I got back from East Africa a week ago, my hard drives groaning with over 20,000 images. Of those only about 1500 were made during my week in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Now, I shouldn’t be doing math right now, I’m jet lagged and haven’t had my coffee, but there’s something instructive in these numbers, so stick with me. Don’t like math? Me neither, but I have a point and it’s important. Also, at the end of this there’s also a link to my latest monograph, Kenyan Light, so keep reading!
I only shot in Lalibela for 5 days. That’s 432,000 seconds, ignoring the need for sleep. And I made 1500 images at, let’s say, an average of about 1/30s on average. That’s only 50 seconds of total combined shutter actuations. Still with me? Of those 1500 frames, only 12 made the cut. That’s only 0.4 seconds of the whole time I was in Lalibela. Very roughly, in terms of time, that is a work:product ratio of 1,000,000:1.
A million to one.
That’s what it takes me to make photographs I love and am proud of. And that’s after almost 35 years at this! In terms of a “keeper rate” it was 125:1. Pressing the button is easy. Hell, after Ethiopia I went to Kenya and came back with about 18,000 images and my “keeper rate” is even lower (450:1).
I just kept pressing the button. 30 images of a leopard in a tree: he hadn’t moved an inch and I kept pressing the shutter like a lunatic. But it wasn’t pressing the shutter button that made the final 40 images I did come home with. Not really. It was patience and creativity, it was consideration of light and composition, waiting for a great moment, being willing to acknowledge when all the pieces just weren’t there. Not to mention making good choices in the edit and being true to my vision in post-production. Maybe this is why I cringe when I hear words like “point and shoot,” words that make us, the photographers, no more than button-monkeys. I don’t like monkeys.
There’s long been a debate about whether photography is art or not. Of course, there have long been debates about what the word “art” even means. I say, if you pour yourself into it, if it costs you something more than just the press of the button, you’re on your way there. Art is hard because pouring yourself without reservation into anything is hard. And photography, despite our desire for shortcuts and anything (ahem, new gear) that will make it easier, is hard. Not pressing the button, that’s easy. Too easy, actually. But all the other stuff? The creativity, the composition, the waiting around, the saying something about what you’re pointing the lens at, something more than, “Look, a lion!”? That’s hard.
That doesn’t mean it’s not without joy and meaning. I just mean it’s not simple. It’s not easy. In fact, if we’re all anywhere close to my million-to-one ratio (and it could be we’re not. I might very well be in the remedial class for all I know) then we damn well better enjoy the stuff that is not the actual pressing of buttons, because its the vast majority of the effort in what we do. It should be something that gives us great joy, even when 1488 of our 1500 images are nothing more than sketches. Maybe especially then.
It’s a new year and what I’m trying to do so clumsily with all these words is remind you that if only a fraction of our efforts yield fruit we’re proud of, then the rest of that time matters. It must. Life can’t only be about the very few moments that work out the way we hoped. We need the other time to explore and risk and play and to find delight and wonder.
Every second counts.
And that brings me to a more practical point: stop beating yourself up for the 1488, the ones that don’t make the cut. They are process. They are sketches. They are necessary. Most of us will spend this coming year making an astonishing number of really dodgy images, images we hope no one will ever see. We must. What we must not do is spend the year trying to reduce that number. In fact, we should be making more. More mistakes (from which we learn). More risks (in which we find hidden surprises). And more exploratory sketches (in which we find our best work).
No one sees the many efforts, my friend. They don’t see the failures or the missteps. And if they do, what they see is an intrepid spirit who refuses to be daunted by the odds, or the effort, and who keeps pouring themselves into the work, excited by what they might find there.
But this isn’t about what others see. It’s about how you see yourself and your efforts and your so-called failures. Forget the so-called keeper-rate. It tells an incomplete story. Art is not found in ratios, but in the willingness to go deeper, risk more, and find the needle in the haystack. It’s found in the willingness of the human heart and mind to ignore the numbers and keep going until it finds what it’s looking for and cries in delight: “look at that!”
I’ve put some of my “look at that!” moments from Kenya into a short PDF monograph for you called Kenyan Light. You can download it here. I hope you’ll find some magic there.
In my absence I continued to publish my podcast, A Beautiful Anarchy. Today we published episode 18, Now What? Have you ever got to the end of something, a project or a phase of life and thought, “Well now what do I do?” This is about that. Shorter than 15 minutes, I created this podcast for people, like me, who aren’t really podcast people. I hope you’ll join me. You can listen on iTunes, or here on aBeautifulAnarchy.com.
Finally, in May this year I am hosting a weekend conference about photography and creativity in Vancouver, and sharing the stage with my friends Brooke Shaden, Sean Tucker, and Jeffrey Saddoris. There are still a couple seats left and I’d love you to join us at The Created Image 2020.