So where do I go from here, I wonder?

Horizon, West Kirby

The results of my assessment are in, and they’re not good. I’m too embarrassed to give the mark here, but let’s just say that, while it’s a clear pass, it’s at the low end of average.  The mark is divided into four sections, and under ‘Demonstration of Creativity’ I’ve been given 10 marks out of 25 – in other words, they see me as a definite creative failure.  Obviously I didn’t do too well in any of the others either, but this was the worst, and the biggest disappointment for me, since I believed that during the last year or two I’d made quite a bit of progress creatively.

A couple of years ago this would have devastated me but the one thing I’ve learnt while doing these courses is to shield myself against what anyone in authority says, good or bad.  Where once a good comment from a tutor would have thrilled me, now I shrug my shoulders and think, well, yes………maybe.   It’s obviously nicer to get good comments than bad ones, but I’ve stopped allowing either of them to impact on me.  Whether I’m as detached as this in truth I’m not sure – squashing one feeling down has the result of squashing them all and this might go some way to explaining why I’ve felt so little consistent enthusiasm for photography for quite a while.  I certainly feel very flat at the moment, and a bit lost as to where I go from here.

If I accept the assessor’s opinion that I’m mediocre in the extreme, then I feel little incentive to carry on doing photography in any serious way.  I like to do things well – and I usually succeed in that – and I’m not really prepared to be that bad at something.  But photography has been my passion and is also my way of earning a living, so to give it up would be a huge loss to me.

When I did an Access to Art & Design course many years ago, I was told after a couple of months that I was likely to fail the drawing section of the course.  Since I’d only started drawing at all about three months before I started, I knew very well that I wasn’t much good.  My immediate reaction at that time was ‘what do I have to do to get better?’.  I was told simply to practice as much as possible, and I did just that, with the result that I ended up passing that part of the course with no problems at all.

That hasn’t been my reaction this time. Firstly, I honestly don’t think I’m that bad.  It’s easy to be self-deluding – anyone who’s watched the selection process in The X-Factor will be well aware how many people there are out there who have no idea how bad they are at something for which they think they have a talent.  It’s possible I fall into this group, but I do have a modicum of self-awareness and I don’t think I’m entirely fooling myself.  A more likely explanation is that I simply don’t fit into the parameters of what OCA considers ‘good’ photography.

A while ago, I talked about an article by Tara Sophia Mohr on the whole business of criticism, and I’ll quote a bit now:

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 emphasis). 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.

So really, this mark is only important if I want to produce the kind of work that pleases OCA assessors and thereby gets me a good result, and I’m not sure I do.  I was never very bothered about getting a degree-level piece of paper out of this, but saw it as a way of being made to stretch myself and give myself a structure to work to.  I’m not great at self-discipline, so having the imposed discipline of  a deadline – albeit a very flexible one – was useful to me.  I’ve enjoyed the contact with other students and the feeling of belonging to a group of people with similar aspirations.  But you know, that feeling of belonging has been dwindling slowly over the last year or two, as I’ve become more and more disenchanted with institutionalised art education and feel myself less and less accepting of the group mentality.

You may be wondering what was in the feedback? They started by saying my assignment was very well presented – the one thing that means nothing since it has little to do with the work itself and is something that anybody can learn to do well.  They also liked my essay a lot, which is making me wonder if I should be putting down my camera and picking up my pen.  The main criticism of my photography seemed to be that I wasn’t showing ‘evidence of a conceptual progression‘.

Ask yourself, why would someone look at these images?  Are you conveying your interest and is it one that is likely to be shared with an audience?  One of the reasons for contextualising your work is that you will gain awareness of how others will perceive it.  We live in a shared culture, images that signify endlessly similar things to us become quickly meaningless, your audience will be very quick to dismiss work that either is not immediately striking or does not contain references or evidence that thought has taken place in the construction of the image.

It raises a number of thoughts, the first being that they’re assuming a certain sort of audience, probably one like themselves, and this is not the only kind of audience there is.  I guess it’s true that if I knew better where my work fitted in with the kind of work they rate highly, then I’d be able to tell how they would perceive it and modify it accordingly.  But do I want to do this?  The crux of the matter is that I’m not too interested in doing the kind of work they appear to value just so I get the mark, and I’d prefer to hold onto my integrity.  Much – although definitely not all – contemporary photography leaves me cold and seems contrived, over-intellectualised, and lacking in aesthetic satisfaction.  This is not ignorance speaking – I’ve looked at many people’s work and opened myself to finding what I could in it.  It might be my age (I’m getting on a bit), it might be that I’m too rigid in my opinions, it might be that I lack understanding. Whatever, in an era when the idea has become vastly more important than the image, I find myself far more interested in the image than I am in the idea and that puts me firmly at odds with the zeitgeist – never a comfortable place to be.

I’m left with some very mixed thoughts and emotions – an inner battle between confidence in my own ability and the fear that perhaps I really am below-average; the acknowledgement  that the assessors may well be right from within their own context, but perhaps wrong from within mine; the immediate impulse to give it all up in disgust and the equally compelling impulse not to let ‘them’ win; the knowledge that photography has become less and less enjoyable for me since I started doing these courses, but also the understanding that I need to keep learning and to be part of something that will stretch me; the hurt and frustration that’s finally beginning to come through as I write this and the feeling of freedom that, were I to stop studying, I’d no longer have to care what ‘they’ think of my work and could avoid the depressing feedback that accompanies every assessment and tells me that my work is nowhere near good enough.

And finally the big question – why am I doing this, and where do I go from here?