Giving feedback is hard. Receiving it is even harder for many of us, particularly me.
Read the following article I orignally wrote for Peter Eastway’s Better Photography Magazine.
When you post a photograph in the comments on any of these exercises I want you to come from a positive framework. Tell people where they are going right. There is no need to tell people what you think they could do to make the photograph more to your liking.
To follow up on this exercise, critique on someone else’s photograph in one of the exercises.
The art of developing photographers with positive critiques and thinking
My growth as an artist relies on the attitudes and facilitation skills of my mentors and teachers. Under the careful positive guidance of some, I blossomed whereas with the negative and highly critical ones, I faltered and lost confidence.
Focus on the Positive
The most devastating time I experienced was with the drawing teachers at Sydney’s leading art school. My drawings didn’t fit the mould they wanted to put me in. Every negative comment about my work felt like bullying. I lost my confidence. My marks plummeted and I started to withdraw. Apparently, I wasn’t expressing my inner self. My tight and accurate drawings of nature didn’t fit the ‘paint on the floor’ abstract expressionist ideals of the eighties art world. My inner love for nature didn’t fit into the dominant art culture of the time. It wasn’t until I walked into an exhibition of botanical illustrators some twenty years later that I realised my drawings had a community where they could have blossomed. I stop to wonder where I may have ended up if I had found that community when I was younger.
I have now met quite a few people who didn’t fit in to their photography club, mentor or teacher moulds either. Some had even given up photography and most had left the group. It is so sad to encounter people who have lost their photographic mojo, just because of words from another photographer or worse still, an apparent expert.
Uncaring negativity has a huge toll on creatives, and it’s not just visual creatives who suffer. David Byrne, the amazing and talented lead singer of Talking Heads, says “While taking criticisms on board can be constructive, it can also be detrimental to the creative process.” Because of this, he won’t read or listen to a single critique of his performances during a season. Even his staff and family are banned from discussing what the reviewers are saying, newspapers are kept away and he uses his own judgement on quality.
Many of the people who come forth with these negative comments do it with the best intentions. They like knowing where they go wrong and assume others must be the same. However, just because you like to be told where you’re going wrong, doesn’t mean others do to.
For me, learning photography was a different matter. I was lucky enough to meet, be taught and mentored by some very positive and encouraging teachers, including Eardley Lancaster, George Schwarz and Gordon Undy. Being encouraged to photograph the things you love is a very important starting point.
Back at the ‘paint on the floor’ art school, in my photography classes I was encouraged to pursue my wilderness and nature photography that was inspired by Peter Dombrovskis and Eliot Porter. These positive teachers guided and shaped my inner direction. When I struck problems, I was encouraged to solve my way out of them rather than being shown the answer. I was given careful error correction and pointers on how to make my prints stronger. We discussed the ones that worked and analysed the outstanding ones.
The photos that weren’t up to scratch were put aside and never talked about. The most outstanding photographs were admired, analysed and improved on. They became the target until a better one came along. In this environment, I developed quickly and blossomed. My photography took off. In nine months I went from failing art school to being acknowledged as outstanding and was awarded as the most accomplished and advanced photographer at graduation.
A key moment in my career as a facilitator was when I learned that I could teach in a positive manner. I was working with Estee Lauder at the time teaching leadership and teamwork. I was given the goal of fun instead of the usual specific learning outcomes. In one short afternoon, I learned a valuable lesson. Positive encouragement is a more powerful teacher than negative criticism. It was the first time I gave up on the error correction model I had been using for the past 10 years and trialled an encouraging approach where I kept identifying and praising the behaviours I was trying to instil in my students.
The success of this approach was life changing for me as a teacher. When you encourage and develop people’s strengths, they move away from the negatives and fill everything with the positives. The growth is amazing. My clients learned more from me in an afternoon than what was usually taking me a week to teach. Not only that, they loved it and bounced out of my session with boundless enthusiasm for what they had learned.
During the past 15 years that I have been teaching and mentoring photographers, I have found that taking an encouraging and positive approach with my students has brought endless rewards for them and me. If you can identify what it is that you love about some of their photographs, they will inevitably be out there trying to create more of them.
So, whether you are being taught, or trying to work it out for yourself, the key to your development as a photographer is working on your strengths and interests.
With feedback, it is the choice of words, and the way we deliver and structure them, that counts the most. Suggestions are much better than just telling someone what must be done. We need to flood the person in positives. Only discussing the negatives is detrimental to their growth. People need to know where they are going right.
Positive psychology is gaining momentum and is slowly being embraced in educational institutions. Having started in more esoteric roots, it is now gaining mainstream acceptance. There are many ways to include this in your photography.
First and foremost, you need to be enjoying yourself when you’re working on your photography. Time will just disappear, because you will be so engrossed in what you’re doing. Your attitude needs to be positive. Let go of work that isn’t good enough. It isn’t a mistake, it is a learning experience, a vital step in your growth. Concentrate on your good work. Figure out why it is good. Your best photographs are the ones you can enjoy looking at for a long period of time. Your outstanding photos are the ones that other people also love looking at. When someone loves your work, try and find out what it is they love about it. “Why?” is an important question to explore.
Tips for Positive Photographic Growth
Find a positive mentor
Finding a positive mentor or group is crucial. You are looking for people that are the ‘glass half full’ types, who glow with energy and support. They tell you very specifically which photographs are working and explain why. If you find yourself coming away from a meeting with someone and you feel like your work isn’t good enough then you are with the wrong people. Your mentor can be a photo friend or buddy.
Concentrate on the positives and the negatives will take care of themselves
Behavour modification experts have this down pat, as do animal trainers. When you concentrate on what you’re doing right, you will fill your memory cards with better photographs. It is better to have a list of positive things to do, rather than a list of negative things to avoid. Fill your head with what you are going to do right with your next photo shoot. A driver doesn’t concentrate on what they need to avoid, they concentrate exactly on where they are going. This is positive thinking.
Be specific with feedback and critiques
General positive and general negative comments don’t really help. The general positive ones make you feel all warm and fuzzy and the general negative ones make you feel hot and bothered. Specific positive feedback is like switching on the light. Suddenly you understand what it is that makes that photograph so fantastic, which in turn makes it easier to introduce the same benefit into your next photograph. Concentrate on error correction and techniques that improve what has already been done. Good examples of this may be suggesting a crop, or processing approaches.
Surround improvement points with specific positives
Always start on a number of specific positives and finish on even more specific positives. Personally, I always want more positives to finish on than I start with. Stop and think about what you’re going to say before you open your mouth or start typing that comment. Construct your feedback in a thoughtful and caring manner that encourages growth in the photographer.
Print your best photographs and hang them now
I always have my latest favourite photograph up on my wall. This reinforces my belief that I am a good photographer and my work is worth printing and showing people. It reminds me how good I am every time I see it and every time a visitor notices it. I make all my students create photographic products (prints, cards, calendars, books) with their work. Print it, frame it and hang it. Fill your walls with it. As soon as they do this they suddenly find extra support from their families and friends. Putting them into a book elevates their importance in everybody’s eyes. It helps reinforce your positive self-image that your photography is worthwhile; your inspiration to do more increases.
Think in positive, self-affirming thoughts
That next photograph you’re going to take is going to be fun, fantastic and fulfilling. Concentrate on what you need to do, on your feelings, listen to your inner guide. Shut out any negative thoughts and distractions.
Let go of images as soon as you’re finished
Many years of working with large format film taught me not think that I had a fantastic shot the moment I pressed the shutter. Looking through your photographs after the shoot and discovering the gems, allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised by your beautiful shots, rather than be disappointed with the ones that didn’t work. Every shot can be a learning experience. The more time you leave between taking and reviewing, the better your ability to be objective. Weeks are better than hours, and months are even better.
Photograph what you love
Photography is an outer expression of your inner self. Figuring out what you love and pursuing that subject relentlessly is a key to becoming an accomplished photographer. If you’re unsure about what you love, lay out all your favourite photographs and ask someone to show you which are your best. They are inevitably going to be the ones most about you. If you can’t figure it out, it doesn’t matter, just go with it and keep photographing more of same subject, or genre. Your best work will come from this.
Practice, practice, practice
The more photographs you create about the things you love and build on what you are already doing well, the quicker and better you will grow.
Len’s Rules for Photographic Feedback
Becoming an experienced and helpful mentor requires commitment and practice. You may even consider attending some mentoring sessions.
Good mentors are few and far between. Just because there are a lot of people listening to someone does not mean that they are good at this specific skill. We tend to listen to the loudest people or the ones who take photographs we admire.
Challenge this habit and look for someone who will bring out the best in you. Better yet, why don’t you become a mentor for someone else? You will become a better photographer from this process, because understanding why other people’s photographs work will help you understand your own practice.
Here are some guidelines on how to do it.
1. Feedback should be sought from the person, not thrust upon them.
2. If you can’t say something positive, then don’t say anything.
3. Talk about the components that work for you and why.
4. Be specific – the more specific you are, the better.
5. Use a ‘positive-improvements-positive’ structure.
6. Offer error correction by showing, or suggesting, how to modify.
7. Just because you like to hear what you did wrong, doesn’t mean others want to hear that too. If you’re stuck in this paradigm, try to get out of it. Your photography will improve quicker than it is now.
8. Be humble and sincere.
9. Encourage the photographer to do more.
10. Avoid personal attacks on the person at all costs.
As the receiver of feedback, if you find yourself justifying what you’ve done, then you’re not listening to the person.
At the end of the day, it is your photograph, you can love it as much as you like and you can leave their comments behind you. The key is to listen, not argue, or justify.
If you’re the one being asked to provide feedback, try these steps:
3. Technical points
4. Artistic points
6. Good points