Photographer Chelsea Francis behind Pass/Fail is redefining success.
By Hannah J. Phillips, Photos courtesy of Chelsea Francis
Chelsea Francis likes to celebrate. As a photographer, she helps her subjects celebrate their individuality. As a connector and founder of the monthly meetup #ATXConnectionMixer, she celebrates community. And as a creative, she celebrates inspiration. But perhaps most surprising, Francis likes to celebrate failure.
“Most people fear failure,” she says, “but I’m the opposite. I have a complicated relationship with success.”
In June, Francis launched Pass/Fail, a new project on Instagram all about commemorating failure. Francis’ mission is always to empower, and Pass/Fail is no different: Through regular letters and contributions from guest writers, she works to demystify failure and promote empathy.
The account is quickly carving out an inclusive, online space to explore the symbiotic relationship between success and failure. In her opinion, the two aren’t polar opposites. Rather, Francis argues both are necessary companions on the path of life.
Her interest in failure stems from a fascination with celebrity culture and what gives a person superstar status. Specifically, she noticed people gaining fame in niche communities such as coffee and design, while remaining relatively unknown outside their subcultures.
The notion challenged her idea of success, redefining it as relative. Take Beyoncé, for example.
“There are people in the world that have no clue who Beyoncé is,” she realized, “so her success means nothing to millions of people. You assume success means being famous and having it all, but no one really has it all and fame is relative.”
As this idea expanded as time passed, Francis observed the only common thread between celebrities is a roller coaster of success and failure each had ridden to arrive where they are today. The idea evolved into a book proposal, an anthology of failure in which Francis would photograph successful people and interview them about their biggest failures.
This spring, Francis pitched the concept to a publisher as a book, and as an online resource to the Adobe Creative Residency. She was visiting friends in Los Angeles when she got the email from Adobe: rejected. That night, Francis drove the streets of Los Angeles blasting Taylor Swift’s 1989, stopping for a few drinks at a local bar. A couple cocktails later, Francis resolved to launch the project on her own. After all, what could give a project about failure more authenticity than rising above its own rejection?
“I knew I would have to bootstrap it,” she says, “but it was something I really believed in. I walked out the next day the same person and I didn’t feel like something had been taken away from me. I still have the project and I have it on my terms now. The project was only made better by getting rejected multiple times.”
Originally, Francis’ idea for the anthology was to focus on women in the culinary industry, but as she began to plan for the summer launch, she wanted to include all disciplines. A quick skim through the interviews featured so far yields a diverse collection of artists, developers, designers, event planners and more. The intent is to inspire more than just creatives and entrepreneurs, but line cooks, tattoo artists, dog walkers—you name it.
“I feel very strongly that not everyone was put on this earth to wear a suit and be the CEO of a Fortune 500 business,” Francis says. “You do better work when you are working in line with the values you have.”
In her photography and in this latest venture, Francis certainly works in line with her mission to empower others, simultaneously inspiring her followers to do the same.
The first phase for Pass/Fail is to normalize failure. The second: to normalize success. What do you do when you actually get what you want? In addition to writing her own letters, Francis has loved learning more about what success means to her guest contributors.
“Everyone is experiencing the same problem of reaching success and not knowing what to do,” she says. “Everyone appreciates success that looks differently than they thought it would.”
For Francis, this means her idea of success changes all the time. One of her biggest achievements was recently being able to take 10 full days off from both photography and this new endeavor. For someone who fully executes every project she’s ever started, this is a major accomplishment. And it’s exactly this type of win Pass/Fail seeks to celebrate.
As for how it will evolve, Francis would still love to create a permanent anthology of failure, but she plans to go with the flow.
“I think people start new projects and choke the oxygen out of it, smothering the flame. I’ve never felt attached to any idea I had for it,” she says. “In 30 days, I might feel like the direction is changing.”
We all have stories of failure. If you’d like to share yours with Pass/Fail, email Chelsea Francis at firstname.lastname@example.org.