Failing Forward

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One of my pet peeves is being asked to comment on an art project that purports to involve a degree of science or attempts to mimic science. As if I, a former scientist, could shed more light or (this is often implied) lend more credibility to such art projects. I know this might be difficult to understand, but I’m not very eager at all to get shoehorned into being “a former scientist” forever. I don’t see those years as the most important aspect of my professional life over the past two decades.

Furthermore, I think that artists take the sciences too seriously. By this I mean that artists are too interested in accepting everything the sciences do, and their art then somehow has to play with that. It’s fine if as an artist you want to be the equivalent of a court jester for the sciences. And I do understand that there are actual repercussions of the far right and its conservative enablers undermining scientific research. We’re not going to be able to address climate change if we live in denial, and we also won’t be able to contain the Covid pandemic if we allow misinformation about vaccines to spread as easily as it has so far.

However, as someone who has worked as a scientist and as an artist, I think that artists need to reconsider their engagement with the sciences. They either need to go a lot deeper and educate themselves about what scientists actually do (regardless of what field they want to dive in), or they need to embrace the fact that they are artists and thus are not bound by the same conventions that scientists have to follow.

My guess is that the latter is seen as running the risk of embracing exactly the kind of science denial as, say, deniers of climate change. But that strikes me as a very narrow and curiously diffident approach to what art can do. Unlike climate-change denial (which is rigid and closed), art is open and generous when it is done well — and, most importantly, it aims at the betterment of the human condition.

If anything, the following is the most important difference between art and science. For the most part, art has been playing a benign role for human beings. Even where art was or is not benign (for example, if you wanted to treat Leni Riefenstahl’s movies as art instead of the blunt propaganda they are), it tends to find itself only in a supporting role. In contrast, there is a lot of scientific research that has very directly resulted in ghastly consequences. To put in bluntly, the actions of the people who painted the markings onto the Enola Gay were magnitudes less consequential than the actions of the scientists who produced the bomb that killed tens of thousands of people.

There has been a steady flow of artistic engagements with the sciences over the past decade. Marjolein Blom‘s Failing Forward is but the latest example I have come across. The book combines the artist’s own photographs with images from the NASA Archive. The latter isn’t quite what you might imagine it is. It’s not a repository of space photographs. Instead, it collects photographs taken in any of the laboratories and workshops, resulting in the kind of imagery that would fit into Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel’s Evidence.

In fact, in an article about Evidence, Sandra Phillips writes: “Mandel and Sultan found the local offices of NASA and the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, in nearby Sunnyvale, and though they were interested in the expected beautiful pictures of space coming in across the wires, they were fascinated by the chaotic, marvelous, mournful, and funny pictures of people engulfed by a new technology no one could understand but experts.” “Evidence,” she concludes, “therefore, is a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate work of art, one that engages the loss of belief provoked by that era and an examination of the resulting ambivalent relationship of people to the new machines.”

Phillips’ perceptive description of Evidence hints at something at play in Failing Forward as well: the starting point for the artist’s endeavour is the set of contemporary conditions into which the sciences are embedded. There is a similar “loss of belief” present, albeit one caused by conspiracy theories and far-right cranks, and instead of the “examination of the resulting ambivalent relationship of people to the new machines” (which sounds very 1970s, doesn’t it?), here it is the idea of truth itself.

“The truth is,” the press text around the book claims, “that science actually is a temporary and uncertain activity, with ambiguity, curiosity and unpredictability as fundamental elements of its process.” I don’t want to dive into how and why this text hints at a profoundly misguided understanding of the scientific method. What it does, though, is to project its author’s own ideas onto the sciences — much like Sultan &  Mandel did.

Seen that way, Failing Forward doesn’t really center on the sciences and what they do. Instead, it uses an artist’s idea and toys with it — against the contemporary backdrop of fake news, QAnon, climate-change denial, etc. It asks how we make sense of the world through how we process and organize it, which in this artist’s case means: how we photograph it. In a nutshell, it is one of those books that presents a pretend world through a combination of found and made photographs.

One of the problems these kinds of books inevitably struggle with is that photographs as selected by artists from institutional archives are too interesting on their own. In part the following statement is a little bit unfair, but it’s true nevertheless: Sultan & Mandel solved that problem in part by being pioneers. The first time someone does something it for sure is a lot more amazing then when you’ve seen a lot of examples. But of course, given that they placed their focus more narrowly on the archives, the visual strangeness of the photographs — which, it is important to remember, are only strange because they were taken out of one context and placed into a very different one — added up to more.

Here, I don’t quite think that Blom’s own photographs can compete with the NASA ones. Mind you, they’re good photographs. But they were made for the context they operate in, whereas the NASA ones were not. And you can feel that difference. This is why I always caution photographers to be very, very careful with archival material (regardless of where it’s coming from): it draws a lot of attention onto itself. As an artist, you will have to steer that against with all your might.

All of that leaves me with… well, what? I’ve been trying to come to a conclusion, but I might as well admit that I am unable to. The press text describes the book as “shifting between the enigmatic and the specific, between the clear and the ambiguous”, and I think that might just ultimately be the problem. If you shift “between the clear and the ambiguous”, ultimately you’ll just be vague (but not in a good way).

I like the imagery in Failing Forward, and I like the way the book is put together. But as a viewer, I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from it.

Failing Forward; photography by Marjolein Blom with images from the NASA Archive; essays by Merel Bem and Vincent Icke; 120 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2022

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“I was close to Americans”

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The Masterclass franchise is now offering a class entitled President George W. Bush Teaches Authentic Leadership. I’m going to assume that the class will not be of interest to readers of this site. Still, the outline of the class is a sight to behold. Part 6 of the Lesson Plan covers “Accountability Leads to Results”: “When developing a plan, leaders need to create outcomes that are measurable, and the right people need accountability.” I don’t know when Mr Bush came to that realization. For sure, it must have been after he left office because the “achievement” he will forever be known for, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, didn’t involve any accountability (and neither did the fact that under Mr Bush’s lead, people were tortured).

Thus, now the former president is enjoying a cushy retirement and a good life — unlike the thousands and thousands of people who still have to deal with the consequences of the most disastrous foreign-policy decision in our life time. These people include American service members just as much as the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the latter case, the hastily and poorly executed withdrawal of all foreign forces last year — initiated by the previous and carried out by the current president — resulted in a humiliating spectacle that inevitably was compared to the end of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, yet again the people of Afghanistan have to live under the very medieval regime that Mr Bush had promised to root out.

Last summer, as the withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded and image and videos of scenes of despair were flooding all screens, I thought I’d get in touch with Ben Brody, a former student and now friend whose Attention Servicemember is one of the best photobooks about the era (I reviewed it here; it’s also discussed in this article). Ben didn’t have much time to talk. He told me that he was spending all of his time trying to help people stuck on the ground in Afghanistan remotely. I would learn later that there were many people in the US and Europe trying to get people out of the country who had played important roles for the Western military — whether as translators, guides, or whatever else — and who now were being abandoned by their former allies’ governments.

In Ben’s new book 300m, a WhatsApp chat with a friend and translator is being reproduced. It follows the friend’s attempts to reach the entrance to Kabul’s airport in the frenzy that, I’m sure, you have seen somewhere on a screen. It begins 300m (900ft) from the gate, and it ends with “I saved my self and my family”, “We are inside but others are not here”, “We left the area”, and “We left out I was close to Americans”. What might have gone through Ben’s head while following his friend’s journey I have no knowledge of. Knowing him, I have an inkling. I also have an inkling what he might be thinking about Mr Bush’s Masterclass.

If you are familiar with Attention Servicemember you know that Ben was a US Army photographer first before he began working as an independent photojournalist (in Iraq and Afghanistan). The book details his own personal story. But it also attempts to break open the still too-narrow confines of photojournalistic storytelling by embracing the many options provided in the world of the contemporary photobook. It thus ends up being a unique hybrid that is able to reach the worlds of photojournalism and art, even if in both, I assume, there might be misgivings over details.

In contrast, 300m appears to look for an audience in the world of art. As it turned out, at some stage, Ben brought a 360 degree panoramic toy camera to Afghanistan, “as an ice breaker,” he writes. Why or how a plastic camera that looks a little bit like a grenade is an ice breaker escapes me — this might show how little I know about war. Then again, “one time,” Ben also writes, “a soldier thought I was detonating a grenade and dove into the dust as the camera spun around above him.” It would seem that there’s ice breaking, and there’s ice breaking.

You can probably imagine what a 360 degree panorama looks like. It’s very wide, and given the optics work, it can lead to very wonky pictures. But it’s the very wonkiness that creates the most interesting element of these pictures. As the camera spins around, it catches any number of people in its site — essentially everybody present, whether they’re posing or looking at the camera or not. More often than not, Ben himself appears in the frame somewhere, whether crouching down in a poppy field or as a shadow that holds what does like a grenade high over his head.

The book presents these pictures using the accordion format that, I continue to maintain, is underutilized in the world of contemporary photobook making. It’s a very simple format that, alas, requires careful attention in its execution. For the book, Ben teamed up with Dutch design team Kummer & Hermann again, yielding another demonstration of how a good photobook can be made.

An accordion book has two sides. Here, both are used to showcase the photographs. There are two boards at the ends of the accordion, each with a picture and the title on them. Given that an accordion has no spine and is iffy to store on a bookshelf on its own, the accordion is wrapped into a bright red cover that contains all the text (plus the colophon) on the inside. The whole construction is held together by a rubber band. As can be expected from a book produced in the Netherlands, everything is simple, effective, and beautiful (except, maybe, the rubber band, which attracts dust and will eventually dry out and break — but then, so do all book materials).

You will want to get a copy of this book simply to see that the one thing that makes for a successful and engaging photobook is not the camera someone uses, it’s not the topic, it’s not even good pictures (even as there are a lot of good ones in this book) — it simply is the book’s makers’ vision. 300m immerses the viewer in a number of situations in Afghanistan that have them see war in a different way.

This is an actual masterclass of a book. Best of all, when you get a copy your money will go to someone who actually deserves receiving it.

Highly recommended.

300m; photographs and text by Ben Brody; accordion book; Mass Books; 2022

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Klara and the Bomb

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When nuclear powers agreed to stop testing nuclear weapons, they didn’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Instead, they agreed to the ban simply because they knew that they could run tests of another kind. Ever since, powerful supercomputers have been dedicated to running simulations of nuclear weapons. In fact, some of the top spots in lists of the most powerful supercomputers are consistently occupied by such machines (here’s a list from 2018). It that’s a very sad state of affairs. Unfortunately, it’s just one aspect of the enormity of resources that major nations spend each year on entirely destructive purposes.

One might naively imagine that you need a supercomputer for very complicated scientific problems. But that’s actually not necessarily the case. It is true, some problems are very complicated and thus hard to model (in the world of astrophysical research that I did my doctorate in 25 years ago, hydrodynamics would be a good example). But there are other problems that come down to a numbers game.

If you think about a pool table, writing a program that simulates a game of pool is relatively straightforward. But if you try to imagine a three-dimensional pool table with billions of balls you can see how calculating all the different movements would require enormous effort. My doctorate revolved around such simulations. The underlying physics was very basic. But we needed to use the largest parallel supercomputers available to do it on a scale large enough to deliver useful insight.

In principle, you could do such simulations by hand — if you assembled enough people. That’s how things started out early on. Actual people performed rather basic calculations that had been carefully modeled into a more complex pattern. Once the first primitive machines became available that could take over what previously had been done by hand, the role of the people involved in the computations (they were called “computers”) changed: they would now operate the machines (which, in turn, became known as “computers”).

These people were women, one of them being a certain Klara von Neumann whose story is now being told by Crystal Bennes in Klara and the Bomb. If the name von Neumann rings a bell, it’s almost certainly because of Klara’s husband John, one of the 20th Century’s most important scientists.

John plays a major role in the book, as do a number of other aspects that were directly or indirectly linked to Klara’s work (and to a lesser extent private) life: the development of computers and Klara’s and John’s roles in them, the development of nuclear weapons in the US, the testing of these weapons at the Marshall Islands, the treatment of people from the Marshall Islands by the US (essentially a colonial story), the role and meaning of so-called Monte Carlo simulations, and photography.

As you can imagine, this is an incredibly complex story, and it’s being told through large amounts of text into which sections of photographs are inserted. Many but not all of the photographs are archival. From the onset, Bennes is clear about her goals. Hers isn’t “a comprehensive history,” she writes (p. 35); instead, “it’s fragmented and partial — curbed both by my lack of access to many still-classified materials, as well as by the specific nature of my interests.”

“But it’s also a history,” she continues, “that attempts to be attentive to what Black feminist theorist bell hooks criticises as one of the key problems with more conventional interpretations of feminism: women merely aiming at equality with men under current social, political and economic structures. Instead, women must aim for a completely new system constructed around ending oppression.” (ibid.)

Interestingly, Klara von Neumann emerges from the book as a strange cipher. Even as she left an (unpublished) autobiography, many of her motivations and ideas ended up being unknown. Her husband and her were separated for long periods of time, given John von Nemann’s incessant traveling. They wrote each other letters. His were preserved. Most of hers appear to have gone missing. How or what she responded to his at times strangely hectoring missives remains unknown.

When I was still working in astrophysics, I was always somewhat proud of the uselessness of what I was working on. In scientific terms, the research was very much useful. But you couldn’t make use of what still is called dark matter to build bombs. In fact, to this date, I have been trying to understand the mindset of people who willingly work on creating weapons that are claiming the lives of people, whether in war or, as has become increasingly common in the US, in civil life.

How do you justify creating an even more efficient bullet? How would you outsource or switch off your conscience while doing that? For some people, such considerations might simply not be an issue. Some famous scientists were equally famous for being callous, anti-social people. But there also were the scientists who spoke up against nuclear weapons. Even at the level of the bullet — how can you possibly justify working on that?

For me, this was one of the most interesting aspects of the book — not that I necessarily expected (or received) an answer. John von Neumann, I suspect, would simply see the bomb as yet another “interesting problem” to work on. He would eventually die from a cancer that he probably contracted from exposure to nuclear tests. And Klara? I have no idea whatsoever. She later remarried and ended up losing her life drowning (classified as a suicide). “[A]t the end of this long research project,” Bennes writes, “I feel as if I hardly know her as a person.” (p. 335)

You could view Klara and the Bomb itself as a Monte Carlo simulation, where through a large number of very detailed vignettes you get closer to an understanding of very specific circumstances — the making of nuclear weapons in the US. But in the end, there only are new questions. In the sciences, you would conclude that you need even larger and more detailed simulations. In the arts, you realize that not all things can be fully understood, and that’s a good thing.


Klara and the Bomb; photographs and text by Crystal Bennes; 320 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2022

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Beautiful, Still.

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Photography is often used to communicate the essence of a community, the feeling of what it might be like to be immersed in it. For very good reasons, a lot of discussions have centered on this very idea. Can an outsider, someone who was and is no member of the community, arrive at what an insider, someone from the community, will be able to see? In all likelihood, the answer is no.

In the very worst cases, which more often than not can be found in photojournalism, helicoptering in an outsider will at best paint a surface picture and at worst perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This is not to say that an outsider by definition will be unable to arrive at a deeper truth of the community. But to get there, a lot of careful work will have to be done. A recent example of how this can be done masterfully would be provided by Anders Edström’s Shiotani.

Given that photography is a visual medium, the feeling of community has to be communicated visually. Unless there is added text, the sense of community has to come across through the combination of photographs: in essence, a viewer has to be able to feel that they are in the presence of a community, even as they might be experiencing things far, far away and mediated through the artifice that is the photobook.

Colby Deal‘s Beautiful, Still. provides a very good recent example of a portrait of a community made from the inside. In its second picture, which comes right after a short poem by Hakeem Furious, two Black women in bright white clothing are depicted standing in what looks like the backyard of a house. They are turned away from the camera, and the taller woman is holding the other one in a caring embrace. It’s a photograph of intimacy and care, and it sets the tone for much of what is to come in the book.

The next few pictures sketch out more of the larger environment, an environment that depicts a genericness that is very distinctly a feature of the United States, even as there are variations based on class and regions. As someone living in the Northeast, the book transports me to a locale somewhere further south.

While there are people in some of the first pictures, it is the first photograph that gives unconditional attention to a young woman that jolts the viewer, letting them know that this is a book about people forming a community rather than a description of place. The photograph shows a young woman in a white, laced dress. She’s holding her hands folded in front of herself. Her gaze is directed at the camera, projecting a combination of calmness and confidence.

A number of photographs of other people follow, a mix of more formal portraits and pictures taken while life was going on. From there on, the book develops the themes thus introduced, fleshing out life in a Black community (in the Third Ward in Houston, Texas).

For the work, a number of different cameras appear to have been used, resulting in differences in formats, with square photographs and rectangular ones being present. Different tools allow for approaches catered to different situations, enabling the photographer to mix a formal setup with a more fluid approach. This is very effective.

However, I am not sold on the inclusion of so many photographs that are technically imperfect in the book. This is not to say that I’m oppose to imperfect pictures in general. But in the context of the book, they have to work in support of the book’s overall message. A good example for that is provided by Sabelo Mlangeni‘s Isivumelwano where the use of technical imperfections is deliberate in a Brechtian sense.

Here the imperfections feel photographic only — which would be fine if the book centered on what photography is or can do. Alas, that’s not the focus of the book. As a result, the imperfections feel like too simple a device for an otherwise very sophisticated and visually beautiful body of work. In general, technical choices should not be allowed to focus the attention on themselves — instead of on the larger ideas.

The end result of this all is an impressive debut monograph by a photographer whose voice is now added to the growing canon of American photography. We ought to pay careful attention to Colby Deal, in particular given his ability to both convey what being a member of a particular community means and to have outside viewers partake in it visually.

Beautiful, Still. contains all the beauty that will forever be elusive to photographers that helicopter into some community, regardless of whether they want to “bear witness” or “paint a portrait”.

To take good pictures means to be able to feel a moment shared with others. That, and only that, is what can make photography art.

Beautiful, Still.; photographys by Colby Deal; poem by Hakeem Furious; essay by Garry Reece; 160 pages; MACK; 2022

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Let’s Talk About Our Tools

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Imagine you wanted to put a nail into the wall to hang up a framed photograph. You check the toolbox for your hammer, only to find that it has changed. It’s covered with advertising that you’re not interested in. Total strangers added graffiti. The actual head has shrunk drastically, making it unusable for the task at hand. But the hammer suddenly features all kinds of additions. The fact that it now oozes vast amounts of oil might be most troubling: your whole toolbox is filled with oil.

You decide to call the company but never make it through to a real person. You go online to check what happened to your hammer. You find a number of somewhat creepy videos in which people who might or might not have a normal social life try to convince you that they love hammers, but oil is where it’s at these days.

The above obviously is absurd. But it’s not any less absurd than what has happened on Instagram. Years ago, you could share photographs knowing that the people who followed you would see them. In turn, you would see what people shared whom you followed. That idea is long gone.

Instead, because its makers decided to copy a number of popular competitors, the app now contains any number of things that have nothing to do with photo sharing. In fact, the latest “update” (the company’s word choice) was so atrocious that even the Kardashians complained about it.

Of Instagram’s many problems for photographers (the censorship, the algorithm that doesn’t show your material to people who follow you, the “reels” nonsense, and the erratic ways in which things are constantly changed without user input), there is one that seems rather minor. But its outcome is very toxic as well. Instagram not only fuels nasty spats in its comment section, it also draws much too much attention to itself.

As a consequence, being on Instagram is a draining experience that is detrimental to one’s personal health. The other day, I noticed how draining the experience is yet again.

Having decided to phase out Instagram, I went back to Tumblr. Much like a lot of other people, I had used Tumblr years ago. It was an incredible site, but, alas, it got bought out and ruined. Now there are new owners, so it looks like a feasible option to share photographs again. I set up a new account, and I downloaded the app.

The next morning, I looked through Instagram, and then I looked through Tumblr. The difference could not have been more striking. While I was getting increasingly aggravated on Instagram, given that I had to scroll through about 90% garbage to find stuff I had actually subscribed to, on Tumblr, it was the exact opposite of that. Seeing the difference made me realize to what extent Instagram has changed over the past few years.

It also made me realize how much sheer crap I had accepted on Instagram. If anyone was to blame for the mess, it wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg and his minions. It was me. After all, I had decided to continue using the app.

But I really don’t want to focus more on the garbage site that is Instagram. Even the idea of writing more words about a site that obviously doesn’t care about photographers makes my blood pressure go up.

Instead, I want to focus on something else: as photographers, why do we stick with a site that very obviously doesn’t care at all about us, that doesn’t do what we need, and that we ultimately hate?

The usual answer I hear is: there are not alternatives. I think that’s a bad answer.

I’m not particular interested in discussing the merits of alternatives, because I’m after something different. Any of these sites/app are tools. We use them because they do things for us (at least that’s the idea). They’re like hammers. If I need to get a nail into a wall, I’m going to pick a hammer. The hammer will do the job. Perfect.

I think that photographers in general are not very good at choosing the right tools that work for them. Photographers will stick with Instagram even though it’s not really a photography-sharing site any longer. Similarly, photographers will also decide to use view cameras despite the fact that they’re incredibly expensive and cumbersome. Digital cameras have long achieved a degree of quality that makes film cameras obsolete, and yet many photographers will work themselves up into a frenzy when someone dares to say this.

My point here is not to discuss the merits of film or digital or the merits of Instagram. Instead, I want to point out that we should pick the tools that are right for us. We should pick the tools that work for us — instead of the tools that make us work for them. Every photographer will have to do this on their own, assessing tools based on what they need. In order to do that, they have to do a simple cost-benefit analysis.

I have been present in many discussions around view cameras. Those never included a cost-benefit analysis. Instead, there was what came across as simple dogma mixed with a very selective focus on specific benefits that somehow were turned into the most important criteria.

That’s not a very useful approach. In fact, it’s very likely to lead you into the situation where you stick to Instagram even though you hate it, or you insist on using film even as with the money you could easily get a high-quality digital camera that would increase your productivity by huge amounts.

I’m writing this as someone who has experience with all of this. I have justified my presence on Instagram partly by thinking that as a critic, it would help me see what people are up to. But up until last week, I hadn’t asked myself whether I can and want to justify dealing with associated costs.

When I started using Tumblr, I noticed that there was a lot less to see. But the overall experience is so much better. As of now, some of the benefits offered on Instagram are absent. But the costs are much lower. That’s what I want — and need.

Using a tool such as Instagram, Tumblr, or any other social-media site should not be a drain on one’s mental health, something one dreads doing every single day. Instead, it should be a source of joy, of gratification.

Years ago, I decided to switch from a film camera that I loved very much to a digital camera. I can’t say that the camera in question (a digital SLR) is particularly attractive. But I realized that what I had stubbornly held on to (the supposed quality of film) actually created a lot of costs (in terms of money and time) that severely limited what I was able to do. With the new camera I was and am able to take pictures easily. Even as I hated figuring out how to do it, my productivity exploded. I would have never been able to produce a photobook had I stuck with that film camera.

Again, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: what are the costs, what are the benefits? And then you have to be very clear about whether the benefits really outweigh the costs, or whether you’re not tipping the scale.

While teaching, time and again I have come across photographers essentially making bad choices because they stubbornly stick to a tool that doesn’t work for them. I’ve had students stick to film cameras, as a result of which their productivity was minimal. But I’ve also had students stick to high-end digital cameras that resulted in the very same outcome. It’s not about film or digital. Instead, the question is: do you have the camera that is the right tool for you? If it is not, ditch it, and pick the one that is.

This also applies to white-cube galleries or photobooks. They’re tools to disseminate your work (and possibly make you some money if you’re lucky). Typically, photographers don’t approach them as such and, again, allow themselves to work for their tools — instead of the other way around.

If you read my recent interview with Rob Hornstra, you’ll see a photographer who has thought about this and adapted his practice to what he needs for his work. Even if your choices might be very different, I’m convinced that 90% of all photographers could learn a lot from how Rob approaches the use of his tools.

If you’re a photographer, make a cost-benefit analysis for the tools you’re using on a somewhat regular basis. If there is a tool where the costs outweigh the benefits, be prepared to make a change it — even if that means adopting a new tool that initially you might not like.

Obviously, I’m aware that we’re all just human. We all make decisions that aren’t necessarily based on what’s good for us. But we do have the capacity to check what we’re doing, which at least theoretically gives us a chance to help us make better decisions.

Ditch the tools that don’t work for you — after a careful analysis of their costs and benefits. That’s what it all comes down to.