You are a fabulous photographer. I love your work and find it inspiring. When was the last time you said that to someone? Evidence proves that the more you praise others, the better your own work will be.
Although there seem to be many meanspirited people in the photography world, they are a tiny minority. They are just very vociferous. Always happy to dig at others, these constant cynics who look down their noses at others miss what is staring them in their face. Their boisterous, unkind comments say a lot more about them. As my middle school headteacher used to say, empty vessels make the most noise.
Research has repeatedly shown that creativity is directly associated with positivity and kindness:
The creativity-mood relationship is bidirectional; emotions are both predictors of creative behavior and creative behavior affects creators’ emotional states.
Ivcevic Z, Hoffmann J. Emotions and Creativity: From States to Traits and Emotion Abilities
Similarly, numerous studies have shown that pro-social behavior, for example, encouraging and supporting others, is food for our emotional well-being. Combined, these findings lead us to the obvious conclusion that those who excel creatively are more likely to be the most supportive. The same is true the other way around: those that are encouraging to others are most likely to succeed creatively.
Therefore, it also follows that the opposite applies too: those that show negativity toward others are less likely to be as successful creatively. Indeed, it is well known in the creative industries, including photography, that most of the nay-sayers, who are always quick to criticize and condemn others, are usually not very good creatively. Next time you see a negative comment from a photographer, look at their gallery, and you will see what I mean.
This is probably not too surprising. We have all met those who mistakenly believe the only way they can make themselves look good is to disparage others. I’ve worked in plenty of toxic workplaces like this.
Most photographers that are worth their salt struggle with accepting their work is good enough. Although the majority always strive to improve, they know that helping others will also lead to themselves improving.
But they have also realized something disheartening. It’s long-held knowledge that you should not ask a family member if your photography is good enough for you to become a professional because they will always answer yes. Additionally, if they post a pretty picture on social media, it will attract far more little red hearts than a better photo that is nonetheless more challenging to appreciate. Despite those unusual photos bringing the most satisfaction to the photographer, they are pressured to produce more crowd-pleasing images.
So, where should you turn? On the one hand, some will praise your work no matter how good it is. Then, on the other, some will use every opportunity to knock you back.
The obvious answer is seeking awards or prizes in photographic societies. But this is not without its own difficulties. Many judges rate images within the parameters of widely accepted ideals. That, in turn, can restrict the ability of the creative photographer to grow. Furthermore, it is not unknown that club judges denigrate good work because it threatens their position at the top of the tree.
A whole industry has built up around patting photographers on the back. Whether this is an award from a national society, a prize in a photo competition, or using psychological marketing tactics to encourage you to post on social media, that support helps boost the confidence of photographers. But should we also treat these rewards with a pinch of skepticism? After all, they all rely on subjective decisions made by others. Moreover, there is no regulation. Consequently, at its worse, it has led to online businesses that sell expensive, low-quality, unaccredited courses that claim they are giving diplomas when the award is little more than an attendance certificate.
There is excellent training to be found online and from professional photographers, plus established and accredited education providers. But I have had clients come to me after getting a diploma from an unaccredited online course who didn’t understand the basics of exposure.
If you break away from the establishment and dare to do something different, you may be penalized and discouraged. Yet many new and successful art and design movements are condemned at first by the establishment, although that can ultimately lead to the movement becoming more successful. As an extreme example, Bauhaus was condemned by the Nazis, leading to the designers and artists running from Germany and spreading their aesthetic ideas worldwide. Their designs are still hugely influential today.
So, there is a balance to be achieved between these two opposing forces: we should both encourage others and accept encouragement, and we should also beware of both well-meaning but fallacious praise and malicious criticism.
I am, of course, referring here to photography taken purely for its artistic merits. The motivation behind some professional photography needs to fall within rigid boundaries. For instance, a pro doing a product photoshoot for a business may have a degree of artistic leeway in producing the photos, but there will still be restrictions in place; the client will probably want their product identifiable and at the forefront of the pictures. A couple having their wedding photograph shot will also have expectations about what their images will look like. Whereas someone providing photos for a bird identification book is likely to deliver the widely – and unfairly – disparaged bird-on-a-stick pictures.
Successfully challenging the accepted norms is not easy because people will criticize. However, being different for the sake of it doesn’t work. It’s akin to building a barrow with a square wheel. Nevertheless, the pneumatic tire greatly impacted the barrow’s usability, so maybe we can look for the photographic equivalent of inventing that.
What areas can we break away from when trying to do something different? What variable ingredients do you need to capture that one great shot? There are two areas that we can think about.
Firstly, there is the design of the photo. This comprises the mathematical rules that make the placement of subjects in the image pleasing, including different approaches to using contrasts in color and tone.
Secondly, there is the art of the photo. Art is the intuitive, instinctive side of the image. It includes the mood, subject matter, movement, lighting, and the story the picture tries to tell. It is the aesthetic decisions you make.
Control these and break away from the norms, and you’ll become a fabulous photographer. I’ll find your work even more inspiring.