A few weeks ago I met with an aid organisation to discuss the possibility of working with them on some future projects. During the discussion I was told that my images portrayed too much hope, lots of other aspects of my work were discussed but for some reason that one comment seemed to hit me between the eyes and linger in my mind for several days, even weeks after. Why did that one comment have such an impact? I suppose it’s partly because I’ve set my stall out with my humanitarian work to capture and express the hope which I find in situations where there seems to be very little. I grew up seeing images on the television of African children with bloated stomachs and flies gravitating around their saddened faces and I think I became anaesthetised to the situations these images were portraying. So when I started my humanitarian photographic work I made a conscious decision to try and show the resolve and determination of those people who are striving to make life better for themselves. Therefore, the comment I received hit that straight on….my images portray too much hope.
It was only a few days ago that another photographer, one that I have an incredible amount of respect and admiration for, also received a comment through his blog which seemed to hit a nerve. David DuChemin is not only a very talented photographer, he also produces high quality blog posts which serve the photographic community on many related issues. On this occasion, David wrote a post during a difficult few days of shooting where he basically felt a drought within his creative reservoir and openly wrote about it on his blog. He will often receive a large number of comments on his posts but one individual left a comment which crtiticised him over his “exhausting angst”. Even though all the other 70+ comments he received were very supportive, that one negative remark seemed to strike a nerve.
The upshot is that if you do anything long enough within the public domain, at some point you’re going to receive some form of criticism.
The psychology of criticism is complex and I’m certainly not qualified to expound on that but I often spend time analysing myself and my thought processes enough to make some simple observations. Firstly, I really don’t think that anyone actually likes criticism, even though I’ve heard many people say that they welcome it. Secondly, the important factor is how I deal with criticism and my ability to use it constructively to potentially inform me of improvements which can be made in the future. Since my days in the corporate world I have acquired broad shoulders and learnt how to manage criticism (although it doesn’t always prevent the odd comment from slipping through my net). Here’s a few pointers I have adopted over the years which have helped to serve me well in handling criticism.
Consider the source – there’s constructive criticism and there’s downright bad criticism. You have to consider that some people may simply just have it in for you, maybe they woke up on the wrong side of the bed or had an argument that morning with their spouse, who knows, and it doesn’t matter what you do or say they’ll say something that hurts. It’s not nice but it’s life I’m afraid and all you can do is ignore their comments, their ego is low and it needs elevating somehow. However, there are people out there who know a lot about your area of work and you’d do well to take any advice they have to offer very seriously even if it has been said in an unkind way.
Are there any truths to their observations? – It’s very difficult to be objective when our pride has taken a beating but it is certainly worth considering if there is truth in what is being said. If so, these truths may serve you well in the future as you look to improve on your craft and ask how can this help me be better than I was before?
Be objective – I’ve already mentioned above how difficult it sometimes is to be objective in these situations and our natural reaction is to take the comments personally. But taking out the personal bias can help you see the point they are making.
How can it improve my work? – Art forms are always going to be subjective, some people will like what you do and others won’t, but it shouldn’t stop you from trying to improve on what you’ve done before, even if it’s only you who recognises that improvement. So does the critical comment offer any suggestions as to how improvements can be made? After evaluating the comment you may find that new doors are opened before you as you improve upon your work.
Use it as a form of motivation – On a couple of occasions at school I was told that I’d thrown my life away by some of my actions and these comments could quite easily have crippled me but instead I used them as a form of motivation. I was going to prove them wrong, it took a lot of determination and hard work but they were definitely proved to be incorrect in their observation due to a motivational drive to succeed. Criticism can be a strong motivational power which can really help you.
Find the good – it’s unusual for everything within the criticism to be negative, there’s often some good within there but we tend to be clouded by the negative aspects to such an extent that we brush past the positive elements.
You may have noticed that the image above from my recent assignment in Africa doesn’t particularly exude a sense of hope, so have I turned my back on my original focus of hopeful images? Absolutely not. However, following the critical comment I received a few weeks ago I realised that I needed to be open to capture other images which may prove to be beneficial to my client in the future. Will they use this image and others of a similar nature? I don’t know but they will certainly have a wider portfolio to choose from. In Africa, I occasionally found myself looking for different types of images and I think this is an improvement on before.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I like criticism but I certainly welcome comments which may help me in the future. Feel free to leave a comment if you have found ways of handling criticism, or indeed let me know if you disagree with what I’ve said…..but please be gentle!