Remember the old adage, “If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all”? Yeah, that’s not really a thing on the Internet. As photographers we need to understand that criticism is rampant, it's unavoidable, and it's also not always a bad thing. Here’s how to embrace it.
Dealing With the Inevitable
Art is subjective, and photography is art, so it would stand to reason that photography is mostly subjective. Whether you agree or disagree with that statement, we can all be of the same opinion that sooner or later when we put our photography out there for the world to see, we’re going to receive criticism in return. The word “criticism” definitely has a negative connotation attached to it but being critical of someone’s art simply means analyzing both the merits and faults associated with a person or their art (or in this instance, photography). It just seems that the word “criticism” is only used when negatively evaluating something, while any positive criticism is usually assigned a word like “praise” or “positive feedback.” All that to say, not all criticism is bad, and in order to grow as photographers, criticism can be one of the most powerful tools we have.
Criticism can be broken down into several categories: positive and negative, constructive and un-constructive, and lastly, solicited and unsolicited. Of course, the easiest type of criticism to digest is going to be solicited positive criticism. I’d be the happiest person in the world if all I ever received was solicited positive criticism, but I’d also probably never grow as a person or as a photographer. What makes criticism that is actually beneficial so difficult to hear is that it should challenge us to grow. However, criticism for the sake of criticism (whether positive or negative) is not the most beneficial. So how do we embrace it?
First, we have to ask ourselves what the motivation might be behind the criticism we’ve received. Does the person giving it genuinely want to see us succeed? Does the criticism align with our end goals of what we’re hoping to achieve with our photography? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then it is worth our time and energy to embrace the criticism, even if a bit painful, and figure out constructive ways to change or improve. If the answer to either of the questions is no, then it’s OK to take the criticism with a grain of salt.
It's important to note that I’m talking about both negative and positive criticism. Allowing ourselves to be defined simply by the positive criticism we’ve received can be as harmful to our growth as never receiving and embracing negative feedback.
Understanding When Criticism Is Beneficial
When learning to embrace criticism, we also have to learn when criticism is going to be beneficial to our growth. Just because criticism can be a strong tool in helping us succeed and become better at our craft does not mean that all criticism is beneficial. For example, posting a photo to Facebook and having friends and family comment on the merit or talent and skill behind the photo would not be as beneficial as having an accomplished photographer who you look up to give you constructive criticism on how to make the photo better. Likewise, receiving negative un-constructive criticism from someone who neither wants to see you succeed and doesn’t know what your vision or end goal is would not be beneficial at all unless taken very lightly with a grain of salt. The only great benefit of negative unsolicited un-constructive criticism is that we can go on making our photography and hold our head up high when we’re able to take such criticism lightly because it helps us become surer of ourselves and our abilities in the long run. All this to say, it’s wise when receiving any type of criticism to consider if the criticism will be beneficial.
When Criticism Becomes Personal
Some of the strongest and impactful negative criticism often comes from an unlikely source: ourselves. As photographers, we can be painfully hard on ourselves, and at some point it becomes unhealthy. Of course being critical of ourselves and our techniques can definitely help us grow, but there comes a point when our negative thought-process becomes harmful and starts taking us backwards instead of forwards.
When you begin criticizing yourself, a great question to ask is “Is this a rational response?” When we come across a situation that makes us think negatively of ourselves, a great practice instead is to consider rational alternatives as to why you’re not where we want to be with our craft. By doing this we can begin making an action plan to help ourselves grow, but also help ourselves practice self-love.
Criticism is alive and well. It’s up to us to take a rational stance toward understanding and processing criticism. Embracing both negative and positive criticism can help you make strides with your photography. Knowing when criticism is going to be beneficial and when it’s not worth a second thought will help you weed out what criticism will help you grow, and what criticism was meant to tear you down.
Lead image used with permission by energepic.com from Pexels, under Creative Commons.