Why Are Photographers So Mean to Each Other?

Why Are Photographers So Mean to Each Other?

Today, I’m tackling photographer-on-photographer criticism. And while some may read this article (as well, some may not) and comment that criticism can be valuable, I’m here to dispel that belief.

We’ve all encountered photographers being critical of other photographers. We may even have been the target of criticism from another photographer. It’s never easy. Sometimes, it builds a thick skin, and sometimes, it leads to discouragement. It is rampant within the photographic community, and it’s never beneficial.

Feedback Versus Criticism

Criticism isn’t beneficial because the very nature of criticism is demeaning. When someone criticizes someone else, it breeds frustration— frustration for the person being critical, when they don’t see the change they feel needs to take place, and frustration for the person receiving the criticism.

If you feel that you’ve benefited from past criticism, I applaud you. And if you think that you’ve helped someone else by giving criticism, then I might say you’re getting criticism confused with feedback.

The difference between feedback and criticism is that criticism focuses on what is wrong, whereas feedback focuses on improvement. Giving a photographer feedback can be invaluable, but it has to be focused on how the photographer can get better. 

Criticism implies blame, it devalues, and it discourages. Feedback encourages change, offers solutions, and adds value. The next time you receive advice from another photographer regarding your own photography, consider: “Is this criticism, or is this feedback?” Once you know the difference, you can decide whether to take the advice or disregard it. 

We Can Be Better as a Photography Community

So, why are photographers so mean to each other? The answer is, I don’t know. But I do know that we can be better as a creative community. The very nature of art is that it is vulnerable. To create it, we have to be vulnerable. Criticism is damaging to our community as a whole. It holds people back for fear that if they ask for advice or seek answers, they’ll be criticized or ridiculed.

All photographers start somewhere. We’ve all needed the guidance of other, more experienced photographers in the past. If you’ve ever been helped by another photographer, then pay it forward. 

If you’re a photographer who’s been fearful in the past to ask for help, I’m sorry that happened to you, and I encourage you to find a photography community that will help build you up. They do exist. Don’t be discouraged by past criticism. Allow yourself to let it go. Take both positive and negative feedback and work on your technique. Keep looking for those willing to give advice and answer questions. You got this.

Lead Image by Pixabay via Pexels, used under Creative Commons.

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45 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

Because people are mean to each other and photographers are people.

Criticism is also not intrinsically a negative thing. There is such a thing as constructive criticism.

I disagree with this notion that we need to be more encouraging. Be encouraging if it's warranted, but above all be honest. If you think that something is trash, just say it outright and let the other person decide whether they care what you think about it. I can't think of a single, completely positive, kumbayah community in any profession or hobby—at least not where everyone is being fake as hell and judging each other behind closed doors. One thing I always hated about group critiques in art classes is the "rah rah, everyone's work has some redeeming feature" BS.

If we're honest with ourselves, we can be comfortable saying that some stuff is pure garbage, whether it's produced by someone else or it comes out of our own camera. So I think it's more important for a photographer to be comfortable in his/her own skin and get a realistic view of what others think of them than it is to be artificially uplifted by people just because of some social contract that we ought to all be nice to each other.

A person who truly wants to do something is going to do it no matter what other people think or say. We don't have to baby them.

Simon Patterson's picture

I frequently see that excuse for people to be horrible to each other on the internet, and I find it very sad. If we erred on the side of being kind to strangers rather than mean, the world would be a better place. It would probably help people make better art, too...

Michael Jin's picture

I think if we erred on the side of just being honest with one another this world would be a better place. People would know where they stand with each other, there would be no backstabbing, and people wouldn't be encouraged to take on things that they're simply not ready for yet. An echo chamber of encouragement is how we get people deciding that they're God's gift to wedding photography 3 months after getting their first Rebel TI and kit lens.

I'm not advocating tearing people down just for the sake of tearing them down, but if you honestly believe that something is irredeemable garbage, just say it. Having said that, I think that we can all agree that when it comes to any art, there are VERY few things that are actually irredeemable garbage with no value whatsoever.

Then again, maybe I'm just way more desensitized to this than the average person given that I work in an environment where my boss might respond to something I make by asking, "Let me ask you a question. Did you drink retard juice before coming into work today?" :P

Either way, truth can be painful at times, but it's an important skill to be able to hear all sorts of criticism and learn how to process it for the sake of one's own growth.

Simon Patterson's picture

I agree that the skill of hearing criticism is very beneficial to learn.

I think the wisdom of providing feedback has a lot more to it than "just being honest with each other". Whilst I agree that being honest is essential, we still need to decide what topics we will give feedback about, and how much feedback to give.

If someone shows me an image that I think it's "irredeemable garbage" (not that I've ever seen such an image), I can still compliment them that they made the effort to press the shutter button, if I feel compelled to say anything at all. Maybe saying nothing is the wisest course of action.

If they ask me for critique, I still don't need to tell them it it irredeemable garbage. I'd be more likely to ask what they were trying to achieve with the image, so I can give them some relevant constructive advice. I can then give a pointer or tip based on what they say, to at least give them a direction to help them to improve. I can tell them their aims weren't achieved to my eye, and suggest what they could do differently.

In this way, I have been honest and as helpful as I can, and I haven't simply been negative or brutal.

Regarding your boss, I have been in situations where this kind of comment is done in humour, and is ok. This can only work where culture, body language and context are clearly understood, although it's not the way I personally communicate with anyone. It is never appropriate online, where body language, context and culture are not all clearly understood.

Michael Jin's picture

Oh, well the retard juice comment was definitely not done in humor. LOL! He's just the type of person that attempts to breed loyalty "drill sergeant" or "cult leader" style by verbally abusing you all day, everyday until you feel happy when he finally throws you a compliment at some point (compliment meaning that he tells you that your work is adequate for once in your worthless life). I just learned to not take it personally because it's obviously coming from a septic tank of a human being. :)

Simon Patterson's picture

Ah, I hope it comes back to bite him hard then. Nobody should have to face that kind of abuse.

Jordan McChesney's picture

It appears you’ve confused “encouragement” with “empty praise”. One can be both critical and encouraging at the same time. If I say “the composition is a causing the image to look a little flat. Next time, try finding a foreground interest to add depth to the image”, it’s giving constructive criticism, (pointing out the flaws and then providing advice on how to improve) while remaining encouraging (I gave them advice they can try next time , which encourage them to go out and try new things leading to improvement) all while avoiding empty praise.

Of course, encouraging someone to take on a job they aren’t ready for is a different story. blind/misguided encouragement to take on jobs is bad, but not the same as encouraging someone to keep learning and trying, so they can improve and eventually do that job well.

Refrac Sean's picture

Constructive criticism is always good, and a classy person can do it with tact. Photography is art so obviously many will not like the same subject or composition but it's never bad to be constructive and honest with our critique.

Simon Patterson's picture

I agree with you, when a critique is sought. I do also agree with the writer's sentiment, but not with her choice of words to describe the problem.

Constructive criticism can be extremely useful and something many of us hunger for and have found very helpful. Purely negative feedback can leave us disheartened without a direction or idea on how to improve, and so it is best avoided.

Purely negative feedback is often an inappropriate expression of feeling by the person giving it, and so it mainly serves to tell us more about the person making the comment than it does about the photo itself. This is not necessarily helpful to the photographer.

So I would couch the distinction with the terms "constructive" vs "purely negative", rather than the article's use of "criticism" vs "feedback".

Rob Mitchell's picture

Because it's fast becoming the default to have anger rather than tolerance? Not just in photography, it's a general issue in society.

Chad D's picture

most are intolerant of anything but their view and you have to accept it ! they get offended over anything and everything themselves
also most who are being this way suck !!!!

you can look at their work and realize they are either jealous OR they can not climb the ladder of life and have to kick everyone else down ! they do not realize those people climbed past them and they are still on the first rung looking for more to kick below them !!!

that said many who are that way should not be critiquing :)

to add many who do post sub par images and get upset with honest critique
they should be honest with themselves but again most are not and think they are awesome and entitled so it goes back to themselves having the issues

I see your point, however having worked in the creative industry professionally (not as a photographer, although it is part of what I do), when critisism is from someone on the project it is professional for it to be constructive criticism, I.e. you say what you think about the piece and then suggest other ways to see it, other suggestions on how to improve it etc. The way you describe critism in your article just seems like unprofessional photographers being arse holes, that’s not creative criticism. On the other point about creativity being vulnerable, I see a lot of this and am not sure about this. An artist, I feel should just do what they believe in, understand other people have a different perspective and decide if their reaction has reason in your mind. Believe in yourself, listen to reason and forget everything else. Vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness.

Colin Corwin's picture

I think it depends on the source of the critique, if it’s from some random person on the internet it is best to just ignore it.

It is a relentlessly negative space. Check out the competitions fStoppers runs here where users rate each others photos. A score of, say, 2.8 out of 5 is an excellent score! No one is scoring a 4 average. It's indicative of the way that within community the spirit is all too often that the best way to build yourself up is to knock everyone else down.

Having worked in the arts in a bunch of fields before moving into photography I didn't see the toxicity that is a constant in this field. Even now if I jump into, say, a 3D modelling forum (because I do a bit of that) I see people helping one another and building one another up in a way I don't see here.

And I think, and this is just a theory, it's because photography is an easy space to move into. Anyone can pick up a camera and call themselves a photographer and lots of people do. No one calls themselves a 3d artist unless they've been working in the space for a long time because the base skills you need are so much harder to acquire and until you have them you can't build anything. By comparison you can learn to manually set exposure and take an image in half an hour. You might even luck into a good image and at that point your a photographer!

I think it's the need people have to differentiate themselves as professionals/enthusiasts/grizzled veterans that leads to this toxicity.

Totally agree, saved me from writing this up myself. As for the average score in competitions, that's easily fixed: Just renormalize the result - divide by 2.8, multiply by 5.

David Pavlich's picture

Trying to figure out human nature will be on going until that 20 mile wide asteroid puts an end to our meager existence.

Rob Davis's picture

I’ll get flack for saying this from some people, so please recognize this is a sociological trend, not an absolute rule with no exceptions:

There are differences between how men and women communicate in general. Photography is still predominantly a male activity.

This is the real kind of locker room talk. Guys rip on each other. It’s part of our culture. We’re socialized to compete, and to at least pretend to be impervious.

Women in general are socialized to build families wherever they go. Watch any programming directed at little girls, it’s all group-think based. The group is what’s important. For men it’s standing out from the group, to be the leader (the dominant, alpha, etc...).

Both have their social benefits and consequences.

Aside from that, from the perspective of someone whose business is photography, I don’t want you to succeed. Your success takes money from my family. I’m not going to go out of my way to thwart you, but I’m not going to sing Kumbaya with you either. I hope you get discouraged and give up.

All of that may sound harsh, but look at how the value of photography has plummeted. Look at sites like Unsplash that are giving away quality work for nothing because of the “community.”

Photography is solitary. We don’t need to build a community. We need to build value and you can’t do that giving everything away for free whether it be pictures or education.

That said, if I encounter someone who I really think has a unique vision and a good moral compass I’m glad to help them. 95% of photographers are also-rans. My time is valuable and I’m not going to help someone take another sunset.

It is good to recognise these traits in men and women. I know a few creative women or are very discouraged by those F*ing so called ‘Alpha’ males (insecure weasels is how I describe them). It’s sad when women feel they need to compete in the same male game. I think it’s better they remain women, intelligent and warm. Be know for being a decent human, the good people will recognise you.

Rob Davis's picture

There are downsides to these perceived feminine traits as well though. The most common being women putting others needs before their own to the point their needs are never met. It’s all about balance. Right now I think photography is tipped way too far into the education side of things because it’s another way to supplement income rather than taking pictures. It’s damaging though to present this as something everyone can do. We don’t do that with other highly skilled fields. There we say it takes a ton of hard work and a certain type of person to be successful. Saying everyone can do this may be good for YouTube views, but it actually makes it less likely that anyone can do it. No one pays much for things anyone can do.

Yes, as she said it’s gender in general and not everyone falls nicely into each category. I was of course talking about professional creatives, photographers included. Being professional is the main thing, going back to the original article about critism, it’s healthy to have constructive critism from your peers in order to develop, not from asses who don’t know anything. They got paid for a few jobs and thing they are professional, it’s mostly about dealing with clients, co workers, suppliers, models etc etc, and it will soon become clear who and cut it and who can’t.

Having scanned through the comments, I didn't find my theory. Photographers are always looking for that perfect photo and, never able to achieve it, they're already miserable. They've put in a lot of time, traveled, watched videos, read articles and, thinking they've done everything possible, they feel superior to the "obviously" mediocre efforts of everyone else. There're few things worse than someone with both an inferiority and superiority complex.
Or not. :-)
In any case, we're definitely a surly lot!

Rifki Syahputra's picture

I think it's the "overly" competitive mindset that makes it.. when it comes to competition, you know what happen..
if we want a full constructive community, at least we have to put aside the ego (which is very hard in such "creative" environment full of "artists")
so I think it is normal (as humans)

Gary Gray's picture

Most of the conflict between photographers I've seen I would say has been based in emotional insecurity.

Some people are just prone to be in conflict with others. I try to identify those poor personal qualities in the people I work with and around, remain silent as best possible and gently dial them out of my life. That seems to solve my problem, can't do anything for their problems.

criticism

noun:

1. the analysis and judgement of the *merits* and faults of a literary or artistic work.

I am not sure where the author of this piece is getting their definition of criticism from. It simply sounds like the author prefers the term feedback because it sounds nicer than criticism.

Is that an unfair critic. . . err... feedback?

Richard Kralicek's picture

"Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something."

Isn't that simple?

"Feedback is information about actions returned to the source of the actions." and more specifically "Positive feed-back increases the gain of the amplifier, negative feed-back reduces it."

Oh wow, both can be positive and negative. Btw both citations are from Wikipedia.

Now, where does this confusion come from? Right: Education theory. Being a teacher I can tell you that in my profession simply a handful of people understand the meaning of criticism and feedback, the latter being a rather technical term, while the former is what most people mean by feedback in education. The goal is: To emphasise the positive aspects and ignore the negative ones when criticising young children to encourage them to improve.

Are we children?

Anyway, there's a simple way to tell others what you see in their images without being merely negativ: Use the so called "feedback burger": Describe positive aspects, then go over to the negative ones and end with a slightly positive overall statement as encouragement. That in ming keeps you from degrading people, and it's criticism as it used to be:

"Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something."

Jordan McChesney's picture

I think feel like the author is using “feedback” instead of “constructive criticism” to avoid confusion or repetition. It seems like a lot people think “criticism” is a free pass to rip something apart in as brutal a fashion as possible, but there is a way of pointing out flaws, even several of them, without being demeaning. Let me tackle a misconception people often have regarding “constructive criticism”. It doesn’t mean you have to say anything nice about the image. You can write a 10 page critique of the image only focusing on the negative points, but the goal of that criticism should be to offer advice, not vent your personal opinions, attack someone, or make them feel like they suck. If you write constructive criticism and the person doesn’t learn anything from it, then it’s likely you’ve failed to offer effective constructive criticism (or they are bad at handling criticism and assuming there wasn’t a misinterpretation). It takes absolutely no critical thinking or skill to say things like “this sucks”, “this location is overshot” or “what a cliche image”. What does require critical thinking is taking the time to explain how your experience would have affected your approach to the image and sharing your knowledge to help build the skill of the recipient. “Be mindful of distractions within your frame as they can detract from the overall image quality” is much more useful than “this is an eyesore” to someone who is learning the ropes.

To me it seems some people think the meaner you are, the better the criticism is. (I like to think of it as the “Gordon Ramsay Complex”). Having a sharp tongue doesn’t make one an effective constructive critic. I literally give constructive feedback face-to-face for a living and I can guarantee if I just said “you were really bad, today” without giving advice on how to improve, I would have become homeless ages ago.

Next, I’m just speculating here, but it seems like some people have mistaken “encouragement” with “empty praise”. You can be both critical and encouraging at the same time. It takes a little more effort than insults or empty praise, but it’s really not that hard. Let me give some examples:

A: this composition is bad

B: the composition isn’t complimenting the subject. Tilting the lens down a little more would have helped by adding a foreground interest and adding depth to the image.

C: sick shot!

One of them is poor/lazy criticism meant to tear the photo down, one is constructive criticism focusing on how to improve using specific advice to help them in the future and encourage growth, and one is empty praise... I hope I don’t have to tell people which is which, and which one is the most effective.

Of course this doesn’t answer the question of “why”. I’m just a teacher, not a psychologist.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Jordan, I appreciate your take on this issue. In my opinion, you stressed some very important distinctions. I've never felt satisfied with "empty praise" of my work which sometimes seems like those "likes" on Instagram. How much thought goes into clicking the little heart icon?

Constructive criticism, especially from people whose opinions we respect should be what we use to improve our craft. I agree that random mean comments are about as useful as honking and obscene gestures while driving.

I wonder if the mean spirited criticism mentioned by the author occurs face to face, or mostly online. I may have missed that part. It's no big revelation that people post rude comments online that they might never say to someone standing next to them.

Jordan McChesney's picture

Yeah, engagement on social media does feel kind of empty, but it's just about the best way to share and see photos from around the world, so I guess we have to take the good with the bad, haha.

I'm fairly confident that the majority of people who give harshly worded and mean feedback on the internet are only doing it because there are rarely repercussions. However, I think it goes both way. People tend to be a little too kind when giving criticism face to face, which can also lead to problems. The only person who has ever said anything negative about my photography in person is my wife, haha.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Hah! My wife seems to always like my photos....but now that I think of it, maybe she just doesn't want to hurt my feelings.

I'm sure you're right about the online lack of repercussions leading people to make negative comments. Weird how it happens even when discussing camera brands though.

Oh well.

My wife is my best critic. If anyone says something about my work, I ask them to explain why they think that and how to improve it. The idiots ‘online’ and at work soon show how little they know and look like idiots. The ones who can explain their thoughts have my respect and I learn, even in those few times that I disagree. If someone questions your work, question them back if it doesn’t ring true with you.

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