Most photographers go about trying to become better by starting out with putting their work online. They share via Instagram, 500px, Flickr, Reddit, Facebook Groups, etc. Depending on where you venture into, the levels of toxicity may vary. You could be a portrait photographer posting an image for critique online but actually just be critiqued by a landscape photographer. And for a few seconds, you’ll sit there and read a glaring, sharp tongued remark about your image and how terrible it is. But in all honestly, your image probably isn’t terrible at all–it’s probably just something that person doesn’t like at all.
The first time this happened to me was in college; except that it wasn’t online–it was in a classroom. Photojournalism 101 was the course I was taking and I was assigned to do a project on some sort of important happening in my college. Like many other people that attended that class, my work was ripped apart by the professor. It’s one thing for someone to hide behind some sort of online avatar and spew nothing bit acidic hatred towards your photography, but it’s a whole different thing to get it in real life. For what it’s worth, it’s far more demeaning and disheartening.
An image I shot and that my college professor hated won a contest for Wired way back in the day when Conde Naste still owned Reddit and they ran photo contests using their API. When I went back and told my college professor, he replied with “Well, what do I know.”
And that was the first time that I started to truly realize just how subjective photography is. I’m a firm believer that every single photographer out there can take what some may call a flawed image and find a way to make it look great. Sometimes it’s a matter of a simple crop, a color conversion, etc. The only thing holding you back from finding a way to transform your image is you. Sometimes it has to do with outside influences by the people around you. Just because one crowd of photographers doesn’t like something doesn’t mean that someone else won’t.
Don’t believe me? If you looked at the work in Martin Parr’s Real Food, the untrained eye wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s his work and a slap in the face to the beautiful food photography that we’re so incredibly used to seeing all the time. But when someone tells you that it’s a Martin Parr image, you’d probably be surprised if you didn’t know any better. Go ahead, try it. I’m positive that no one would be able to sit there and appreciate the statement and the actual artistry behind the composition of the photos.
So how do you remedy this? Placing images into certain groups helps and asking for genuine constructive criticism vs spewing hatred. In fact, even asking for people to offer up an edit can also remedy the situation and help you learn. But by far, I have to say that the best advice can come from people who actually work in the field. Editors especially have the specific skills to work with photographers to make their images even better.
In truth, there are only photos. They’re not terrible, but they can be made to be terrible or great. Whether or not you like this is one thing.