In recent years, the  definition of “success” has changed. According to a landmark study released this year from Populace and Gallup, most Americans believe that other people view wealth and status as the key indicators of success–but less than ten percent of us actually define our own success in relation to money or fame. 

Our ideas about our own success revolve mostly around education, relationships, and character, but in the end, the researchers behind the study concluded that there is no “average” or standard definition of success. Everyone sees it differently. 

If we shift our focus towards an artistic field like photography, the conversation gets even more complicated. We spoke with six photographers about how they define success for themselves as they pursue creative careers. The people we interviewed work across vastly different genres (e.g. commercial, editorial, fine art, and documentary), and their definitions proved to be just as varied as they are. Here are some lessons we learned along the way. 

Nyesha Arrington, photographed by Oriana Koren for the New York Times
Nyesha Arrington, photographed by Oriana Koren for the New York Times

Success is about much more than money. 

Oriana Koren: In a capitalist society, success usually means making money and a lot of it. I’ve been working as a photographer since the age of twenty, but I only made my first living income last year. That’s eleven years of being in poverty and still making the work, still going out and shooting, still believing that my perseverance would get me to exactly where I knew I could and should and would be. 

I think because I’m not actively chasing after “success,” I have more mental freedom to think of all the obstacles and challenges I’ve surmounted with as much grace and gratitude as I could muster. Ultimately, that’s my biggest success yet. 

"Fabritius and VanGogh" from the series "On Beauty" 2019 by Kimberly Witham
“Fabritius and VanGogh” from the series “On Beauty” 2019 by Kimberly Witham

Success is often about what you see in the mirror–not how others see you. 

Kimberly Witham: As an artist, success has been a constantly moving goal post. When I finished my MFA and first entered the art world, any small thing felt simultaneously like a huge success and not nearly enough. When I have moments of doubt, my husband likes to remind me of something I told him during this time: “If I could just have one show and sell one piece per year, I would be happy.” 

In retrospect, that was a lie. Later, the line moved to “If I could just have gallery representation, I would be happy.” Then to “I wish I could retire now and just survive on my studio practice…”

With age, the birth of a child, the loss of one parent, and the deaths of others close to me, I have come to reconsider these external indicators of “success.” While I am still intensely driven (and, to be honest, intensely competitive), I have found some peace and contentment in my art-making. 

I am making what I want to make without regard for what others think. For better or for worse, I feel much more honest in my approach. Of course, I would love bigger, better and more–this is the nature of my personality–but I am truly comfortable in my skin as an artist and creator. Success to me is having nothing left to prove to myself.

Norge © Mika Aberra
Norge © Mika Aberra

Success is the freedom to do what you want to do. 

Mika Aberra: The term success is very personal for me, and it’s also something I wish more people could see the way I do. Success for me when it comes to work is always striving to be able to be very picky with the projects I accept. I always want to feel like every project is going to add something new and exciting to my career. 

Also, when it comes to the projects themselves, I value the people so much. I have no interest in working with talent unless they’re respectful and kind towards one another. When you put in as much time as ten to sixteen-hour days, five to seven days a week, you want that time to be enjoyable and spent with good people. 

I still consider myself to be in an extremely early stage of my career, but gradually, I find I have more freedom and can do more of what I want to be doing. Now, it’s just about being consistent and patient. There’s no universal term for success. Your success is whatever makes you happy and content. Nothing is better or worse.

Image © Benedetta Ristori
Image © Benedetta Ristori

Success comes with time–and lots of hard work. 

Benedetta Ristori: The closest I’ve come to feeling successful was the conclusion of a documentary project about Eastern European countries–which I worked on for three years. It was my first long-term series, started in 2015, and I was confronted with the difficulty of expanding it over time. 

In three years, everything that happens your personal life leads you to approach your work differently. Very often, it will lead you to question yourself. Day by day, I redefined my objectives, priorities, and goals. 

The whole process was tumultuous, but it allowed me to reflect a lot and to create something very personal and thoughtful. And I think that was necessary. For me, concluding the project consciously and subsequently giving life to a book was a success.

Image © Tristan Hollingsworth
Image © Tristan Hollingsworth

At the same time, success can be something you feel and experience every day. 

Tristan Hollingsworth: For me, success is really feeling something from a recent work. I think all of that is confused by the need to get “likes” or jobs, but at the core, if I feel something deeply, I am pleased with the work. This can happen daily or weekly if I’m in a phase of creativity.

Choo Choo and His Bible Alligator, Miss. 2012 by Brandon Thibodeaux
Choo Choo and His Bible Alligator, Miss. 2012 by Brandon Thibodeaux

Lasting success can be measured by what you give–not by what you get. 

Brandon Thibodeaux: For the past ten years, I have been living with and photographing families in the Mississippi Delta. It’s been a beautiful and very personal experience–and one that continues to this day. I’ve watched newborns grow toward taking their first steps and teenagers blossom into young adults. I’ve watched their parents get older and their grandparents frailer. We’ve shared birthdays, holidays, and every regular old day in-between. 

When my book, In That Land of Perfect Day, first came out, I went house-to-house delivering copies. I remember sitting across the living room watching as a grandmother sat turning the pages with her grandson, pointing out the child’s aunts and uncles and the boy halting the page when she came to an image of him. In that moment, I thought, “This is what my book was about.” Not an artistic endeavor meant to move my career, or fulfill some inner drive, but to hold and safeguard a moment in time in someone’s life–however briefly.

So, when earlier this year I received a call telling me that a friend of mine in the Delta, Curtis Lee Gary Sr., whom we all knew as Choo Choo, had passed away, I hurriedly scoured my film archive searching for all the photographs I had of him and sent them to his son Jeremy. 

Jeremy included the prints in Choo Choo’s funeral service and obituary card. I felt this was the single most important contribution I had ever made in photography, a contribution to a son’s memory of his father.

I’ve come to accept that the majority of my editorial work ends up being liner at the bottom of a birdcage or recycled for the next day’s edition. But with this work in the Mississippi Delta, I am continuously reminded that the true value of the photograph, the true measure of success, is simply what it offers to the human being on the other side of the camera. 

Want to learn more about finding success as a photographer? Check out Fashion Photographer Justin Bridges’ Skillshare Original, Modern Money Habits: 5 Steps to Build the Life You Want for tips on budgeting, planning, and building the career of your dreams.

Header/Thumbnail image by Skillshare student Himanshu G. for Brandon Woelfel’s Skillshare Original, Instagram-Worthy Photography: Shoot, Edit & Share with Brandon Woelfel.

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