Creativity, Critiquing, and Clients: is beauty only in the eye of the beholder?

With a title like this, you know this post is going to be a ‘dog’s breakfast’ (as they say in New Zealand). And yes, in one sense, it is. But seriously, there is a coherent point to this post. And an important one too.

I thought I’d write about a recent experience I had. This experience was not a good one. It actually left me feeling disappointed and deflated. However, the positive side of it is that I was reminded of some very important lessons. And hopefully so was my colleague, the other character in this story.

There are three main points I want to hit home here, based on this recent series of events. I’ll elaborate on each of them below. And I’m going to apologize in advance because I know I may sound preachy here. That’s not my intent. I just want to share something important with you, so bear with me.

1. As photographers, we are artists. We have the freedom to create and our creations are inspired by what we see and feel, not what someone else dictates.

2. Although our images are the result of our creative processes and what we see and feel, we can all benefit from receiving constructive feedback on our images now and again.

3. All communication should be respectful. How you say something is as important as what you say.

You might be thinking, what the heck do these three things have to do with each other? Read on…

As photographers, we are artists. We have the freedom to create. Our creations are inspired by what we see and feel, not what someone else dictates. Nobody should be telling us what we see and feel and therefore, what we should create or how to create it. These things – the things that drive our creativity – come from within us. We shouldn’t be making fine art images simply to please someone else. Sure, it’s different if you’re shooting stock or commercial images, where you’ve agreed to produce something specific that a client wants. But for fine art images, our creations should be our own, not someone else’s.

Although our images are the result of our own creative processes, we can all benefit from receiving constructive feedback on our images now and again.The heart of this point has to do with the emotional connection we have to our images and whether or not we succeed in communicating this emotion. Sometimes we think an image we have made is really good, but for whatever reasons, it isn’t actually as appealing to other people as it is to us. That’s often because we still associate the emotion of the moment – the moment we made the image and the reason that inspired us to take the photo – with the image today. It’s like we have an emotional hangover with the image. This is where having someone you respect and trust to critique your image can be helpful. Have them tell you, in their opinion, what the good things are about your image, what the not-so-good things about it are, and most importantly, how you might consider doing things differently next time to improve the image, if they feel it needs improving. But ultimately, it’s up to you what you do with this information. You may agree with it or not. Or agree with parts of it. Don’t be defensive or arrogant. Take the comments on board. Consider them carefully. But… ultimately, the decision of what you do with those comments is up to you. It’s your creation.

A key point here is that criticism – the feedback we asked for – has to be constructive and it has to be delivered in a positive way. Hollow opinions such as, ‘this stinks’ or ‘it’s terrible’ or ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘…any magazine, art buyer, or art collector wouldn’t touch it!’ are not helpful. If that’s the kind of feedback you’re going to dole out, don’t bother! It’s useless and offensive. Think of how you would feel if that’s the feedback you received about one of your images from someone you respected and trusted!

All communication should be respectful. How you say something is as important as what you say. It doesn’t matter who you are speaking to or what the topic is that you’re discussing, ALL communication needs to be respectful. This is absolutely critical when you are critiquing a colleague’s image or in fact, in any kind of communication you have with your photographer colleagues, clients, prospective clients, or anyone, for that matter. If you are commenting on a colleague’s image and don’t deliver your feedback in a constructive and polite way, you will very quickly lose your credibility. They won’t bother to ask you for your opinion again because they don’t value it.

You might be thinking wow, don’t be so thin skinned. I’m not. Working in academia for 20+ years has helped me develop crocodile hide! But to be honest, I don’t really think there is such a thing as being thin skinned. If someone is offend by what you said to them or how you said it, then you are the problem, not them. You need to regroup and try again. Be sensitive to the person’s feelings. Delivery is everything.

I know I’m sounding preachy here; I don’t mean to. The reason why I mention these things is because I hope that these points serve as reminders to us all, of how we should conduct ourselves – treating our clients, our colleagues, our friends and our loved ones with the utmost respect that they deserve.

Maybe you’re thinking ya, I know all this stuff. But I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of these points now and again. Yes, even the ‘seasoned pros’ need to be reminded. Why? Because recently, a photographer colleague of mine provided feedback on some of my images. This is something I value very much because it helps me take a step back from my images (remove the emotional hangover), provides a different perspective and helps me to grow as a photographer.  In this case, I had been discussing with my colleague, my possible enrollment in his photography mentoring programme. Part of the programme involved image critiquing. Great! But sadly, I quickly discovered that the feedback I was getting consisted only of very negative opinions with absolutely nothing constructive contained in them. Frankly, some of the comments were downright offensive. And he treated me as though I’d only picked up a camera for the first time last week even though he knows that’s not the case. I think he really wanted my money, but his ‘overselling’ backfired. His comments were incredibly condescending. I mentioned this to him in a very carefully and politely worded email because I didn’t think he would want to be perceived in such a negative way and I figured he didn’t realize what he was doing. But all I got back was a very offensive and blunt email saying essentially, that I don’t have time to read your email; you are not my client and unless you pay me for my time, I have nothing more to say to you. Wow! I was stunned! I completely understand that paying clients have to be the priority – you have a contract with them and products to deliver on time. However, once those contracts have been fulfilled, you’ll need some new clients too. I just cannot fathom why someone would be so rude to a potential client (who was also a colleague and friend). He had been courting me as a client, but the moment I told him I was going to delay my enrollment in his programme for a while, I was not only dropped like a hot potato, but he was asking me to pay him to justify his earlier comments. That’s not the way to treat a potential client, a colleague, and a friend.

I don’t think I have to tell you that this is most definitely not the way to run a successful  business. And this was coming from a photographer who had been in business for over 15 years! Needless to say, due to a string of highly unpleasant and frankly, arrogant comments he made to me, I decide that I would not be his client. By this point he had nothing useful to offer me – no useful feedback on my images, no useful advice on how to treat prospective clients, and no useful advice on how to run a small business. His credibility was gone. I’m saddened by this. I don’t know what would compel someone who I think is ultimately a good person, to behave so badly. Everyone makes mistakes and one poorly worded email can be forgiven. But several downright offensive communications are over the top.

On one level, this whole situation still bothers me. But as with all bad things, good things can come of it. Learn the lessons and move on. I was reminded of how vitally important it is to treat people with respect and how ugly the consequences of not doing so can be. It can take many years to build a good reputation, but only one day to destroy it. Bad behaviour will catch up with you – eventually. And when you’re trying to make a living from your own small business, this can be disastrous.

I won’t forget the lessons I was reminded of with this situation. Arrogance isn’t pretty, nor does it ever result in anything good. Be honest, but be respectful. Treat people well and they will treat you well in return. I won’t forget this.

My attempt at a moody winter landscape. The clouds were so thick, blocking out all but that glowing sun in the sky, it felt like I was experiencing an eclipse! I tried to capture this mood. Was I successful or not? (copyright Shelley L. Ball)



Filed under lessons learned, Opinion, Philosophy, respect, small business, Vision

8 responses to “Creativity, Critiquing, and Clients: is beauty only in the eye of the beholder?

  1. Love your epistle Shelley. Oh so true. I had a similar experience many years ago – nothing to do with photography – but because this close friend could not get me to comply with his (arrogant) wishes, I lost a very good friend – or was he??
    Judges are the same in many cases. And this is why I never compete now. I do still get asked to judge – and occasionally do – but it bothers me and I’m seriously considering dropping this. I do like the salon style of judging still – no comments at all – just a point score.
    I mentor some photographers on a casual basis, and it infuriates me to hear them say ‘the judge won’t like this’ or ‘I’ll take it this way because the judge likes these kind of images’ etc, etc.
    Are you asking for comments on your moody winter image? I will but later in the day. Will ponder it – and get my critiquing hat on!! Haha. Keep up the excellent posts Shelley. Well done.

    • Thanks for your comments John. And sorry to hear you had a similar experience. Things like this sure leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. However, there are always positive things that can come out of it. I certainly was reminded of some very important lessons that will stay with me. Sadly, my colleague has learned nothing. He phoned me and sent a subsequent email and his comments just get more and more arrogant, which is really unfortunate. Sometimes it’s difficult to take a step back to gain some new perspective. But so it goes…. time to learn the lessons and move on to better things.

  2. When the situation gets to this point Shelley, my personal strategy is SILENCE. I find it very effective – and comforting. And during this period, you can quietly step backward from the situation. Then life goes on……….and you are the better person for it!!

  3. Pam Cumming

    I love your snow scene Shelley, and has great composition to make it even more exciting.
    The little bit of color from the sun just shows the mood of the day.
    I agree with what you have said about Judging people’s images. It is not an easy job, but being positive about the image, and then adding where things could be improved if needed. I guess sometimes the same people are called on a lot to judge, and they get too blase about it. It is not something I like doing, as it is so subjective, and once more is just my opinion, and who am I to say that I am correct. I think there are many times that we do not agree with the judge , but we just have to move on. (But that is different from the experience you had where they contd to be rude)
    John was saying he likes the salon kind of judging, and while it is good, there is not the feedback for learning, and I think other people in the audience can learn a lot from a good Judge.
    I am enjoying your site – but must visit them more often – and perhaps make comments, as it is so nice to hear the thought of other people and get the feedback.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks for your comments Pam. It’s great to hear from you. And I completely agree with what you said about judging. I think sometimes when folks are tasked with judging or critiquing, they forget that their comments can have such a profound impact on the author of that image. Really negative feedback can competely discourage a new photographer and I think that’s a real shame.

      As you pointed out, I think in judging/critiquing, we have to keep in mind that we are only one opinion. To me, it’s no different than wine tasting. I love a good New Zealand sav blanc, but am not so fussed on oaked chardonnay. I’d sooner have a Waipara reisling. :o) But that’s just my own personal taste. It doesn’t mean the oaked chardonnay isn’t good.

      I’ve done some judging myself and my number one rule when I do so is be CONSTRUCTIVE! If I’m not, then nothing I say has any value.

      This was a tough reminder of some lessons, but a good reminder, nonetheless. Being open-minded and constructive is so important. I definitely won’t forget that!

  4. Yes, but WHY do we photograph??
    Is it to please the judge as I hear so often (it bugs me immensely) or is it to learn from the judge (providing the judge is a good one who can provide constructive critique). Pam is right that we can learn from a good judge – just so long as the judge is a good one and the image in question was not originally photographed with ‘the judge’ in mind!!
    And re your snow image. It is a lovely image – moody and pretty well balanced. And as I look out the study window here, the sky is black and the promised snow doesn’t look far away. I should get out of this cosy house (just got our upstairs heating replaced after 11 months without it) and record the weather.
    Keep up the good work Shelley – feel as though you are back here beside me chatting and laughing again.

  5. You’re so right John! The judging means little unless we learn from it. I wonder if it matters what level it’s at? I think of CPS where it’s not a group of professionals and we are all there to learn and enjoy (hopefully!). In that environment, I think judging should be about teaching and learning and not getting another piece of paper with a written accolade on it. But for professional photographers (just thinking of the recent IRIS awards in NZ), does the same apply? Is it about learning? Or at that level, is it more about recognition by your peers? Just throwing that out there as fodder for discussion. I don’t know the answer.

    I remember once I was a judge for the ‘trial by fire’ or whatever they call it, at CPS. I thoroughly enjoyed it because I think it’s fun and interesting to try to verbally communicate to people what you like about an image. There were three of us and we had that old electronic score thingy that lights up your score. It was funny because the other two judges scores were consistent, but mine were way out of whack with theirs! It’s because I wasn’t looking for that oh-so-typical landscape or the kinds of images that are so common in the society. There were some that were pretty artsy and photo-impressionistic and I scored them high whereas the other judges scored them low. The moral of that story? I like reisling, you like chardonnay. That’s all it is. Personal taste. One person’s opinion is no more valuable than another.

    Speaking of wine, I agree. It’s like we’re in the same room gabbing photography again. I sure miss that – a glass of white wine and a good old conflb. I think you and Chris are just going to have to come over here next (NZ) winter so that you can experience Ontario summer weather, landscapes and wildlife. Ontario wine isn’t very good (in my opinion ;o) ) but we can get some Kiwi wines here, so we’ll just have to sit in our screened in porch and drink NZ wine. :o)

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