It’s a question I asked when I first started taking my photography seriously, but the answer can, will, and probably should change over time. What’s your answer to this complex query?
Upon taking on a new mentee, I established they were very early on in their photographic journey; I like that when mentoring because the returns can be exorbitant and swiftly noticeable. However, it comes with its own challenges. Firstly, you and the photographer need to establish a direction. Broad strokes are not ideal for useful returns, so it’s important to visualize where the end goal is. What never fails to surprise me about this question is just how rare the same answer is. Perhaps that’s naive, but I originally thought that the desired outcome of photography was a blend of adulation, money, and pride. Those categories are loose, but it turns out shooting the cover of Vogue isn’t on many to-do lists these days.
The mentee’s answers were fascinating and useful, albeit disparate from my own, which makes them all the more interesting. There was a lot of overlap, but several motivations for me were absent for him; we were and are in different circumstances. While outlining the fluidity and evolving nature of the “ultimate goals” of one’s photography, I paused for thought. I have my own answers to that question, but in a bottled and labeled kind of way. My life, work, and direction has changed so dramatically since I first started taking my photography seriously that it seemed immediately absurd to me that my goals could possibly have remained the same for so long. It meant those goals were almost like callings close to my heart, or more likely, I hadn’t attacked them enough to test their worthiness.
My ultimate goals, that is I guess another way of saying “lifetime goals for my career”, are split (rather accidentally I might add) in to three categories: Been, Done, and Legacy. I tend to think about these questions in the past tense, and I’m not certain why. It does seem to help if you imagine you’re on your deathbed, casting one last long glance over your life and evaluating your achievements. It does for me at least.
The questions “what do I want to have been?” and “what do I want to have done?” might seem like two ways of phrasing the same question but they aren’t. You can have been a successful photographer in your chosen specialty but not have done anything substantial. So, the “Been” criterion is probably the broadest of the questions but it frames the other two. The one off discussion show between Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfield, Chris Rock, and Louis CK called Talking Funny did a good job of explaining a little about this question, coincidentally. When they asked each other why they became stand-up comedians, the general consensus was they saw other comedians hanging out and performing and they just “wanted to be one of those guys”. What guy or girl do you want to have been? For example, perhaps you want to be a globe trotting photojournalist shooting remote tribes, locations, and vibrant cultures.
This is the more specific of the first two. This is more about isolated achievements that you would like to accomplish in your photography. For example, the aforementioned Vogue cover, or a coveted National Geographic assignment, or to create your own documentary. For me, this section is almost too diffuse. I want to have created various different and difficult projects, and it would be worth narrowing these down or ordering them by importance.
This is, in a sense, a blend of the two previous questions, but with a stronger focus on the prestige. When you’re gone, what do you want your children and descendants to remember you by? This is a strong motivator for me. I want to be a successful writer and I want to take portraits that matter. There’s an odd vulnerability writing it down for the world to read because these sort of answers are so personal and often quite revealing. In fact, sometimes that’s true enough that we avoid making them explicit which I believe is a mistake and will do you no good in achieving what you truly want for yourself.
So let’s hear your ultimate goals for your photography, be it a career or a hobby. What do you want to have been, have done, and what legacy do you want to leave behind?