I was recently challenged with two questions from Guild photographer, Kerry Lammi. "What is success? What is a compelling story?" I'm finding a lot of overlap in the answers. But it really matters how you define success. Our answers to these questions directly relate to us as visual peacemakers seeking to inspire hope, share positive images, and improve ourselves.
Before digging deeper, know that these questions relate to both our photographic characters' lives and to our own lives. We can know what we're looking for, aiming for, and where to find meaning when we have greater clarity in defining success and what's compelling.
First, let me disabuse you of the notion that something has to be high-profile to be compelling or successful. Success doesn’t have to come in numbers, any type of scale, or attained status. Ordinary people have very compelling stories, unknown to most. And isn't this what we enjoy finding so often when we're behind the viewfinder? Seeing that no one is ordinary, that everyone is extraordinary in some way. Your photographic subjects have compelling stories rich with instances of our shared humanity. It’s your job to capture and creatively arrange them visually in your story’s architecture--and sometimes simply within one frame. But this still doesn't answer the questions.
Compelling stories have a protagonist who meets conflict (self, another, the world). In the face of this conflict, the protagonist falls and gets up. If they physically can’t get up, they maintain hope and offer inspirational perspective to others. They stand back up when knocked down emotionally, financially, physically, etc. And they do this repeatedly. But the down-time isn’t shallow, it’s real down-and-out time. The cycle is compelling because the ups and downs display a wide spectrum of human experience and resolve. This increases the story’s ability to inspire admiration. We all struggle, so the audience relates and you connect. Now add elements of suspense and tension between the clearly marked defeats and triumphs and the story becomes even more compelling.
Viewing your own life like this allows you to appreciate just how compelling you really are—and it gives meaning to your trials. When you capture these narrative elements in an image or visual story, you are making work that matters because it is connecting with an audience. Your life, and the lives of those you document matter. It's your job to translate this reality through your creative work.
Success is measured by how proactive and resilient the protagonist is in the face of the conflict and challenges, as well as their character and attitude in the process. Lack of success looks like inaction, passivity, being only reactive, blame-shifting, or playing the perpetual victim—a sideliner who offers nothing but criticism or complaints. If the protagonist continues to press on and also helps others in the process, then their success is magnified.
When everything is breezy-easy and falling into place, am I succeeding? Sure, I could be reaping what I’ve previously sown in hard work. Or perhaps I’ve attained a measurable goal that has increased my profile and capacity to do more. These are real—and conventionally understood—instances of success. And we can document them in the lives of others. But snapshots of big successes are incomplete and less compelling overall. In truth, a big success is the result of tiny battles—the culmination of choices, actions, and attitudes. Those are compelling to me. What about for you?
Perhaps the “scale” for success isn’t upward, but rather downward, meaning we add depth to the continual cycle of succeeding. With this “progressing” depth as our asset, opportunities for high-profile success may arise, or they might never. You might never be Steve McCurry, duChemin, Vitale, or in the Guild. I know it’s hard to hear folks. But don’t think “the good life” has skipped you. This definition means we can all be both successful and compelling. And that’s how it should be.
Document the compelling. Be compelling yourself. Real success boils down to resiliance, resolve, authenticity, and character. In this sense, success is compelling. And being compelling is a great success. There's the overlap!
Question: As a photographer how do you define your success or see it in others? As a visual storyteller--or one in the audience--what do you find compelling? Reflect on these. Be guided by your own answers to these questons. Share your thoughts in the comments.