panel, in the workshops and in the selected winners of the competitions.
Social media is a strange one. Never has the notion that good marketing is what sets you apart from the rest being so apparent than since the birth of social media. You will sometimes see some of the most experienced players with very little in terms of an online following. On the contrary you will find a street photographer with only a couple of years experience with tens of thousands of followers, booking out workshops whilst only offering a very one dimensional take on the craft. On the surface the photographer with a big following and packed out workshops is going to be seen as the more successful. However, the photographer with a vast amount of knowledge and a body of work that makes your knees go weak when you view it, has a strong case to say that they are doing better. It depends very much on your motive - the love of the art or the £££.
What social media does have, is the ability for you to connect with photographers who you would not usually have access to. I think there is something to be said about experience. Experienced photographers can sometimes unfairly be seen as holding both new talent and the direction of the field back, especially when they get to the later years of their career. What has to be respected is that they will know a thing or two about the craft, and connecting with them online can be a good way to see where you are at with your body of work. For me it wasn't as important to have an abundance of admiration across the board, as it was to have recognition from those who I felt knew best.
Be the judge of your own success
The measurement of success is often obtained from the perspective of others. Did the judges like my work? Do my followers give me lots of likes? Have magazines published my images? All of these questions suggest your success can only be measured by people who are not you. But does that have to be the case? Can we not, at least in the quality of one's content, be the sole critiques of our standards? If we are content with what we produce, then isn’t that enough success in itself? It certainly seemed to be the case for one our greats, Vivian Maier.
With a wide range of opinions, judgements and inconsistencies, it could be the case that a street photographer's success is in many ways immeasurable. Maybe as the old artist cliche goes, success can only be obtained retrospectively, once all is said and done.
That is why I lead with the opinion you should be the judge of your own success. After all, as is true with the opinions of others, when it comes to the individual - we all have different outlooks on what success means to us.
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