I have been thinking about failure recently. What first comes to my mind when I say that word is the phrase, “failure is not an option.” NASA engineers made that line famous during the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 space flight. The phrase and its very focused message have long since entered our collective body of speech. The older I get, the more I think that at least for creative people, like photographers, failure is all but a requirement. For me this dichotomy is doubly interesting since, had I not become a photographer, I would have probably become an engineer of some sort.
I entered the world of photography in high school and I have rarely looked back. The aptitude tests (and other evaluative methods used at the time) all pointed me towards engineering. I was recruited by a number of very well known engineering colleges. But, that was not meant to be. Now it makes sense since as a photographer, I often work like an engineer as something of a problem solver.
Equally interesting is the fact that some of my most intense and focused photography students have been active or one-time engineers. The best of those engineers-turned-photographers were the ones who could break that failure-is-not-an-option mindset as needed. Doing good photography, especially in a workshop venue, is a process to be experienced rather than merely a goal to reach. From what I read, engineering as of late, especially in the entrepreneurial realm, has migrated towards a framework where the most successful engineers are those who know how to fail in order to eventually succeed.
I have long wanted to teach a class exploring my own failed photo-essays since, like most people, my unsuccessful efforts have taught me more than my successes. A couple years back, I even blogged about that proposed workshop in a blog entry “The Workshop I Always Wanted to Attend.” See:
Recent political events have prompted me to revisit the question of my failed projects in a whole new light. In the blog entry noted above, I write about how, in the mid 1990’s, I researched and assembled a project proposal I called “Developing Democracies,” which I then sent around to potential funding sources. I wanted to explore the ways that local culture was taken into account (successfully and unsuccessfully) as newly democratic nations built their emerging democracies, particularly during their very first “free and fair” elections. The finished material was to be used to help improve the processes and mechanisms of this kind of democracy building in other fledgling democracies.
As I was trying to get funding for that project, I emphasized how the story I was photographing was a one-time opportunity, never to be seen again. The countries that were going to be at the core of the project-to-be, had spent decades under Soviet domination and would thus be having their first free elections only once (ideally as I was photographing those events.)
As I wrote in that 2009 blog entry, it turns out I did not get any grant, so I finally, sadly, gave up on that project. I take some consolation in the fact that history (and a great deal of academic research lacking any visual component) has proven I was essentially correct. Important things were learned from the first-time elections in those developing democracies, and a unified, organized visual record/teaching tool exploring that process would have been very useful.
With the demise of that project and what looked like the last wave of first-time elections, I thought that the last emerging democracies had come and gone. Recent events in the Middle East, thankfully, have proven me wrong. It is too early to say for sure, but it seems likely many or most of the Middle East countries that are undergoing revolution(s) may soon have their own first-time democratic elections. I am guessing that for every country like Egypt where the autocrats were forced out, there will be another neighboring country that will slowly change with less of a full-blown revolution. But change they will and that change will result in a strong a movement towards democracy. All of which proves, what goes around comes around.
In light of these next elections-to-be, as much as I would love to revise and then execute the developing democracies project that I proposed fifteen years ago, it is not going to be something I do. And I hate to see a good idea (and all my research) go to waste. Which leads me to this blog entry’s unique “offer.”
Photographer(s) who are interested in the topic should read through the older blog entry noted above, as well as (of course) this entry. Then, whoever writes me the most convincing letter about how they will execute the project to “their” standards, will get a copy of the seven page proposal that was almost funded as well as much of my other research material.
Somewhere in my old idea there is an opportunity for a new project. I am sure it will NOT play out like I expect, nor will the project be focused on the same issues that mine was. But I know that I have the seed of a good idea, that someone else should pick up on it AND that I would be much worse off if I had not even tried to do that project (even if I failed.)
I say this because I am starting to better appreciate how my projects build on each other. For example, in 2001 and 2002 I produced one of my “Light Studies,” a photo-essay on the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, which is the holiest shrine in the Jewish faith. After that work was published and won a few awards, I had an idea for a successor.
The next project was called “God’s Houses” and the idea was that while different religions have different holy places, in the end they are all “God’s houses.” I was going to use the aesthetic approach to the photographing that I used so successfully for my “Light Studies,” including my project on Philadelphia’s 30th street train station. The political/intellectual framework that I had hoped to apply was to be like the one that guided me as I did my more successful political projects such as my work on the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as well as my project on the pesticide poisoning of farm-workers in California.
“God’s Houses” was the focus of a lot of energy and photographing in Israel, Spain, Japan, India and other places. Over the following few years, the resulting work was sent out as submissions for contests and grants, but it went nowhere. I am still not 100% sure why it failed but failed, it did.
My current project, “Foreclosed dreams,” is a photo-essay exploring the empty homes and foreclosed dreams littering the American landscape in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. In this work, I am using the same aesthetic and intellectual approaches as I did with “God’s houses,” but this time it is working. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that “Foreclosed dreams” is a direct outgrowth of “God’s houses.” I could not have developed my current project, which has been pretty well received, without the failure that preceded it.
So for me, unlike the NASA engineers working on the Apollo 13 rescue, failure is an option, in fact it may be a requirement. And like those engineers (and astronauts) involved in that near disaster, I am pleased that I can live through, grow from and try again after my periodic failures.