Does Failure Equal the Trash Can?

Blog Author Richard Newman

Does Failure = Trash Can?

Several years ago, I was honored to teach a workshop at the same place as Jay Maisel. Jay likes to play basketball, and the school had a great gym. After a hearty workout (where he totally kicked my butt!), we were sitting outside on a bench together in the Maryland summer. Digital was new at that time, and Jay had the latest Nikon. He picked it up and started to photograph something stupid on the ground. I put my foot in my mouth and said, “What are you seeing?” His reply was, “Nothing, I’m practicing photography.” As we sat there he continued, “I keep all these images because the most dangerous thing about digital photography is that people look at it on the camera back, don’t like it and throw it away. The trash can is the worst part of a digital camera.”

Have you experienced failure lately? I just had what some would consider a huge failure. I have been producing and directing a movie on traditional surfboard builders, shapers and surfers for the last 20 months using money out of my own pocket. I finally decided to try the crowd-funding route. The beauty of crowd-funding is being able to share your project with others in hopes that they will pledge funds to support it. You set a goal and, if that goal is met, you receive those funds. If not, you receive nothing. Well, we got 3% of our goal. In other words, we got nothing. Was it a failure? Many people told me it was, and a lot of people were disappointed—but not me. I viewed it as a learning experience; I will not be denied. We will review everything that we did and see where we can make improvements so that next time, maybe, we will strike a nerve.

Yesterday I was videoing the musician David Crosby and producer/musician Joe Henry. I might have been the luckiest guy in the world. With my headphones on, I was directly connected to these two amazing artists and could hear what they had to say. It was as if they were speaking directly to me. It was an hour that will live with me for a very long time. As I drove home from a very long work day, my mind wandered to my current “failure” with crowd-funding. Interestingly, I found renewed vision and energy along the way which gave me the strength to move forward.

I think of photography as 95% failure. In 45 years, I’ve never seen 36 perfect and unique pictures from a single roll of film. What I have learned to see in what someone else might consider failures in unsuccessful photographs are the beginning of ideas. While those ideas might not be very well developed; they are ideas nonetheless, and they are mine. I see each one not as a failure but as a scratch pad for where a future idea or image might take me.

When I made the image National Finals Rodeo 1989 (below), I had a specific idea in my head: I wanted to stretch the horse. I had the right camera, a Widelux F6 with a rotating lens. I had exposed thousands of rolls of film with this camera, so I knew my tool. The NFR runs for 7 days; and each day, twice a day, they run the Grand Parade, which gave me my opportunity to make the picture in my head. Since I was working with a total-access press pass, I could photograph right along the inner rail. The Grand Parade moves FAST. I could get one roll of film through the Widelux, then shoot the rest of the ropin’ and ridin’ with a traditional camera. Afterward, I’d run back to my hotel, process the film in the bathroom, look through the one roll of Widelux film only to find that the image wasn’t there, go back and try again. Finally, on the fourteenth and last show, I got the shot that I had in my head! Were the rest failures? Did they belong in the trash can? I don’t know, I’ve never printed any images from the other 19 rolls. I just viewed them as building blocks for the final opus.

Moving forward, do yourself a favor: substitute the word “progress” for “failure” in your thinking, and remember the immortal words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Come on, just try it. I welcome your thoughts and feedback (

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