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The best ways to embrace failure

14 Oct 2013 Hans Aarsman

I never had an education in photography. I did spend some time on the academy but not as a student. In 1986 I got a job as a teacher in photography at the Rietveld.
The first assignment I gave to my students was to sit in the canteen with a camera. They could choose their own moment. In the morning when there weren’t any students yet. Around twelve, when people where coming in. Or in the evening when part-time students would come in. Everything was fine, as long as they would fill a film with pictures, with their eyes closed. The goal was to loosen up their view.

I don’t remember what the results of the assignments where. I do know that at the end of the year I had a talk with the board. They let me know that they had looked at last year, and they had the idea that the boarders of my photographical knowledge where already visible. They didn’t see the use in keeping me.

I can imagine that there are people that break down if a board of a well-known academy tells them that they have a too limited knowledge of photography. But it didn’t bother me. I asked for a confirmation that my contract wouldn’t be prolonged on paper. With the reason why. I didn’t mind, because I had my Red Folder. My folder in which I kept all my Rejections and Disappointments.

As with most collections, once you start you want to finish them, you want to have them complete. The folder had to be filled. I perforated the rejection of the Rietveld and put them in the map with the other rejections.

Looking back I might’ve taken a to big folder. But the good thing about it was that I had to collect a lot of rejections to get it full. So I had to hand in a lot of applications, proposals, show my work and apply for jobs. I would put the successful applications in the Green Folder. In there I collected all the Acceptances and Other Successes. It was a bit optimistic though to get the same size folder as the Rejections and Disappointments one. 

Because of those two folders I found out that rejections have a positive effect on your career. How that works I’ll show with a graph.

On the x-axis I put the years, from 1980 until now.

On the y-axis I put my income converted in euros.

No better way to measure your success then looking at you’re income.

In 1986, when my contract wasn’t prolonged at the Rietveld, there was a small depression noticeable. I didn’t make that much money there. No one did, and they still don’t. In 1995, when I stopped photographing and started writing, a way bigger depression was ahead. 

Interesting is to put the Red Map with my yearly rejections next to that. It’s going to be a bit of higher maths now, because I’m going to put the two graphs over each other.

But what it’s about: the first fifteen years the graph of the rejections has the same form as the graph of my income. So there is a direct correlation between the rejections and artistic success.

 

When I stop photographing in 1995 and I start writing you can see that the rejections follow the same line as my income, it’s a little less precise though. Both of them decrease because I haven’t mastered writing yet. I’m practising for days, so I don’t have the time to hand in applications, which is why I don’t get any rejections either.

Very slowly my income starts to grow after 2000, I start getting assignments and I do less and less applications. In 2003 I start a column on the website of PhotoQ in which I analyse pictures like a detective. It’s a success and in 2004 the Volkskrant asks me if I would like to analyse a press picture every week. Slowly my income increases. Whilst the rejections decrease drastically, I hardly do applications anymore.

That’s when things start to calm down. The income grows and grows and the rejections decrease until the graphs cross each other in February 2012. And that’s also the moment that the Rietveld asks me to do the opening of their final exam exhibitions.

The opening of the final exams!

That’s when you know you made it.

 

Although I could seem arrogant I’d like to give four tips to upcoming artists.

1.) Buy two folders, make one red and one green. Put al the rejections in the red one and all the acceptations in the green one.

2.) Don’t promote yourself. You don’t have to praise your own work. If you discover something, if you find something that your enthusiastic about whilst working, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell everyone who wants to hear about it. Your friends, parents and even the local baker around the corner. If somebody comes by that could ‘help’ you with your work, you know those types… just keep on talking.

3.) Talk about your work in a direct, clear way, don’t use jargon. If the baker doesn’t follow you any more, you have to be clearer next time. That’s how you learn to understand your own work better.

4.) Don’t be picky. Don’t only go for the top. To get in on a lower level has its benefits. You get the room to experiment and find out what your work is about. That’s good to know before you get thrown in the deep. 

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