Writing on photography

The House Always Wins: The Inner Game of Photography

My family are quite musical and so perhaps inevitably I began to learn to play several instruments when I was quite young. For a time, I became quite fixated on music and used to practice for hours, struggling with the tangles of musical notation, trying to replicate complex pieces by ear, and for the most part failing at all of these things. At a certain point a relative gave me a book called the Inner Game of Music. This work had been written the rather unlikely figure of a tennis coach, who suggested that musical technique could be perfected in much the same way as a player’s forehand. At the core of this lay the idea of making constant critical, impartial judgments about one’s form, and adapting the way one played in response to them, in essence making a game of music. I read this book, absorbed it’s lessons, and shortly afterwards I gave up playing for good.

Photography has also sometimes been taken for a game. Vilém Flusser for example discussed the camera and photographer in terms of a program or game, the aim of which was to exhaust the enormous but still finite possibilities of the camera. Some photographers approach photography ‘playfully’ although the games they play are sometimes quite individual, solo entertainment without much space for players. Certain stages of what happens after image making also have rules or structures, but these are cultural rather than technical and easily (and often fruitfully) broken. But photography is a game in another sense, less to do with the actual act of releasing the shutter, and more to do with what happens next. It would maybe be more accurate to say the photographic profession is a game, all those things which take place after and outside of the actual act of making photographic work. It’s a game which is invisible to those outside it, and also at times even to the players lost in the flow of a game.

This game has rules about who is allowed to play and the things you can do. You can be the right sort of person to begin with, and you can be compliant and perform your roles correctly. If you do these things you might progress through the game more easily than if you do not. Certain things, wealth perhaps is an obvious one, might buy us the right to opt out from certain rules of the game, but in the end we all play it to a lesser or greater degree. You can play the game of photography by accident, or quite consciously. There are a happy few who go far by without really understanding the rules, succeeding through the professional equivalent of beginner’s luck. There are those for whom each advance in the game is the result of countless hours of hidden practice, like a grandmaster memorizing dozens of obscure defences for the critical moment in an us yet unimagined game when one of them can be effortlessly deployed.

The trouble is many of have played the game so long that like a seasoned card player we no longer think of the rules as rules, as arbitrary structures that limit our choice of movements. Instead we seem them as innate, invisible concourses down which our actions flow because there simply is nowhere else that they can go. Why waste thought on movements that you have learnt long ago the game does not allow? From time to time we might find that we don’t like these rules that much. Most often this an individual quirk, and we can’t do much about it but complain to other players, or perhaps start a blog and whine about the way the deck often feels stacked and the house always seems to win. Occasionally thought it begins to jar more glaringly, for more of the players, it becomes apparent something isn’t right. Even more occasionally these circumstances force a change to the rules, and the game alters, sometimes very visibly, more often almost imperceptibly.

But these moments are rare and for the most part the game continues to be played in much the same way, year after year, decade after decade, the world outside it and the thing that gave rise to the game, fades. It becomes like playing cards or rolling dice, the reason for doing the thing virtually forgotten except for a by few dusty specialists. The real life reason has been replaced by a strange abstraction of that thing, which has over time become the thing itself, a means which has utterly absorbed it’s end. As the game replaces the thing that gave rise to it, the game becomes as invisible and immutable as the rules that define it. It becomes a thing lived without question, without consideration, only in the pursuit of winning. But means change ends, and in a game like this end of winning no longer means much, it is a fleeting state before the board resets and it inevitably all begins again. The only real winner it sometimes seems are the house, and who exactly the house is depends on where at the gaming table we sit. The players eye each other furtively.

Like any game too easy or too hard, this game of photography is want to lose players to competitors. In these times of doubt the alternative I often turn to is one with the rules that are the easiest to explain, but which also make it the hardest thing to play. It requires no other players, and no space to conduct it, it is a truly inner game which I play only against myself. And that is simply not to play the game at all.

Photograph: Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht play chess, Svendborg, Denmark, c.1936 (Brecht Archiv)

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.


  • An interesting angle which I’m trying to get my head around. An example or two )perhaps from your own experience) could have been helpful as a brief signpost for my own exploration of this idea.

  • I am not sure linking photography in this way is not similar to the choice of talking about the arts / art in sporting terms ? Personally I believe that photography has two elements one of transaction and that of the personal where photography plays an imprtant part in personal , social and collective memory outside of the commercial genre.

Writing on photography