Keep Your Bad Photographs

Ilford Pan F Plus

Whenever I bring a batch of photos into Lightroom, I do an initial flagging sweep to separate the good from the bad, and when I get rid of the bad ones, I can either remove them from the library or delete them from the disk. In terms of storage, it would be wiser to get rid of them wholesale because while I may be mostly organized digitally, rifling through hard drives can be a hassle. Fortunately, I am not at the point where I’ve got a shelf of hard drives. In terms of progress, it’s far better to keep them.

Let me explain.

As most photographers can attest, looking back at old work can be a painful ordeal with a wealth of hand wringing and forehead rubbing. Perhaps there are some visceral reactions to truly bad photographs that you thought were good at the time. I know I’ve had times where I felt queasy after looking at old images that I was awfully enthusiastic about when I made them. This was, of course, informed by slightly unhinged confidence that comes with the newness of a newfound hobby.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer VSCO for iPad (1 of 1)ISO 2001-50 sec at f - 4.5

In the very early days of my photography, I had no visual framework. It would be a while before I studied the work of photographers who came before. You could say I practiced photography in a vacuum. I was more of a machine operator than a photographer in any intentional sense.

To wit, I pushed buttons. I didn’t create anything of value, and when I look back at those valueless photographs, I feel the need to get rid them. It’s akin to the times when tucked away embarrassing memories accost my mind at the most inopportune times. I’m reminded of how awkward they were, which is perhaps magnified by memory, but I wish for nothing more than to bury them again.

Having a sizable cache of old, bad work is perhaps one of the best ways to remind yourself how far you’ve come, no matter how painfully terrible those photographs are. Having spent a considerable amount of time both making pictures and studying pictures, I’m now better able to judge one of my photographs on its merits than I was toward the beginning.

I’ve written previously about needing to delete photographs from various online platforms. I had something of an epiphany last summer, a realization that I needed to delete my flickr account, as it did me more harm than good. There’s a pressure these days to constantly put work online. Camera companies are particularly culpable in the continued emphasis on sharing right now because the image doesn’t mean anything until it’s online for all to see. Barely a moment is given to considering the image on its merits because it’s online already scooping up likes and comments. If we collectively are more judicious about what we put up, the online photographic space would be much healthier and less cluttered.

Many photographers are living their photographic lives online, and for those who don’t know any better yet, it can be detrimental. Having come up in the digital age, I’ve lived most of my photographic life online, and I came to the necessary conclusion that I need to clean house. I still have those photographs, but I’d much rather keep them locked away. They serve as reminders of how far I’ve come, and while I’ve come a long way, I still have a ways to go. Keep your bad work. It may be painful, but it helps.