Can't We Do Better Than This? Why the Photography Community Needs a Lot of Work

Can't We Do Better Than This? Why the Photography Community Needs a Lot of Work

I have a confession: I don't like a lot of photographers. I see unfounded vitriol and unearned authority slung carelessly and without reason. It makes me weary, and in a field in which it's hard enough to succeed without unnecessary negativity, I simply don't have time for it.

The Unexpected Virtue of Caring

I'm reminded of a scene from "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," in which Michael Keaton's character encounters the most prominent critic and proverbial gatekeeper of the theater scene, the person who could make or break his play.  While the "critic" in this scene is more a caricature (real professional critics would never get away with "killing" a show without having seen it), her behavior is a spot-on embodiment of all that is wrong with the artistic community. Indeed, "what has to happen in a person's life for them to become a 'critic'?" Pay close attention (warning: there's a healthy dose of NSFW language). Bonus points if you can name the piece at the end of the clip.

  • "These are just all labels! You just label everything. That's so ******* lazy!"
  • "You can't see this thing if you don't know how to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge."
  • "It's just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons!"

I remember being deeply affected by this scene on many levels when I first saw the movie, and I still am. It hits on many fronts. It succinctly summarizes the contrived, diabolically negative, lazy world artists create for each other. Is it not hard enough to be a creative in today's society? Do we need to further romanticize the struggle by bashing each other down needlessly and without substance? That's not romantic. That's just lazy.

Michael Keaton's rant is spot-on as well. How often do we see "critiques" or comments that amount to single-sentence responses, dripping in sarcasm, addressing nothing of substance, and wholly dismissing the work unceremoniously? Or, put more simply, how often do we see a "bunch of crappy opinions?" Unfounded criticism is pointless; it benefits neither the critic nor the artist. It clouds the forum with faux profundities and half-baked witticisms borne of unearned jadedness. It reeks of the desire to fulfill one's own smug satisfaction in backhandedly dismissing the work of another. It's a thinly veiled manifestation of insecurity. 

Nothing of Substance Pays Nothing of Value

What angers me so much about this useless chatter is that it's hard enough to be a creative with all the external noise, let alone having to deal with internal noise within the community as well. What does a comment of "Boring!" accomplish? It says nothing of composition. It says nothing of form. It says nothing of intention, of technique, of color usage, of subject matter, of social commentary, of lighting, of post-processing, of posing. It says nothing at all. Read that again. It says nothing.

A professional photographer has a professional opinion. They draw upon years of experience, of experimentation, of hard work to form a coherent, succinct, but in-depth and balanced explanation of why, given their experience, an image does or does not affect them. The takeaway word here is "experience." 

Unsubstantiated opinions are a worthless currency most often wielded by the unexperienced, the uninformed, or the overly jaded. They are the lowest hanging fruit, something we can all reach for should we so choose, but of course, we can do better. Why, anyway, is there the unnecessary negativity that serves no useful function? The answer is very simple, and many aren't going to want to admit it: laziness and fear. It's easier to sit on the sidelines and complain, to sit in the audience and pontificate, than it is to get out, take risks, and do, then speak with an authority earned through no other route than perseverance, exploration, and bravery. But guess what? Anyone whose opinion is worth listening to has traveled that route. 

There's a Way to Do This

I'm not saying the community will be made better by softballing; nay, it's hard enough to make it as a creative without being fed lies about your capabilities. But on the same token, "critique" without body, without the wisdom of experience, of engaged perception, of caring for the fellow artist is worthless; it's not worthy of the label "critique." At the very best, it distracts from those who have something to say. At the worst, it needlessly discourages and undermines the foundation of a community that so sorely needs that foundation. It promotes an individualistic culture in which we mistake jadedness and artificial skepticism for authority, the irony being that those who embody those qualities often have the least authority of all. It undermines the sense of community in a field that strongly needs a sense of community. 

And so, how do we get the community back on track? We make ourselves, the individual constituents, better. We learn how to critique. We let go of the artificially constructed and entirely non-existent power struggle in which we vie to demonstrate who is more jaded, who is more world-weary, as if that somehow correlates with knowledge and experience (it doesn't). Some of the best photographers I know are some of the nicest people I know. They are above the posturing and schoolyard bullying enabled by the relative anonymity of the internet. 

One of the most salient lessons I've learned from teaching classes is that there truly is no better way to learn than to teach. Being put in a position in which I'm responsible for succinctly, clearly, and comprehensively conveying my knowledge to someone else forces me to know it inside and out, and each time I teach it again, I understand it all the more. If you take the time to engage with someone and express a thoughtful critique or opinion, you'll gain just as much as they do from the interaction. 

Am I saying anything new? No, of course not. In fact, I'll probably get skewered for writing this at least once by someone with the exact sentiment I'm bemoaning here. But really, can't we do better? Why settle for thoughtless, one-word rejections and unmoved jadedness as if all of artistic expression is surfeit? If that's all you can say, get out and do something better. 

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37 Comments

David Moore's picture

It isn't just the negative comments that are empty, they are just the ones we notice because they can sting. "Beautiful" is just as empty of a critique, it just makes us feel better so we don't really care that is an empty comment.

Just something that's bashed around my head for years and this made me think of.

Mike Freestone's picture

Boring!

Haha, 100% kidding.

First I'll just say thank you for writing this. It might not have been an easy decision, considering the subject, but it definitely needed to be reiterated. Reading it made me realize that I've been posting less work for critique. The reason being that the majority of responses don't add any value or make me any better, so why waste my time?

However, there ARE people who do add an honest, helpful critique that usually do so, not to help the artist, but to help themselves. Selfish as it sounds, that's why I critique. It's for the exact reason that you mention above, that "there truly is no better way to learn than to teach."

Looking at someone's work and pulling informed and well-crafted thoughts on the piece makes me look at my own work in a way I didn't before.

Lorri Adams's picture

<Looking at someone's work and pulling informed and well-crafted thoughts on the piece makes me look at my own work in a way I didn't before.> - my thoughts exactly. When I look at others photos, I take my time to really LOOK and discern what it is I like or don't like about the image. So, rather than just tossing out some generic 'Great" I will elaborate:- "I like your use of leading lines, the colours, the way this or that was captured, that way I learn too because it makes me really think about what I'm looking at and why it makes me feel the way I do.

John Skinner's picture

There is a simple and effective way to loose this. STOP interacting with social media, perform your job to the best of your ability, and live life and enjoy what you produce.

If you give people the chance to chime in on any subject, in large part there is going to be a whole lot of negative, and very little positive. It's just fact, it's the way people are and always have been. And further to that, and more specific to this hobby/profession... there are camps of people that either through costs / affordability / exposure / access -- all rear their heads with bias towards what THEY feel are the right views on a given post / subject / piece of work.

Believe it or not..... We DID survive and grow prior to the internets. And if your personal take-a-way from it now is one of these opinions -- this could be a sign your either young and completely stupid. Or, your not listening in the right places. You make that call.

Adam Sparkes's picture

Very thoughtful, Alex. This expounds into so many ways that fellow creatives interact with one another, and really is worthy critique of those who simply can't resist the urge to operate carelessly in ambiguity or to lord over those they feel they can appear superior to. Cheers!

Lee Ramsden's picture

I truly believe the hate is a mask to hide behind,
When you read the most hateful comments and take the time to view their website,
You find the selective colour, HDR image of a cat on a train track...

Scott Kelby did a great post few years ago where he revisited his post of announcing apples new product the iPad. People went nuts.
How you can comment on something that you have never seen - or used- is amazing.
If you don't want something or like it - move on :0)

Anders Madsen's picture

Well, you can't really have it all, can you?

Putting the label "art" on what you do means that you accept the responsibility for evoking an emotion in the viewer with your images, even if that may be "boring". Evoking emotion may be hit and miss, but if "boring", "meh" and "yawn" are the most frequent responses to something that was meant to ignite a fire in the viewer, you should probably consider switching to another audience or re-visit your concept.

On the other hand you may consider yourself a craftsman and as such, you're producing and selling a product, and you can safely take the high road regarding negative comments as long as your customers are happy and your images and services are selling well.

Now, there is a third option that actually fits most scenarios better, but not all want to take it: Present your work as a work in progress, the work of a scholar wanting to learn and grow, or an experiment that you would like others to comment on.

My personal experience is, that while there are still the occasional troll (this is the Internet after all), the amount of helpful comments are waaay higher when you set the expectations at a realistic level. If you are going out on a limb, let people know. If you had to cut a ton of corners but found something you think could be interesting to re-visit but want a second opinion on, let people know.

But preface your images with "Saw this gorgeous model in a brand new light today and wanted to share the awesomeness that ensued!" and you'd better wear a flak jacket if your images are just another load of "bikini girl at sunset wit on-camera flash."

Devorah Goldstein's picture

I have to agree with you. I'm in the process of a complete portfolio overhaul that includes leaving behind some images I love but that aren't relevant to the market I want to target. As I'm doing this, I'm speaking to and reading books by lots of people with huge background and cred in the business, and one of the things I've heard most often is, as a photographer you have to be able to (and it's so hard!) divest yourself completely of your knowledge of the moment of capture (i.e. this shot took two hours, or the light finally was in just the right place, or I had to pay twice as much for this model, etc.) -- all the things that will influence your *own* perception of the image. Things that, in other words, no one else on earth will know. Everyone else just sees the image, and it has to stand or fall on its own merits. If the reaction is "Boring" well, guess what, they don't know (or care) that it took two hours, that the light was finally right, that you paid twice as much to get this model. They see an image that falls flat for them, and that *is* valuable information. It just might not be the information the photographer wants. Too bad. Grow a thicker skin, or ONLY show your images to people whose opinions you trust, and leave social media for which camera bag to buy (an F-stoppers speciality of late).

Anonymous's picture

Been loving the Fstoppers content of late....

Have written a couple of blogs like this this year too, after being on the end of a torrent of abuse for simply recommending a camera brand to a new starter that someone else didnt like and witnessing several people being abused/having extreme negative comments over work featured on blogs/comps etc.

Its a very weird state, where rather than praise someone for being successful, some would rather openly mock or try and disparage someone achieving. I must say thankfully there seems to be a lot of photographers on Fstoppers that do prefer to discuss and support rather than troll.

I think just about every photographer I've talked with has contemplated stepping away from social media for a while. Zac Arias has compared this to "signal vs noise" which stuck with me. Signal is what we are looking for, clear ideas, inspiration, expression, personal/artistic growth. Noise is all that's distracting, drowning our own thoughts, making us doubt ourselves. To get a clear signal is hard, active work. It's much easier to immerse oneself in a bit of noise, hoping that by filtering it, one might get out a bit of signal passively. The analogy works really well on so many levels. Kudos Zac and kudos Alex for reminding us!

Offer constructive criticism; offer suggestions for improvement.

great article!

Hacks can't handle criticism. They run away from it and that's why they never get any better.

Matthew Saville's picture

I never understand how certain people can get through life making enough spare time to troll the internet spouting hate and spite. Seriously, how do you pay your bills? Do you just efficiently channel your energy into work, and then trolling the internet being mean for only a few minutes a day, and then go back to getting work accomplished and paying your bills?

It seems like an inordinate amount of time is spent by certain people, just being bitter and annoying. Maybe they'd be less bitter if they'd spend more of their time either getting stuff done, or simply being releaxed and content.

Personally, I can barely get through my day being productive without "wasting" my time trying to HELP other photographers. I guess I should be glad that my drug of choice is positivity, not negativity. But it's still an addiction that doesn't pay the bills. :-\

Mauricio Bonilla's picture

Man you hit the nail on the head. I recently had a meeting with a director at my job about a web project and all she could come up with for criticism was exactly that "boring!" And when I calmly proceed to inquire what exactly she didn't like or how it could improve in her eyes... Nothing, not a single word of substance, simply "I don't know, I just don't like it". It infuriates me to no end when someone cannot offer any constructive input, yet have the facility to insult my work to my face without any regard to the process behind it. Sadly positions of power, or presumed power, often breed insecurities and a lack of integrity poised behind an unwavering ego. Great article

Austin Rogers's picture

This was a really great read, definitely echoed some of the things I've been thinking about recently. Thank you.

People can be dicks, and it's not going to change. It's how you react, personally, that matters.

My photos on here don't generate much positive comments, but I don't care. I'll get up early, and drink my morning coffee while spending quiet time outdoors. What I post is SOOC. If it takes hours at the computer to gain the approval of other members, they are clearly not my peers.

Kyle Medina's picture

We are still in a immaturity state of the Internet. I honestly think the negative comments that people are saying. Come from just shitty people in world and all of a sudden they have an outlet to be heard by everyone. They just scream and scream because apparently something is wrong with them in real life. You just have to filter out the BS and ignore it. And don't give in to the bait. Also it doesn't apply to this community, it's every community.

Michael Comeau's picture

The problem isn't mindless bitching and moaning onlline.

The problem is photographers paying too much attention to it, and starting to pander to fit in. It's all about group think and tribalism.

Travis Alex's picture

Our community has devolved into hate mongering those who we see as inferior and fear of being inadequate in the eyes of our own peers.

I think part of that stems from the fact the photography community as a whole has never been so big. It's grown exponentially, and in many respects, has trouble with the inexperience on such a wide a range of skills and talents. I would even argue that our community is one of the hardest to mediate based on that wide range.

The birdman reference was spot on, glamorizing the idea of people who have socially appointed power, in which one of them really don't deserve or have not really earned that power. One particular line right in the beginning really stuck out to me:

"I don't like a lot of photographers. I see unfounded vitriol and unearned authority slung carelessly and without reason. It makes me weary, and in a field in which it's hard enough to succeed..."

This one sentence sums it up for me completely. A lot of photographers who I know, who are in my age bracket do not belong (or have any business) making money taking photos, yet alone having a following that sees them as role models. They are entitled, egoistical, technically inept, artistically dull, but that alone, is a whole other issue behind the industry as a whole (which I won't get into today).

My point is: Their are a fair amount who have power now, who I (and I'm sure many would agree) believe should not be praised, or held to the position they are in (and yes, I am referring to some huge names who will I will not name drop).

Do I think their is a solution? Nope. Here's why: Photographers are stubborn. Older generations make fun of younger, younger poke at older. It's a giant pissing contest between old and new. Frankly, until people just learn to get a long and appreciate the challenge involved with photography, until people take the time not to be lazy and educate themselves on how to critique respectfully, until people stop getting offended by blunt and honest critiques, until we stop praising bad people who are OK photographers, nothing will change.

I've found the best way to get feedback is asking specific peers. Why put out work for critism to the unwashed masses went you don't know who they are? That seems pointless and alot of work. Target your reviewers, pay them for their time if you have to. Find a professional you respect and ask for their critique.

Gustavo Ferlizi's picture

Exactly.

Bart Edson's picture

Thank you, I couldn't agree more. I will say that I had to quit the FStoppers Facebook Group because of the level of teenage immaturity that runs rampant through that group. (Photos of Michael Jackson holding a bucket of popcorn anyone?) My quality of life improved significantly once I cut that crap out of my daily life.

Justin Tierney's picture

Just to answer your question, Alex. The piece played at the end of the Birdman clip is the third movement of Ravel's Piano Trio, one of my favorites.

Alex Cooke's picture

Bonus points for you! It's one of my favorites as well.

Jose Luis's picture

Everyone needs to learn how to manage their social media. If someone leaves me an online critique I just delete it. If they persist I just block them. Its not that Im against critique or personal growth but that is something I seek out from people I choose to learn from. Social media is just brand development and the only things I seek on social media are jobs, opportunities, friends and fans. People who are trying to take chips at me- are none of those. I promise- just learn how to use your delete and block buttons and you will be just fine! Hope that helps!

Brad Barton's picture

What we're really discussing is criticism vs critique. One is designed to make the giver feel better about themselves. The other is designed to make the recipient better in general.

There is very little true critique that happens on the Internet and plenty of criticism.

If you want true critique, find yourself a mentor or two who you respect and aren't, as the author here puts it, "lazy" with their critique.

The only criticism that matters is the person paying you (or not paying you because they do not like it). The others are not your client and will never be your client. Their opinion does not matter.

Rob Mynard's picture

Interesting that this should be up on Fstoppers today as, just this morning, one of my customers (I run a little camera shop) noticed that I had some shots up on here and commented that he had to stop using the fstopper forums as he felt that the only time the fstoppers community gave positive feedback was for images of semi naked women (which he didn't shoot).
While I haven't found it to be as bad as that (and indeed I'm still quite active on the forums here) the CC that I've received on fstoppers has generally been more negative and unfounded than nearly any other site I frequent.

Rob Mynard's picture

Nice article though Alex :-)

Ansel Spear's picture

Great observations, well presented. Thanks.

As far as David Moore's comment about single words such as 'beautiful' being an empty critique, I disagree. Encouragement is also a valid critique and, sometimes, single positive words can give just that.