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.