Sometimes, failure is just failure.
But most of the time, you’re looking at it wrong.
One of the major criticisms I have of street photographers is that they often take pictures to reconfirm their own previously held beliefs. In other words, they take photos of the things they want to see, and not the things that are there.
I learned a valuable lesson in that myself this fall, when I went on a hike through Hakone to take a photo of Mt Fuji.
The thing is, Mt Fuji is Mt Fuji. She’s a notoriously fickle mountain, and this trip she lived up to her reputation.
On the train ride out to the wilderness, I could see her tip, poking over the nearer mountains, in the bright blue sky, and I was optimistic. My trailhead was located at the back of a temple, and it was gorgeous. The wonderful angular fall light filtered through the trees in the most beautiful golden way in the temple, and along my hike. Until it didn’t.
Which worried me.
I was half-able to convince myself that it was possible that I was in the shadow of the mountain I was climbing; that the late afternoon sun was already in a position to put me in the shadow of the mountain a bit. But I was afraid that the truth was far worse… that the clouds had started to roll in. And boy had they. When I got to the peak of my chosen mountain, there was a helpful blue-sky photo, pointing out exactly where I should be able to see Mt. Fuji. Not a chance.
Whelp, I was where I was. I wasn’t going to be hiking back in the dark, and Mt Fuji’s weather changes constantly. It was likely that the clouds would blow through, and I’d have a wonderful sunrise, I told myself. After getting myself situated, I settled in for the night, and before I drifted off to sleep, it started to rain.
It didn’t stop raining. Pretty much it only rained on me. After double checking the weather forecasts, which still said clear and 0% chance of rain, I checked the weather radar, which basically showed a beautifully precipitation-free Japan. Except on my mountain. On me. Where it was raining.
I pulled a groundhog in the morning, emerging before sunrise, and in the pre-dawn light I didn’t see my shadow. In truth, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face because of the fog. With the sunrise photos scoobied, I went back to sleep. I thought I’d deal with the morning when it stopped drizzling. Maybe by then the wind would dry out my tent a bit.
No such luck. I packed up my wet tent, and hiked down the other side of the mountain, truncating my planned hike a bit in order to prioritize warm onsen over foggy mountain top. On the hike down, I didn’t take many photos. I was disappointed.
I was frustrated that I had failed in my goal, to photograph Mt Fuji.
But as I thought about it on my hike, I didn’t fail because of the weather. I failed because I had been committing that same sin – trying to photograph my preconceived idea of the place, and I didn’t work hard enough to actually see the place as it was.
Also, I didn’t fail. Maybe I didn’t take the photos I wanted, but there were a long string of successes.
The rain sucked, but it was polite enough to wait until after I’d eaten and set up my tent, and it stopped before I had to take my tent down.
My Jet Boil worked brilliantly, and the Patagonia chili I had been gifted by fellow photographer Ben Torode was perfect for the slightly chilly night.
My tent kept me dry, and my sleeping bag kept me warm.
I didn’t get eaten by bears.
And now, I know the path. I know the trail. I know I can go back and do this again when the weather forecast tells me I might have a chance at a photo.
So, in the end, this was a successful hike. It was a success as a location scout. It was a success as proof-of-concept for that exhibition to get that photo. It was a successful gear test.
The successes far outweigh the three failures. I failed to get the photo I wanted. I failed to have the mental flexibility to go after the photos that were there instead of being upset that I couldn’t get the photo I’d wanted. And, perhaps least tragically, I left 5 meters of paracord tied to a post at the top of the mountain with a cheap accessory carabiner.
But those are failures I can learn from. And when I go back again, I can succeed, because the flip side of the 6 P’s is that when your performance is piss poor, you can always spin it as actually just being preparation for a future attempt at your goals.