How to Protect Yourself From Toxic Photographers

How to Protect Yourself From Toxic Photographers

Most photographers are generous with their knowledge and supportive of others. Sadly, this is not true of everyone. Here's why a toxic minority gives all photographers a bad name and how to deal with them.

We've all come across them. In the comments section of an article, in an internet forum, at camera clubs, or work, toxic photographers are an unwelcome reality.

Much of the toxic behavior we observe online is often racist, sexist, or homophobic, and sometimes, ageism comes into play too. For all reasonable people, this kind of conduct is always unwelcome. Sadly, there are those with attitudes that never should have been acceptable and certainly not now in the 21st century. For example, articles on this site highlighting misogyny within the industry always bring forth a bunch of trolling comments. Fstoppers is getting good at stamping it out. Still, it is a difficult balance between allowing discussion about opposing points of view and removing a platform from the hatemongers. The same unpleasantness happens in many online groups, especially those where moderators and admins don't stamp down on it.

But it isn't only the prejudice against people with recognized protected statuses that photographers face. All people can be victims of nastiness, and it isn't just online.

The following examples all happened, but I have changed the names and situations slightly to protect the victims. I am sure many readers will recognize at least one of these circumstances that have happened to them or someone they know.

A couple of years ago, Mo, a novice photographer, mentioned to me that he had sought advice online about how to photograph a local event he regularly attended. He wanted to take his camera along for the first time and then share the pictures with the people he met there. In the camera forum where Mo had posted the question, it was met with a tirade of anger from a couple of professional photographers saying that if he had to ask that question, he should not be photographing the event. Mo was not doing it professionally, but purely as a favor for the others. He came to me, and I showed him the simple things he could do to achieve better shots, which he did. Those angry pros are still lurking in the forum and pounce on beginners asking simple questions.

At a photography club not far from me, the chairman, a professional photographer called Tony, always judged the photos. Ali was a member and a first-rate photographer. Ali wanted to start earning money from their work, yet never won the competitions. Consequently, Ali's confidence was knocked back by being constantly ignored for the first place. Ali's friend Pete, who regularly won, noticed that was happening.

One month, they each entered their pictures in the competition. But, this time, their entries had the other's name. Pete's entry of Ali's photo won. Both Pete and Ali left the club. Now, Ali is a successful professional photographer. Tony lost his chairmanship at the AGM and has disappeared into obscurity.

At another club, Gordon judges the photos in the competitions. He's a competent photographer, but constantly belittles the competition participants' work. Recently, Gordon destroyed a young boy's confidence with a harsh and unfair critique of his work. Consequently, the lad stopped taking photos, and the club is shedding members.

Jo is a fabulous photographer and works in a studio. Amber, the studio's business manager, doesn't thank Jo for her work, never encourages her, and constantly derides her in front of others. Amber repeatedly told Jo that she was no good. Even when instructions from Amber were wrong, she blamed Jo for her own mistakes. The bullying even resulted in the manager undermining Jo over a long period to the studio's owner and then setting her up to fail. That led to Jo suffering from depression.

Fortunately, a client noticed Jo's work and offered her work at a photo agency. Meanwhile, the studio's reputation has plummeted, and it now has difficulty recruiting or retaining staff. Their bad name resulted in them losing clients too.

Tam was a member of an online photography forum. As soon as Tam gave advice, posted a photo, or helped anyone, Steph, a long-standing group member, would disagree, make snide comments, or just reword the advice that Tam had already said. Steph then took the credit for finding solutions that Tam had already given. Everyone knew this was happening, but nobody did anything. Tam walked away and now helps photographers elsewhere. Steph is now an admin of the group and picks on other victims. More established members have since left that toxic forum too.

Daniel is a professional photographer with an over-inflated idea of his worth. He picks on others online, especially those more successful than him. Claiming superior knowledge because of his long career, Daniel rejoices in belittling the authors of photography articles. Uninvited, he offers poor-quality critiques of others' photographs too. He is subtle about it and is careful not always to pick on the same person or website all the while. However, Daniel doesn't realize that others in the industry deride him. He also loses work opportunities because of his behavior.

We've all come across situations like this and people who are not happy unless they make others' lives miserable. We have also read comments from those who spout bile and think they are essential members of a community because they are often the most vociferous and so stand out. Because they dominate the environment in which they operate, this boosts their ego and their already over-inflated and delusional feeling of self-worth.

So, what can we do to stamp out this horrible behavior? The good news is that, as you can see from the above examples, Newton's Third Law seems to come into play: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, when they maltreat others, that comes back to bite them in another way.

It's also worth noting that, despite their noise, they are in the minority. For example, articles here have thousands or tens of thousands of readers. Somebody might write a long, acidic comment. However, they may represent 0.005% or less of the readership of that article. They might get a handful of likes to their comment, but those supporters are still a tiny minority compared to the friendlier folk in the world.

But there are still abuse victims. Despite how the world almost always deals with the perpetrators, those victims need support. Sadly, most people hide and don't stand up for the abused. But if you do, it can make a huge difference. If you are in a position where you have a responsibility to stop this abuse, then please act upon that responsibility.

If you see people attacked, then do all you can to support them. Be kind to them. Whether privately or publicly in an online comment, just a few words of support can make a huge difference. Then, report it. Who you tell will vary depending upon the situation, whether it is a senior manager, an internet forum admin team, or even the police. Standing up to bullies and showing that their behavior is unacceptable in a civilized society is the only way to defeat them.

If you are a victim of this kind of abuse, report it too. Alternatively, tell a friend. If you need help, then ask for it. But, ultimately, sometimes, the only thing you can do is walk away and find kinder people to be around.

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44 Comments
David Pavlich's picture

Any time someone posts online, you have to be prepared for negative comments. Further, if a photographer has thin skin, the photographer should avoid posting photos. Image quality is highly subjective. I have images that have either won competitions, came in second or third or were given honorable mention. Guess what? I received my share of 'meh' or 'I wouldn't hang that mess in my home' comments about those images. But, I really don't care.

Same for commenting online. Human nature dictates that there's going to be good and bad reactions. Nothing will change that. If you can accept that in a world where independent thought isn't always going to be unicorn milk and fairy dust, you'll be fine.

In other words, there's little that can be done, especially in this world of anonymity that is the internet. In the case of club malcontents, it's different because you're face to face. Funny though, I belong to a club and interact with two others and we have none of the problems. Maybe because it's Canada? ;-)

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for the comment. I have a different approach to that, David.

Those who make cruel and unkind comments are in the minority. Plus I don't see why anyone should have to suffer bullying from others online and be pushed into not posting their images. That's not healthy for the industry nor for humanity.

There is a movement, driven by the psychology behind dealing with this kind of behavior, for ordinary people to stand up for the victims of online abuse when they see it happening.

Fortunately, I've lived and stayed in many countries around the world and I found most people are kind and just want to get on with their lives. There are the occasional idiots, but they invariably face the consequences of their actions.

Kim Jensen's picture

I agree with you. Nobody are forced to comment. Say something nice, or at least constructive or keep it for yourself .

Ruud van der Nat's picture

I agree with this fine article. It’s hard to change a bully, but be nice and supportive to the victims. Being nice is free and makes you feel better.

Theodore Marks's picture

My Father taught me that the definition of a professional is not just someone who makes their living at what they do, but also someone who is willing to share what they know with their up and coming peers. In my 50 year career I've had help along the way and I will always be willing to pass it on.

Pete Coco's picture

When one shares and gives generously to others, it comes back to them in abundance. When one acts miserly and spreads negativity, that comes back to them too...

John Perhach's picture

It all depends honestly, In the world of Instagram & other social media apps, pretty much tons of people shamelessly use others for locations while never ever returning the favor.

In my own personal experience, Ive taken people to place, invited people to come out, told people a couple of times where a place is and guess what? I am still waiting for a return invite or for any number of these people to hit me up to go out. It will never ever happen cause they got what they wanted from me.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Sharing knowledge is a joy. It's also a tradition deep-routed in history. After all, "Professional" has the same Latin linguistic route as "professor". So, your father was absolutely right, Theodore.

Michelle VanTine's picture

I love this article Ivor. I have the quote next to my desk which reads "Don't accept criticism from people you wouldn't ask advice from". This is one reason I'm not in any of these groups. I always ask for feedback or advice from specific people. This week, after posting a picture on my IG a colleague of mine texted me "Is it okay to say I don't like the picture you just posted?" "Yes of course!", he then called me and we discussed it while I was making dinner. I was curious about his perspective because I respect him and he's usually supportive. He expressed his thoughts respectfully. The feedback was actually very interesting. I feel like groups like FB and sometimes even as a writer on Fstoppers opens you to people that have less skill than you, but are just out to be nasty to make themselves feel better.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you Michelle. Because of that, I started a local Facebook photographic club a few years ago and the only rule is "Be fantastic, friendly and helpful." It works. There are a modest 1600 members in the group - I live in a sparsely populated rural county - but the admins' job is very easy.

Pete Coco's picture

Coming from the jazz and classical music world, where harsh criticism is expected and thick skin a must, I was surprised by how negative and toxic many photographers are online. I learned quickly to just ignore the haters because otherwise they will suck the joy out of anything you do - whether posting a photo, video, or article. And let's be frank about it. The people who are always ready to throw out a snarky, defamatory, or demeaning remark usually have zero work online or horrible work. If, however, you are an accomplished photographer with a wealth of knowledge to share and you use that to deride others, that's even worse in my book because it just comes off as bitter and sad.

Having said that, most of the comments around Fstoppers are positive and I learn something from readers in every article I post here. And, I think that learning to deal with peoples' hateful comments is an excellent way for us to grow as artists.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Pete. I agree with that totally.

Naruto Uzumaki's picture

It is sad to see that some photographers behave that way, especially in a field and market that is experiencing attrition.

It is like they want rid the world of photography in general by being toxic rather than fair and supportive.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Luckily, they are in a minority. They make a lot of noise but are insignificant. It's up to the rest of us to drown them out. Thank you for commenting.

Ian Smith's picture

I always get the feeling that toxic photographers are very insecure about their own practice, no matter how successful they are, they seem to think holding others down will make their work better.

In reality a rising tide will raise all ships. There's nothing more rewarding than helping someone less experienced than you, seeing them develop their art, and in some cases ending up having them teach you things you didn't know or think of in future.

And a great point from Michelle VanTine regarding criticism and who you would ask for advice from. Criticism can be a great tool when given constructively and with your best interests in mind, so when possible I try to just tune out anyone who's just being a dick to make themselves feel better!

Ivor Rackham's picture

All very true, Ian. Thanks for the comment.

Tom Reichner's picture

I see a whole lot of photos that I love posted online. I also see a lot of photos that I dislike, usually for specific and well thought out reasons.
I've also seen a lot of well written, insightful articles and comments ..... as well as a lot of articles and comments that are misinformed or otherwise disagreeable to me.
I used to respond to almost everything I saw online, both good and bad.
However, over the years I've tried to change the way I respond, and now I mostly post positive comments about the photos I like and the articles I agree with, and to simply not say anything at all about all of the poor quality photos and misinformed writing that I see. But this "say something nice or don't say anything at all" m.o. leaves me feeling a bit disingenuous. I mean, if we like half of what we see and really dislike half of what we see, isn't it a bit misleading to only ever say positive things?
I struggle with finding a balance between always saying what I genuinely feel, and trying to portray a positive happy online persona.

Ivor Rackham's picture

It's a good point, and I don't think it is disingenuous. You are encouraging those whose creativity you appreciate, and that's always nice to be on the receiving end of that. Those whose work you are not so keen on might read that and think "Tom really liked that photo because of..., what can I learn from that?" People learn much more from positivity.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Easy…

Ivor Rackham's picture

Ha ha. It might get in the way of the camera though.

Scott McDonald's picture

Another great article Ivor! I too have noticed that it is quite prevalent in photography sites all over the Internet. It's a shame really that these people feel compelled to write something nasty instead of simply moving on if they don't like something. Misery loves company I suppose...they are miserable armchair warriors hiding away in their mother's basement lashing out at the world because they feel like victims of their own lives. Maybe they are...poor them...perhaps they need a hug :) If I were admin of any site there would be no 3-strikes policy. First time is enough and they should be banned from posting from that point on. Of course, the toxic post is also a subjective opinion, but once you've seen enough of them, you can easily recognize the intention.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Scott. It's interesting looking at the comment histories on sites where the trolls lurk. For some, all they can do is spout bile and I wonder at their mindset. Others are new accounts under false names that often come from the same IP addresses as previous comments. I suppose they have to get their kicks somewhere. They are in the minority though. Most folk in the world are nice.

Stuart C's picture

Great article Ivor. This can be applied to many different hobbies and pastimes. I’m an amateur DJ first and foremost and the toxicity online in that space is equal or worse to photography. Every single popular YouTube video is littered with trolls claiming the set is pre recorded, or the DJ is faking it etc, particularly worse against females too (surprise surprise). It’s my pet hate in this world, people extending their own misery onto others.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Stuart, Sadly that s all very true.

Edward BIake's picture

I always enjoy your articles on social issues, Ivor.

I’m having a chuckle reading some of the comments on your various articles, clearly there are people who have internalized that toxic environments are some kind of natural status quo that needs to be preserved.

Were it to be discovered that insecurity and occasionally various types of mental illness are the driving forces behind these behaviours I would not be surprised.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Joephy. Perhaps those who spread derision and hatred should have their own medical definition. I know plenty of people with mental illnesses who are kind and generous and don't have the urge to be mean.

Edward BIake's picture

Indeed. But I should have been a bit more specific regarding which mental illnesses I was referencing. These types of toxic behaviours can be features of narcissism, borderline, or other personality disorders, etc.
Not immutable features mind you, but every time I see someone really going hard it makes me wonder if there’s more going on behind the scenes than is self evident.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I understand where you are coming from, and it is reasonable to wonder if there is a medical explanation for particular behaviors. It's also tempting to remotely diagnose people with disorders, but I don't think we should. It takes many years of professional training and experience to be able to do that, and even qualified psychiatrists can get it wrong even when they are presented with the evidence firsthand from the patient.

When we suggest that some behaviors are caused by a particular mental illness, we are inadvertently doing harm to those who genuinely suffer from that illness. For example, a very good friend of mine with a personality disorder would not dream of exhibiting any of the behaviors I mentioned in the article. Suggesting they do just tars them with the same brush and leads to prejudice against them.

I think we should just accept that some people exhibit nasty behaviors. Racists and misogynists for example are not necessarily ill, they are just acting meanly and usually not that intelligent. Dictators who persecute their population and use concentration camps to imprison dissidents, slavers, drug dealers, and so on might not be ill, but their behaviors are toxic.

Edward BIake's picture

Well this is going to get tangential:
I didn’t mean to suggest any particular person has any particular mental illness, or that we should assume they do, or posit that as a common motivator, or absolve them of responsibility.

Rather, I was just wondering out loud how such a thing may contribute more strongly than many people might intuit. While not a psychiatrist myself I worked alongside them in the mental health space, and in doing so gained an appreciation for how much of human behaviour is often out of our direct control. There’s a lot to be learned from speaking with patients in a mental hospital about their experiences, and I’m grateful to have had that opportunity.

I guess if I had a thesis in that regard it would be to not necessarily hold people’s behaviour against them, but rather hold them responsible for it and act according to that principle. You can’t always tell the means through which someone came to such behaviour, and dealing with them effectively can coexist with remaining curious about their journey.

Not all people with personality disorders behave badly, but many do (including members of my own family), and negative actions stemming from a mental illness aren’t necessarily their fault - but those actions are their responsibility (in most cases). It’s not the fault of a schizophrenic that they experience paranoid delusions, for example, but what they do with the consequences of the situation is their responsibility (although some make compelling arguments that in some cases even holding people responsible is beyond reason).

Even the most vile bigots didn’t arrive at their beliefs randomly, or because they are inherently evil people, and while they certainly should not be excused for their beliefs or actions it’s possibly helpful to remain curious about the state of affairs that could take someone so far afield.

It could have been us in that situation, after all, had a couple details of our lives been different. But now I’m just in full-on philosophical musing mode.

Anyway, do what you will with that. And keep up the good work with your articles, the boat needs rocking and it’s good that you’re doing it.

Captain Jack R's picture

Over the years I've seen an erosion of ethics. I've ponded why is this happing now and wasn't much of an issue in the past. I've watched the degradation of parenting skills over the decades. What I see people do (children and adults) today would never be accepted decades ago. The erosion of ethics has been further accelerated with the invention of this thing we call the 'Internet'. Now everyone can have a large voice while being anonymous and have safety behind the computer screen. In the past, there was always the chance someone would ask you to go out back behind the building to further discuss the subject.

I managed a website that was averaging around one million visitors per month in its peak year. One of my jobs of many was to deal with toxic commenters and trolls. We were basically moderators with extra abilities. It was so bad, that I had to hire a team of people to help me out with managing over 500 to 1,000 commenters. Sometimes it was so bad we had to call the police. We had done this twice to help protect the victims as we had credible evidence that they could carry out their threats. This was also the time police didn't know how to handle threats made over the internet. How our team dealt with these issues is an interesting topic in some other forum. What we concluded was a system to deal with this erosion of ethics. 1) Don't ignore the issue. 2) Hire a team to deal with it. 3) Access more education to further improve your system. I was surprised with our results at times as some trolls turned over a new leaf. One troll became one of our moderators.

Over the years people were quite happy with how we managed the issues. We fully supported all the victims and kept them in the loop on our resolution. Most of them continued to visit and make comments knowing we had their back. I think our work had a part in getting on a few TV and radio shows as we have proven we could handle thousands of commenters as the host was in the spotlight more often.

What do I see in the future? Well, I think this erosion of ethics will continue for at least another decade. But I see there are some good changes happing as the younger generations are finding ways to improve communications over the internet as they grew up in its messy days. They see the toxicity and are not having it. I've been watching the growth of ethical behavior improve. I'm so very happy to see this. I think one day, we might find ourselves talking about the decade past when there was a lot of toxic commenting was a thing people did.

Ivor Rackham's picture

It's great to hear those positive outcomes and optimism for the future. Thank you for that fantastic comment.

J Barber's picture

If you feel inclined to provide a constructive critique--remember that your perception is also only an OPINION, and be sure you treat it that way. Understand what the other person is trying to accomplish before saying what you want to accomplish.

[and never get into politics, social issues or religion on a photography (or other special interest) site. Never.]

Pete Coco's picture

Yep and the key word is “constructive.” Some people just love to criticize but they have no interest in helping the person grow and want instead to tear them down.

Ivor Rackham's picture

All very true, thank you both.

Benoit .'s picture

Question. Are click baits toxic? I mean those articles that present inaccuracy or are disguised advertisements.

Tom Reichner's picture

To me, yes. It is extremely unethical and deceptive to post an "article" that has links in it that give a kickback to the poster if someone purchases a product or service via that link. Then it is an advertisement, not a true article, and it should be clearly labeled and presented as an ad and not disguised as an article.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a great question. Any article can be toxic or not depending on the belief structure of the reader. The answer is too long to include here, so I'll turn it into an article. Thanks for the idea!

Benoit .'s picture

Yeah no problem I take PayPal (JK)

Richard Priebe's picture

We all have different tastes. and that extends to far more than just photography. It's important to keep in mind that just because a photo, or someone's comment about a photo, doesn't coincide with one's own likes, that doesn't invalidate it. I will skip over commenting or reacting to images posted on photography groups if they don't strike my fancy. That said, I can usually still recognize when it's a good image technically, just not my preference.

And bigotry in any form is unacceptable - period, exclamation point!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Super comment Richard. Thank you.

william kilmon's picture

Just a quick observation. I've scrolled through every single comment thus far and have not seen a single troll. Could it be that an article addressing bullying is unattractive to bullies because they know their behavior would be scrutinized so heavily, and they would'nt be able to control the narrative? Again, just an observation. Great article by the way.

Stuart C's picture

Great point. They also like to pick on the more controversial subjects too, but I do believe Ivors comments about fstoppers cleaning up the site hold some truth too, a lot of the names I can recall as being trolls have gone.