Early on, I faced some bullying from older photographers that viewed me as competition and tried to convince me to quit my budding photo career. Ever since, I have been particularly aware and sensitive to how photographers treat and/or handle each other. It's as if so many creatives are willing to try and crush others' work/reputations/jobs in order to get ahead. To many, it seems like a dog eat dog industry, but it doesn't have to be. I've put together some thoughts and tips on how to overcome those that may try to bully or discourage you.
I was inspired to write this article after I was approached by a few younger photographers that I know to be good shooters and good people that were discouraged and down about their work and careers due to bullying. No, they are not the type to whine, these are people that are being repeatedly bombarded by negativity, lies, shady underhanded competition tactics by one or two other photographers in their markets (unprovoked mind you). It made me sad to be reminded that this is a reality in our industry (as well as many other industries), from internet "trolls" to people we actually work alongside. This is just the nature of a highly competitive industry sadly, but this does not have to get you down!
I want to say early on that this is NOT meant to be an article that intends to name names or point fingers or call people out. I want to use this space to call out the fact that this IS a problem in our industry and that you should not be discouraged because this is something most of us face. I will share a couple of my personal experiences and what I learned from them. I hope some of the tips and situations myself and some fellow photographers share below give you some newfound confidence and energy to overcome the naysayers and let their worlds fuel you to overcome and dominate. --
Embrace your Local Creative Community
I'm involved in a few photo groups (online and local to NYC), in which we socialize and share tips and resources and critiques (I wrote an article on this). These are not public forums, they are more like... smaller groups of 20-40 in which we all reach out to each other to help and share. I'm in one secret photo industry group of all established photographers of a certain specialty. Often times we will bid on the same campaigns, other times we may even do shoots for the same client, but in other cities/countries and we help each other with bids, or how to accomplish a certain effect, location advice, etc. It is AWESOME to be involved with groups of photographers like this where we go out of our way to help each other, even if we do sometimes compete on the same projects.
Back when I lived in DC, I hosted mixers at my favorite Irish pub where all creatives were welcome. We would hang out and talk work and often times nothing about work whatsoever, but what's great was that soon after we had our first meetups, I'd see various people that came to hang out helping each other on set or with gear or advice! If you have talent and good energy and determination and you adapt your work over time, then you have no need to abuse or talk crap about other photographers to benefit yourself. I've NEVER felt the need to abuse another photographer to benefit myself and I can promise you I have a comfortable career that I built myself from scratch from my own sweat and tears and not from the blood of others.
Find Understanding In Their Actions
Understand that their behavior is most likely fueled by jealousy or you are viewed as a threat to them or their livelihood. One time an older photographer I looked up to and respected when I was young in my career, told me to enjoy my "15 minutes because they were almost up." In my recollection, this only happened after a corporate client started hiring me to be a second shooter at events in which he was the senior photographer. I wasn't taking work from him and I was always respectful and often asked him for advice and respected his place in the industry. It made me sad when I heard he was telling other photographers behind my back that I was not very good and he thought my marketing techniques were terrible. I was sad that a photographer I looked up to would do such things when I meant no harm to him or his career and was nothing but friendly. I let it fuel me. After I moped for a bit, I became a bit angry. I didn't want to retaliate, but rather, I wanted to succeed. To prove to this photographer and anyone else that doubted me that I could succeed despite their words and actions. That I could be polite to my other photographers, I could enjoy teaching to those that wanted to learn, and I could land magazine and advertising campaigns that my reputation, hard work, portfolio, and business practices would earn me fair and square. It's actually people like him that I should thank for my success thus far. If it wasn't for the people that expected me to fail, then the success wouldn't be as sweet.
I one time dealt with a friend and assistant that started going behind my back to my clients and literally telling them that I was a terrible photographer (everyone is allowed to their opinion, but to my face he had nothing but compliments) and he could do what I do, but for less, thus trying to steal my business. This is someone that called me one of their best friends, but behind my back would tell other photographers in the community lies about my personal life and my business practices that I found hurtful and sad and I felt his words affected my reputation as an honorable person. I humored public retaliation - I mean, who wouldn't? I thought about posting screen caps of texts and messages of this person spreading lies, using my name and telling people he was my former business partner (not true and scary that he would even claim that), and I even thought about confronting this person face to face. But then I realized I would be giving this person the attention they do not deserve. I was deeply hurt by the blatant attack by a supposed friend who used my name to try and steal clients and while attempting to throw me under the bus, but realized that I would proceed forward and cut contact with this person and ignore them. If people that met and interacted with me chose to believe whatever BS rumor that I was a jerk or whatever, that is their choice. I would bust my ass and continue to strengthen my portfolio and do the best job for my clients that I could and let my actions speak for themselves.
Just remember, the bully reputation catches up with you. If you are a jerk for whatever reason, people will find out on their own. Reputation is HUGE in this business. So, again, if you feel discouraged by a similar situation, keep your chin up, be the best photographer you can be, be honorable, show your true talent. Those that play hurtful games will remain stuck in their games. Rise above and realize that the best revenge is succeeding when their efforts fail.
Don't Encourage Negativity
Don't be a troll. It's always hard to post an image up on a public forum and not get one person that is truly insensitive with their remarks. It could be an award-winning photo and some dude with a portfolio filled with blurry iPhone photos of stranger's feet (no offense intended to anyone with a portfolio like this) will somehow want to claim that you are terrible and they know better. Listen, you have to accept that people will have opinions and you can choose to accept them or not. That's the nature of a critique. You can take criticism and try and learn from it, even if it seems crazy, but don't take it to heart. If you believe in your art and are also aware that you NEVER stop growing and learning as a creative, then you will be fine. If I may offer advice about when you DO critique another photo, try and get in the habit of mentioning at least 1 positive thing, even if you hate the photo. I learned that from one of my favorite photo professors from R.I.T. It trains you to see the lesson in every photo, even if it's not your cup of tea. Also be aware that just because someone isn't at your skill level, you do not have to tear them apart. Of course BE HONEST, but pretend that person is sitting next to you at a table and you have to say it to their face.
Here are some thoughts and tips from fellow photographer friends on how they have dealt with bullies:
- Don't feed the fire - it only draws the drama out longer. Our natural compulsion is to debate, argue, and rush headlong into conflict, especially when someone has questioned your integrity or intent. Remember that actions speak louder than words and that you can best put these issues to rest by delivering amazing product, treating your clients with respect, and turning your customers into advocates whose passion for your work outweighs any shade another photographer might throw at you. Create your own good buzz through your actions and let others spread the truth for you. Be wise in choosing your mentors and those you mentor - A lot drama between photographers can come through misunderstandings during the critique process or mentorship. Understand the dynamics of those relationships and be sure to give due respect to differing viewpoints regardless of which side of the equation you are on. Learn/teach while respecting the uniqueness of each parties work and style.
- Self-Examine - Sometimes we aren't all as innocent as we would like to think. There's an old saying that say if you are the only common denominator in all your bad relationships then you might need to reexamine if you are actually the one at fault. Try to step outside yourself for a while and be a little introspective, are you acting in a manner that may give someone a legitimate grievance with you? even unintentionally? How have your patterns of behavior affected others? Maybe its time to reach out and try to find a civil resolution to this and hear their side of the story.
- Don't let it hold you back - Don't let the words of others take the winds out of your sails, instead, let it be a motivator for you to work harder, push farther, and expand your talent and vision. More than anything else I suggest not getting bogged down in the politics and reputation games of this industry and instead focusing on your work and your clients.
- KEEP ON KEEPING ON
- Recognize that 99% of the time you’re being bullied because the bully feels threatened by what you’re putting out there…so keep at it! Let them waste their time and energy focusing on you whilst you spend your time and energy developing your skills, being consistent and moving forward.
- No matter how hard it is not to…don’t retaliate or better still, let your followers do the dirty work for you and believe me…they will; no one likes to see a friend being treated badly right?
- Come right out with it and ask them why they say such words and behave the way they do about you. Put them on the spot. I’ve done this once before and sure enough the Bully seemed to disappear. Of course they’ll nearly always come back with the standard "I’m only trying to help"
- If all else fails…Name and Shame. None of us want to air our dirty laundry in public and like to think we can deal with whatever comes our way HOWEVER sometimes enough is enough! So name and shame and heck why not take a screen grab of something they emailed you and post that too. Don’t suffer in silence; let others see what’s going on and that will take you back to number 3…well…the friends bit anyway :)
- Keep copies of everything! Screen grabs, emails and anything else because if one day it really does get out of hand and potentially start impacting on your business and livelihood you’re going to need to show the authorities exactly what you’ve been experiencing.
I have always taken everything that most other photographers say to me with a large grain of salt. Unlike most, I don't really care what many other photographers say to me. I've lost count of how many photographers have told me "you're doing this wrong, you're doing that wrong, it needs to be done this way, like I learned how to do it, and you'll never get clients that way."
If I had listened to them (and many of them can be downright condescending and insulting) I wouldn't have gotten very far in my career at all. For some reason, many photographers have this hyper-competitive edge about them and that comes out by putting others' work down. As a result of this, for the most part I steer clear of online photography communities and these people, and keep a very short list of other photographers in my 'rolodex' who I trust to critique my work.
Sure, it's fun to get compliments on your work from other photographers in the community at large, but the ultimate compliment to me is a happy client sending me a nice fat check. And there sure have been plenty of times where the client is over the moon with the shots, but the pictures have definitely been put down by other photographers because they don't really appreciate the circumstances involved. So if you have the resolve to do so, I honestly suggest that you stick to refining your vision and trust your instinct to create what you see to develop a unique style, rather than dealing with poisonous remarks from internet tough guys on forums and Facebook groups.
Non-constructive criticism stems from jealousy in my opinion. These trolls suddenly feel threatened by the success of others and the only way to bring them down is by being nasty and cruel. It's the only thing they can do to make them feel better about their pitiful existence and lack of talent. I love constructive criticism and have been able to progress from it, but someone outright telling you, you have no talent when you have done nothing to personally attack them is just jealous.
What are your thoughts? Have any tips to add? What kind of bullying have you been facing? Please try and refrain from naming names, but feel free to share your story and experience so others may know that they are not alone in this kind of behavior.