Writing on photography

On Rejection

Writing comes from the heart. It’s an awful cliché, but like many of those it’s also one with a certain amount of truth behind. When people ask me how I find the time to write and post something new every week while still spending at least three days teaching and two days doing commercial shoots (plus finding the occasional time to work on personal projects) the answer is pretty simple. I try to only write about things that stir me, and I try to only write when I’m stirred. Follow those two guiding lights and I’ve found the rest comes relatively easily.

Over the last fortnight I’ve had work rejected from three prizes and grants, two of which I felt pretty well positioned for, and one of which I felt confident about. Rejection is not in itself something I’m alien to, I know I make odd work and hold odd views about photography, and those things inevitably mean I have to spend a certain amount of energy struggling against a flow which often seems to run in the opposite direction. Occasionally though you feel confident you’ve found a home for your work, a place which which will understand what you are trying do, and when that doesn’t materialise it’s like being back at the start again, being that new graduate, that recent entrant into the world of photography clutching a slightly sad and solitary collection of photographs which no one but you has any real interest in.

This piece is aimed at the younger me, one who had much less faith, who might have believed that rejection meant that what he was doing was in some sense not worthwhile, not worth continuing. Rejection hurts, but it’s never an objective judgement on the quality of your work, even when by various measures it is presented as exactly that. Judgements on your work, whether they be positive or negative, are always the product of prejudices and predilections, biases and allegiances, vogues and fashions. Sometimes you coincide with these, and sometimes you don’t, but never let these things be your guiding lights, and never let anyone tell you your work isn’t good enough because you follow your own lights and not theirs.

Prizes, competitions and grants are a necessary evil, a means of getting the money and momentum to finish old work and make new things, and to launch work out there, but the laurels that come with them are questionable at best, tattered and worn by many other ’emerging artists’ before you who sank without trace. If recognition is what you’re seeking then it might be worth asking why. I always question a prize which presents its selection as the best and brightest in contemporary photography. In the blizzard of images which we all inhabit that sort of judgement is as ludicrous as picking a few snowflakes from your shoulder and proclaiming them to be the most beautiful snowflakes in the world.

In the end I believe in the work that was rejected, I believe in it almost without question, that’s what this post is really about. Belief, faith, whatever your want to call it, it manifests as an almost irrational confidence that what you do matters in spite of what might be the commercial unsustainability or the artistic unfashionableness of it. This faith needs at times to border on delusion, and to many who observe you from a distance it may appear as such, or perhaps as arrogance. At the same time there are only ever limited supplies of this belief, reservoirs you draw on in times of inner or outer doubt, when you need that last bit of energy to push something that little bit further. Rejection drain those reserves and leaves you with little to show for it, rejection makes it hard to continue.

Rejection hurts, that’s all there is to it. The best advice I can offer when you feel it is the same advice I would suggest you follow every time a stumbling block finds its way beneath your feet. Take it in your stride and find a way to turn it’s momentum in your favour. Climb up on it, wave your fist at the moon and shout as loudly as you can; ‘you’ll be sorry you fuckers!’

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • I often think back the photographers who inspired me and in many cases their work viewed today is unremarkable. However in context and at the time the photographs were taken they were pioneers. Thats what moved the medium on and so agree totally with your idea of keeping going and doing what you want to do.

  • The good thing about taking part in contests is that it makes you (well, at least me) very seriously look at the work of previous years’ winners. I’ve discovered some interesting photographers this way, plus it gives a relatively good overview which kind of work is expected to the contest.

  • Hello Lewis
    Tom Lovelace here. We have Guy Robertson as a mutual friend. I have also been out to Spoleto, but I don’t think our paths have crossed

    I just wanted to say how striking your blog post is. I can totally relate to it. And I think every aspiring graduate and artist will feel the same.
    Beautiful and poignant piece
    Battle on…


  • Well Lewis. Those “stumbling block[s] …beneath your feet…” you mention.


    They’re stepping stones. That’s what they are.

    They get you to where you need to be.

    Great post. As usual!

Writing on photography