Photographers Should Be Criticized
There’s this perceived notion out there that just because someone claims to be a photographer, they are one. It’s a touchy subject, especially within the photography community, because photography is an art form. But hey, just for now, lets assume it’s true. Anyone who claims to be a photographer actually is one! Now that we’ve put that argument aside, you should know that that warm and fuzzy title comes with strings attached. One of those strings is called “criticism”. Art, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a subjective field. Unfortunately, this has come to mean that anyone who creates any piece of garbage and calls it art suddenly becomes untouchable. Anyone who then criticizes said art is immediately called “mean” and a “bully” if their criticism goes anything beyond giving helpful tips to the creator. Saying things like “This is an excellent try, and next time it would be even better if you used frequency separation instead of the blur tool.” are wholly acceptable, whereas “This photo is terrible. It could’ve been good in some capacity if you’d only watch a tutorial and learn how to use the right tools to enhance your image instead of burying it under a landslide of awful.” will cause a public outcry. After all, they tried, right?
Wrong. More than ever, people have every tool they need at their fingertips to create amazing images. Youtube alone has an endless supply of photography classes and tutorials that teach the correct way to create great imagery. There’s no excuse for ignorance in the field of photography in 2017. It’s not like the old days where you basically needed to be an apprentice to an established photographer to learn the higher-end secrets of the medium. If someones photos have sucked for years it means they aren’t trying, and the photography community and the people who’ve paid for objectively terrible photos should hold them accountable to that fact. And what’s the harm in tearing someones photo a new one? The way I see it, letting someone know their photos aren’t any good is a great filtering process for the photography industry. When the truly bad aspiring photographers are criticized, they usually give up and move on, which is the first real tell of an imposter. Yet, when photographers and their works are criticized, it can push them into greatness. If you look at history, some of the most talented and influential artists were born in the fires of critical contempt. I’ll give you a couple of examples:
There was a time when Andy Warhol wasn’t a critical darling. Despite winning a few awards after he decided to go out on his own as an illustrator, he lived in poverty for years. People shunned his pop style, wouldn’t pay him for it, and it drove him insane. At one point in his career he didn’t even have enough money to buy a single canvas, so he tore the sheets off his bed and painted on those. However, instead of quitting and crying about being criticized, he fought back and created even more. His critics gave him the fuel he needed to rise above them, even to the point of him creating entirely new genres of quality art.
The photographer Sally Mann has been hammered with criticism throughout her career. She’s a photographer mostly known for her photographs of young women and children. Yet, despite being an exceptional photographer, her legacy is shrouded in critical controversy. In 1988 Mann released her second set of professional photos titled “At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women”, and the set was heavily criticized in every way. Despite that criticism, she went on to create her third set titled “Immediate Family” that featured her un-staged children doing every day things while they happened to be naked. This set off a tsunami of angry response. A critic at the time said “selling photographs of children in their nakedness for profit is an exploitation of the parental role and I think it’s wrong.” Her work was so controversial that even law experts started to weigh in, one stating “Any federal prosecutor, anywhere in the country, could bring a case against [Mann] in Virginia, and not only seize her photos, her equipment, her Rolodexes, but also seize her children for psychiatric and physical examination.” Despite the controversy swirling around her works, maybe even because of it, she continued to work at being a better photographer. She was so defiant against the opinions of others that The New York Times claimed “Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.” One could easily argue that it was because of the critics that Mann has reveled in her continued success in the field of photography.
Yet now, anyone who takes a photo and posts it up online has an extreme aura of entitlement; there’s this thought that photos should be/are immune to harsh criticism. This is propagated by both the “photographer” and the photography community. Any criticism of bad work almost always creates its own angry response. “Who are you to judge my work?” and “How can you say things like that about someones photo?! How UNPROFESSIONAL!” are common statements in all photo forums and portfolio sites. We’ve inadvertently created an industry that’s deemed a safe space where any and all garbage is deemed acceptable. Instead of holding the industry to any kind of standards, bad work is hailed as good, and in turn we’ve spawned an army of mediocre talent currently charging for photos that are utterly worthless.
The way I see it, if you’re any kind of real photographer, you welcome being blasted by criticism. You should know it can only make you better if you’re actually willing to learn from it and navigate it accordingly. As professional photographers, we should have no time for this “one love” approach that the photography industry seems to revel in. Accepting any and all photos from a bad photographer is a job for their mothers, not us. If our work sucks, we should be told accordingly, and do everything we can to fix it. Shielding those who aren’t willing to do the same is silly, and our industry is suffering because of it. After all, if telling someone their photos are awful either leads them to quit or makes them better, isn’t that a good thing?