What do I mean, taking criticism? I re-started my photography hobby so that I would be able to give myself some time alone in my own head – what is, these days, often described as being “mindful”. I wanted to just be in the moment, enjoy my own company, think about the photographs (and definitely not about work). So I produce photographs that are mostly really awful: you really don’t want to see what I don’t post on here. I produce some that are passable (mostly what you see here), some that I really like and the very occasional photograph that someone might say is good.
I also joined a photography club. These clubs have internal competitions and, in terms of winning and losing, they are utterly pointless. There is no prize and remarkably little in the way of glory, the winner may be clapped, and then we forget who won. The real value in these competitions is to have a good photographer, someone trained to judge photographs, comment on your photograph so you can improve. This is the very definition of constructive criticism.
Forced into taking criticism: how does it make me feel?
Remember that this is a competition that I am entering freely (so “forced” is a bit of a construct). Remember the criticism is what I want, because I want to improve. Remember that the judge is an experienced photographer, trained to judge photographs. My first reaction is to defend my work.
A good example of this is a photograph that I submitted, taken at Tilbury Fort. It shows a tunnel in one of the magazine buildings. The photograph is on this page.
What was the Criticism?
The judge said that she didn’t want to see a plain concrete wall at the end of the tunnel. My internal dialogue went into overdrive. “That isn’t concrete, those are bricks!” gave way quite quickly to, “What do you expect to see in a WWI magazine tunnel? Dancing girls?”. My best self-justification was, however, “But there’s a candle at the end of the tunnel in a glass cabinet – it’s the light at the end of the tunnel!”.
Despite volunteering for the criticism, wanting to improve and submitting to a trained judge… I told myself that they were wrong. But they weren’t. They didn’t want dancing girls in the tunnel, they wanted a point of interest and I hadn’t provided one. They hadn’t objected to the image, they might have thought that is was sharp, well-processed, and well-lit (they didn’t say that either, I’m still trying to make myself feel better). But there was no point of interest.
A toolbox for response
My reaction to taking criticism isn’t unusual, many of us react with defensiveness and anger or – horrifically – attack the person giving feedback. And not just when we are having our photographs judged! We know there’s value in constructive criticism, so how we you learn to calm down?
- Stop: Before you do anything – stop. Try not to react. Count to 10, or whatever works for you.
- Remember the Benefits: We are here to improve our skills, our images, out technique – that’s what the criticism is for.
- Listen for Understanding: Having avoided a typical reaction, now, you’re ready to engage in a productive dialogue. Listen and take on board their complete thoughts, without interrupting (even in your own head). When the feedback is done, tell yourself what was said. It consolidates the benefits.
- Say Thank You: This is tough. If you can approach the person, express some gratitude for being constructive, and thank them for taking the time. This isn’t always possible in a photography competition, but it is important that you try and that you at least acknowledge this yourself.
- Ask Questions: This is why it is important to engage if you can, and asking questions is about gaining clarity. This isn’t a debate, just making clear the criticism that you’ve heard. If you
- Follow up: Again, not always possible in a photographic competition, but possibly worth discussing with one of the more experienced members in the club. This helps embed the learning.
Constructive criticism is often the only way we learn about our weaknesses—without it we can’t improve. When we’re defensive, instead of accepting and gracious, we run the risk of missing out on this important insight. Remember, feedback’s not easy to give and it’s certainly not easy to receive, but it’ll help us now and in the long run.