Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words………

Starry night Van Gogh“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing”

Everywhere I look at the moment there’s discussion about criticism and feedback. Brenda wrote of how some feedback given by experts on an online show was derisive and rude, my fellow OCA students Eileen and Penny have both written this week about their reactions to some hard-to-take feedback they were given, and Tara Sophia Mohr has written a very interesting article on the topic that puts a slightly different spin on things.

Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my italics). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.

Only consider them, though. It strikes me that a successful photographer can tell you what has worked for them, but not necessarily what will work for you.  That doesn’t mean – at all – that what s/he says should be dismissed. S/he’s successful at something you want to be successful at too and on that basis is worth listening to and has much to pass on that’s useful, helpful and interesting. I suspect, though, that if you put the same photos in front of six very successful photographers, you’d get six very different critiques – each person will give feedback from their own perspective of what they would do, how they would create, all filtered through their particular value system. This can be very useful stuff, but none of them are you, and many of them are only able to tell you how to be ‘them’. To accept without question what they say about your work is as mistaken as dismissing it without thought.

There is also a school of thought that says you have to be able to ‘take it’, that life is full of rejection and that harshly worded critique helps you ‘toughen up’.  It’s mostly men who hold this view (and deliver criticism accordingly), and it seems to be based on the view that ‘it didn’t do me any harm’.  It’s the kind of thing people used to say to justify hitting their children.  Honesty is essential; brutality is not.  People who think that it’s good to knock someone down in order to get them to try harder are often emotionally damaged themselves and don’t have much understanding of human nature and how to get the best out of people.  The big stick may work for some, but most people respond far better to a more enlightened approach.

Mark McGuinness, writing on his blog Lateral Action, gives an ideal example of how criticism can be delivered effectively. At one stage in his career he had several of his poems critiqued by Seamus Heaney, who went on to win the Nobel Prize and who is therefore no lightweight in terms of merit and reputation. McGuinness tells how Heaney focussed on what was working and encouraged him in that, while staying honest about what wasn’t.

“Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback.

Effective criticism doesn’t have to be delivered in a hard-to-take manner, and is usually far more effective when it isn’t.  The problem is that very few people are skilled at this and so, if you want feedback from someone who isn’t, you need to be prepared to take the flak and not let it get to you.  If you can’t do that, and there’s a danger it will end up blocking you in your path, then it seems to me you’re better off without it.  You have to know yourself – how much can you take without being discouraged?

Which brings me back to where I started: criticism, and how it’s delivered, says at least as much about the expectations and values of the person delivering it as it does about the merits of the person receiving it.  It tells you if you’re reaching that person and people like them, in the way that you want to reach them.  It doesn’t tell you a whole lot more than that.  If you’re able to adopt this attitude, it can certainly take the sting out of negative feedback and make it easier to deal with the badly-delivered kind.

I do think there’s a small caveat to this which Tara doesn’t mention: that if large numbers of people give you the same negative feedback then there’s probably something to it and you should take it on board.  That certainly applies to most of us.  Of course, if he were alive today Van Gogh might disagree with that………