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)