For over 25 years, I have been a photo educator in one form or another. Whether as a writer, adjunct professor or a workshop leader, I have shared my knowledge and experience with thousands of photographers with varying levels of experience.
However, there have been times when I am the student. And regardless of what I know, or think I know, there is always some insight to be gained when I am listening to another person sharing their knowledge and experience.
That was the case when I was a recent participant in the Momenta Photography Workshop, which was held last week in Los Angeles. This unique workshop provides photographers the opportunity to produce documentary-style work for the benefit of a non-profit organization. It is a time to turns one’s skills behind the camera and use it for the benefit of others.
One of the valuable insights that I gained while attending the workshop had to do with the learning process, especially with respect to critiques. The feedback that I received of my work from Matt Rose and Gail Fischer were invaluable to me. They not only informed how I produced images for my non-profit but also allowed me to evaluate the importance of feedback and critique. Here are some tips that I hope you will find helpful the next time you seek an opportunity for feedback and critique of your work.
Who is Critiquing You?
Knowing something of the experience and background of the person who is providing feedback and a critique is incredibly important. You want more than just an opinion about whether someone likes or dislikes your photographs. You want informed insight into what you are doing wrong and how you stand to improve on the things that you are doing right. The best feedback is often received by people who have proven themselves with their own body of work.
Having a knowledge and the person and their work will help you to ask informed questions of your own. This is especially important if you are producing work along the lines of the person providing you your critique.
Anonymous critiques or unsolicited feedback on one’s photographs, especially online, is something to be very wary of. You not only do not know who is providing the critique, but you also do not know whether that person has their own agenda. So take such feedback with a grain of salt, especially if you are interested in more than a few likes and a thumbs up.
Shut Up and Listen
Once you know of the person from whom you are receiving the critique, sit down and listen. Do not prequalify the work that is going to be seen by explaining why it may not be your best work or that it is incomplete. Let the work speak for itself and allow the person to react to it in a sincere and unfiltered way.
So, do not be defensive. Do not keep offering excuses for each critique that the person makes of the photographs. Don’t explain why you could not, in that particular situation, do what the person is suggesting that you do. It is a hard thing to do. We are wired to justify ourselves when facing criticism, but that is exactly what you need to. Remember, that you are not looking for personal approval. You are looking for information that will help you to become a better photographer.
Answer Questions Honestly
One of the questions that I was asked during one of my critiques was, “What is your story?”. I fumbled for an answer trying to figure it out on the spot. She asked me again and I took a beat and then replied, “I don’t know.”. That was uncomfortable to admit, but it provided me a valuable insight into how I approach this kind of work. I simply cannot shoot whatever is presented to me in the hope of finding the story. I need to go in with at least an idea of what my story might be
When questions are posed, you have to leave your ego at the door. If you do not know something, be honest and say that you do not know. It is not a point of shame, but rather an indicator of an area where you can stand to improve on.
You will not find this word in the English dictionary or any dictionary for that matter. It is simply “Take what you like and leave the rest”. It is an important aspect of receiving critique from anyone.
It is important to remember that any feedback or critique you receive is a point of view and points of view will differ. If you have ever participated in a portfolio review with multiple people, you will receive contradictory feedback on your work. Some people will love it. Others will be indifferent to it. Some will hate it. What is important to remember is that what you are looking for is information that will help you to improve your photography and that can come from someone who likes or dislikes your work.
If you can detach your emotions from the positive or negative reaction to your work and really listen to what they are saying about the work itself, you may be able to derive some valuable insight that will help you. The rest of it, you can leave by the wayside.
Granted this is a difficult to do, especially when you are presenting very personal work for someone else’s opinion. However, it is the ability to do this that will help you to thrive as a photographer.
Like you, I get the butterflies in my stomach anytime I sit down with someone to receive a critique of my work. I am hesitant to do so just like the next photographer, but I also recognize the opportunity that it provides me to grow and push past my perceived limits. It is the means by which I achieving my goals.