Let’s face it, you are a good photographer, but your chances of being celebrated for your photography 50 or more years from now are slim. But what can you do to increase your chances of being remembered?
The History of Being Remembered
There is a basic human longing for us to be celebrated long after we are gone. Graves are marked with stones and names of the dead are etched onto them in the vain hope that they will be remembered forever.
The greater the positive impact on others’ lives, the more effort goes into creating monuments to the dead: the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, the Anglo-Saxon burial mounds in the UK, the Taj Mahal, the Lincoln Memorial, the gravestones in war cemeteries, statues, and stone plaques embedded in buildings, and so on, they all preserve the names of those who, at the time of their death, were considered deserving of our remembrance. Of course, now there is a debate whether monuments to some historical figures should be removed as we reconsider whether their overall negative contribution to humanity outweighs the good they did for a community or a country.
Putting It in Perspective
Looking at the human timeline: you are the successful outcome of 200,000 years of your ancestors successfully breeding. A million generations of ancestors were responsible for your existence. How many of them could you name? Not many, I would bet. Three generations? Maybe four? It's a sobering thought that your great, great, great-grandchildren probably won't know who you were either.
But what about your photographs? Assuming no major disasters, your images will certainly get preserved for many years after you are gone. Of the 1.3 trillion photos that were shot last year and 1.2 trillion the year before, billions were uploaded to Facebook and other social media. These corporations will hold an incredible resource for the social historians of the future. In 2121, your great, great, great, great-grandchildren may be sitting in their holographic school, pouring over your Instagram feed to get a clue what life was like in the olden days, although I do wonder what our descendants will think we had plastic-looking skin and bunny ears and will be curious about that odd, blue graininess that hung in the air.
Yes, you may well be remembered in that way, but your digital memorial will be a drop in the Noachian flood of other images out there. Furthermore, in five generations, you will be just one of 32 ancestors. Like most of your ancestors, you too will probably be forgotten.
Learning From the Greats
Would you like to be as well-known to future generations as James Presley Ball, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, or Linda McCartney are remembered today? If so and you are following current trends, it is possible that you are approaching it from the wrong direction. You are more likely to be forgotten.
Those famous names did not spring up from nowhere. Besides the dedication, learned talent, and hard work, behind each great photographer, there were supportive driving forces that helped them along. When I read the biographies of any great photographer, there were people and institutions in their backgrounds that inspired and helped them achieve success. For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson was encouraged in his photography by Caresse and Harry Crosby. Prior to that, as a painter, the writer René Crevel urged him on and introduced him to the surrealists that greatly influenced his work.
The great landscape photographer Ansel Adams was helped by a string of people with his creativity. Likewise, Linda McCartney was taught the trade by David Dalton. Going right back to 1845, James Presley Ball learned the photographic trade from John B. Bailey.
Using Their Position To Do Good
These great photographers were also known for the good they did, through humanitarianism, conservation, and animal rights. They selflessly used their position as respected photographers to help improve the world around them. Indeed, most of the late photographic greats are celebrated today both for the help and inspiration they received and because of the help they gave others. Besides the names of the great photographers being celebrated, those who went out of their way to help them become great are remembered too.
Where Many Are Going Wrong
Things seemed to have changed in society. Many photographers have a distrustful insularity and show a lack of support to others. They guard their techniques with jealousy, unwilling to share their knowledge, and are too quick to put other photographers down. Worse, they spout bile and hatred in response to others’ creative works, be it photography, art, writing, or any other creative pursuit. They treat photography like it's a competition, and they consider that their only way of winning is to denigrate others.
This is apparent in some but not all photography clubs worldwide. Some judges are harsh in their critiques and have no empathy for those whose photos they are assessing. A while ago, one of my clients mentioned how her young daughter had her confidence destroyed by unsympathetic comments made by a club judge. It put her off photography for good.
Another professional photographer I know tells a similar story. He notices that some club judges deliberately undermine their closest competition. He believes this is an attempt to bolster their own position. I thought of this when, later, a friend of mine with a natural eye for photography continuously submitted what I thought were great photos to her local club competitions. I liked her work and considered them original and truly outstanding. However, she never won a prize. Subsequently, I searched through the historical submissions and winners on her camera club’s website. The judge seemed never to choose the same photos that I would. At first, I did wonder whether this was down to subjectivity but concluded otherwise after discussing the results with other photographers. Interestingly, my friend now earns a living at photography while the judge disappeared into obscurity. Karma, perhaps.
A year later, another photographer I know on the far side of the world visited a club for the first time. He was amazed by the quality of a photo from another new member. However, the judge then proceeded to poke holes in the picture, finding nothing good to say about it at all. My acquaintance, an outspoken character, gave the judges a piece of his mind and left.
Of course, not all photography club judges are like that. There are those who are gentle in their critiques and, most importantly, find what is good about a photograph. They then go on to tutor others and help them improve. There are also art teachers in schools who inspire children to explore their creativity. Youth leaders, TV presenters, business owners, and amazing, ordinary people in the community all play their part in helping others along.
Artists Against the Odds
Although I think being mean about other creative talents is more prevalent now, it isn’t a new phenomenon. However, it’s satisfying to know that, although artists are remembered, the critics are not. Furthermore, true talent can break through without support. The artists Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, El Greco, Gaugin, Cezanne, and Lowry were all rejected by establishment figures, criticized for lack of artistic quality by long-forgotten experts who made misguided and sometimes cruel judgements about their creativity. Sometimes, that breakthrough arrives too late. Imagine how different van Gogh’s story might have been if he had been encouraged and supported by the artistic establishment during his lifetime. How many more years of his brilliant creativity we would have if the artistic community had been sympathetic and encouraging?
Do You Want to Be Remembered?
So, instead of posing my question "how do you want to be remembered," perhaps I should have asked: "Do you want to be remembered?" If the answer to that is yes, then maybe the answer is not only to seek out help but to give it generously. Don’t be mean in your critiques or comments, but kind and supportive.
Even though you probably won’t be remembered for your fantastic photography — very few are — your name has a far better chance of being recorded as someone who helped encourage a photographic prodigy to reach the top of their game. What could be more rewarding to your descendants than them knowing that about you?