Why do we not take more changes in our creative endeavours? Why do we stay on the safe and narrow instead of straying off and explore the territory along its sides? The number one reason why we don’t take creative risks is because we are afraid. We are afraid the critical voices that will always be encouraged by any straying off the straight and narrow. And we are afraid that these voices might be right, afraid that we aren’t good enough. Not the least, we are afraid we will look like fools.
The result is that we stop taking risks instead of pursuing them, as we always should—as being creative is nothing but exploring new territories. In addition, we get conditioned to think that critique is bad, that it will only hurt us. But think about it for a second. If we get no feedback on the things we create, we never get a perspective on what can help our creative development. Critique is not bad, not when it comes from someone who has our best interest in mind, and at the same time is honest and constructive in his or her feedback.
Thus, even though it can stifle us, critique isn’t inherently bad. It can be corrosive, but it can also sharpen the edge. Critique is indispensible to our creative growth. Without critique, the quality of one’s creative output can collapse. For everyone, whether you are an artist or an accountant, critical feedback can help. Too much critique and it will crush, but just enough and the pressure can refine, strengthen, and be a catalyst for growth.
So embrace critique when you can—and when it’s appropriate, when the critique can be helpful for you creative growth. Just make sure you choose the right critical voices. And that it happens in a safe environment. Let someone you trust play the devil’s advocate, when he or she does it out of respect for you and your work, certainly not because they want to take you down. Choosing critical voices to trust is a double-edged sword, on one hand you don’t want those who go after your gut; on the other hand you don’t want those who care too much for you to be able to be critical at all. Blind appraisal is just as bad as slander and mocking.
In Seattle I have a group of colleagues and friends—all professional photographers. Every so often, we gather to discuss each other’s work. We each bring our latest project, which we then show to the others. The feedback and critique we receive is indispensible for all of us and often bring the projects into new and more convoluted directions. We trust each other, we are honest and we encourage each other all the same.
Most of the critique we encounter we don’t really ask for. It comes from right and left when we stick the head out—and even if not, it comes anyway. The best way to deal with this kind of critique is simply being critical ourselves—of the critique. See the feedback in perspective; if it’s helpful take those parts to us that we feel is relevant, and if the feedback is all but malicious, just ignore it. I know; simple right?!
I remember when I was in fifth grade. I had just moved from Denmark (where I had been raised and lived until then) to Norway and was starting in a new school. We had drawing lessons each week, and after each class, we pupils voted on each other’s drawings, paintings or whatever we had done, to be exhibit as the week’s best work. In my first class, the first week after having moved, we got the task to draw a troll. Coming from Denmark I had no idea how Norwegian trolls or ogres were perceived or supposed to be, so I draw a green devil-like figure. Used my imagination. My classmates voted it to be the week’s best work. I was proud and happy. That was until the teacher demoted my drawing, saying it’s not what a troll should look like. Some other pupil’s work was exhibited instead. Some weeks later the same thing happened, when I once again didn’t comply with her preconceived rules for artistic expressions. Was these incidents maybe the reason I became a photographer?
The Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has sold millions of copies of his books, but still there are critics who tear his work to shred. When asked, do the critics hurt him, he said: «No. Writers are lampposts and critics are dogs.» Coelho had adopted a view that safeguards his creative role. Every creative act begets criticism. If you want to become more creative, you have to adapt a view that accepts, but doesn’t overinflate, this truth. You have to be selective in what critique to listen to.
Not long ago I wrote a personal and, I have to admit, critical piece about postmodern photography, my point being that too often it’s very much like the emperor’s new clothes—if you know the tale by H.C. Andersen. I posted a link to the piece on a Facebook photography group. I was taken aback by the response, and I won’t even repeat the harsh words and scornfulness that the article gave rise to. It was quite ugly. Of course I knew this would somewhat be the result, but was really surprised by how many people attacked me personally. I was still OK with that, as it was easy to distinguish between repulsive and sincere critique. More so, when I looked up the fiercest critics and saw what kind of photos they were taken themselves, there was no reason to take their critique serious any longer. It’s all a matter of perspective and being critical—to the critique. In this case, it was very easy to shrug off the critique as oppose to what happened back in fifth grade when I had no methods or means to fend off the response by the teacher.
The fact is that too often, we let those critical voices get to us. As valuable as constructive critique can be, we have a tendency to let the wrong critics hurt us. We do so, because they touch a chord in our unconscious mind. They resonate with own our critical voices that we carry around in our heads—being the harshest critics ourselves. So, when others’ unfair and unwanted critique gets to us it’s because we let them. These voices distract, scratch, bite, and nag—whether it’s your mom’s disappointment, a teacher’s demotion of your work, or the judgement of a colleague or a friend. We give these voices more credit than they deserver.
It is important to find those people or those circles of people that have our best interest in mind, but still don’t hold back on necessary and valuable critique, even if it ends up no being an appraisal as such. Good colleagues can be such a resource, or good friends, as long as they are able to give you an honest feedback. Workshops are another excellent resource that offers a safe and sensible environment for feedback on your work. Like I do in my workshops, whether in situ somewhere or through my eWorkshops. In fact, a new round of my eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» is coming up in mid May if you are interested. You can find more information on the website of Blue Hour Photo Workshops—and even an offer for receiving the first lesson for free.
Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-7 and the lens set at 4,7 mm (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Exposure time was 1/1600 of a second and the aperture f/2.8. It was processed in Lightroom and the app Snapseed with the Drama-filtet.