Photos in this article are from my Gallo Boxing Series in Michigan. You can see all the GoPro POV videos on YouTube here.
“To try to please everybody is to please nobody” – Publilius Syrus
For those of you who follow my blog (or even worse, my YouTube channel) know that I have a lot of critics. Many people often ask how I deal with the criticism. I’ve had some people tell me that I must have a thick skin, and commend me for it.
However in reality, I actually have very thin skin, and when people do criticize me, it hurts me a lot.
For example, after I uploaded the video of myself shooting street photography with a flash in Hollywood and received all this negative feedback, I didn’t pick up my camera for a month. What people said did really get to me. That I was a Bruce Gilden “wanna be” and I was a horrible and talentless photographer.
However over time, I have begun to build up some psychological tricks that help me cope with negative criticism, and how I have even begun to appreciate negative feedback. I will share some of my candid thoughts (pun intended) and I hope some of the thoughts I present in this article can better help you with critics when it comes to your photography (or life).
I think one of the realities that are hard to grasp is that many people out there don’t like you (in certain ways) . This may includes coworkers, relatives, and even friends. However most people either usually keep it to themselves or talk poorly if you behind your back.
With the internet I think people are speaking their mind, of course with the veil of anonymity which makes them feel invulnerable.
I have often wondered whether the internet simply made people more nasty or negative, or if it was people simply speaking their mind honestly.
I have thought about this a lot and I have come to believe that in the internet, people do say what is honestly on their mind. Being behind a keyboard doesn’t necessarily make you more negative. It just makes you say what you wouldn’t say in real life (but what you really think on your mind).
Therefore when people give me negative criticism online people are just being honest (no matter how brutal or mean it may be). People are saying what is in their mind.
If you think about it, it is quite an interesting phenomenon : suddenly all your negative attributes (or simply what outsole don’t like about you) is out in the open. It is almost like reading people’s minds.
As uncomfortable I am about what negative things people say about me, I am glad they are being honest. Sometimes what people say does have some truth to it as well, as hard as it may be to swallow. Other times, people are just trying to help us (but we may simple brush it off because it may hurt our ego).
Be judged or be ignored
One quote that comes to mind is from a marketer named Seth Godin. I can personally relate with him, as a lot of people intensely dislike him.
He said something like “You have the choice of being judged or being ignored. You have to choose one.”
Personally I choose to be judged.
All influential people in history have had tons of critics and people who judged them negatively. Think of artists such as Picasso or Steve Jobs. They followed their hearts and even though they could be rough around the edges, made beautiful pieces of art which revolutionized society. And they had a ton of opposition against them.
It is impossible to be liked by everybody, even in real life. You could be the most holy church goer and still have critics : people saying that you are being “too holy” and making everyone else look bad.
If anything, I realized that I never really got criticized until my blog started to get more popular. At first, I would be overjoyed even to get a single comment. Over time I started to get positive comments. Then once my blog started to get more popular, out came the negative criticism.
So know that it is a great honor to be criticized. If your work isn’t being criticized, you’re either not A) popular enough or B) your work isn’t interesting enough.
Funny enough nowadays if my blog posts don’t get any negative criticism, I tell myself : this post probably wasn’t very interesting.
In today’s society, we generally are told it is bad to offend people and how important it is to be neutral when it comes to politics, business, or in relationships.
But realize, being neutral and not having an opinion is boring. Not only that, but nobody likes anybody without an opinion.
Think about John Kerry in the USA presidential elections. He was trying so hard to please everybody by flip flopping his opinion that he ended up pleasing nobody.
Pleasing one person
I think a better strategy we could embrace is to try to please one person. That person could be somebody whose opinion matters to you, or even better : pleasing yourself (this depends on your personality).
We all tend to focus on the negative, not the positive. This is why it is impossible to see all of the good things about your significant other (when in an intense fight) than seeing their good traits. 10 positive compliments could easily be canceled by 1 negative comment.
My friend Diarmuid McDonald told me a good quote (forgot who it was from). Something like : “When you are making love, you do it to one person you love and care about. You don’t stick your dick outside the window and hope the world will all love you for that.”
If I write one article that touches, helps, or inspires at least one human being that it’s enough for me. This goes the same with my photography. It means even more if my friends and those close to me appreciate it.
So with your photography, don’t try to please everybody. Shoot for that I’ve street photographer whose opinion matters to you. To be even more robust, only shoot to please yourself (the Vivian Maier strategy).
Psychological tricks to help deal with criticism
1. Don’t read comments (or disable them)
No matter how thick your skin is, nobody likes reading negative criticism about themselves. Therefore a simple strategy is to simply not read them at all, or disable the comments on your blog.
2. Wait at least a day before responding to any negative criticism
A strategy I learned from the Roman Stoics is when you are angry or emotional, wait at least a day before responding to criticism. Anger had been reckoned to “temporary madness.” Take a day to let your head cool, and respond (or choose not to respond) in a calm, logical, and rational way.
3. Don’t respond
You aren’t obliged to respond or defend yourself against negative criticism. Sometimes the best strategy is to not respond.
Nassim Taleb in his book: “The Bed of Procrustes” wrote something like: “Your reputation is hurt the most by what you say trying to defend yourself.” Sometimes by responding you can simply dig yourself into a deeper hole.
4. Don’t delete negative criticism
I think many of us are prone to simply block or delete negative criticism. However unless the comment contains racist, sexist, cursing, or overtly aggressive tones, I think the best policy is to not get rid of it.
I think you end up getting more support by leaving negative criticism for the world to see. If someone says something that is totally outrageous, it gives the opportunity for people who agree with you to leave a comment and defend you.
People like to root for the underdog, and like to support people who are getting beaten up.
By deleting a comment this can also backfire on you : people may accuse you of censorship, and you are simply feeding the fire.
5. Imagine a barking dog
“The noble steed (horse) is not bothered by the barking of dogs.” – Publilius Syrus
A piece of advice by my buddy Mijonju (a great photographer/blogger from Tokyo, also who gets lots of negative criticism) told me how he deals with negative criticism and hate with this idea :
You are on a bus or train, and a crazy guy (who looks mentally unwell) comes up to you and starts screaming gibberish to you. Then he runs away.
Do you get your feelings hurt by this guy? Sure it may be annoying, but you don’t really get too upset at the guy. Why not? Because he obviously looks crazy or mentally unstable. It isn’t his fault. It is just who he is. You ignore him.
This can be like some people on the Internet (especially trolls). A lot of people out there are going through divorces, deaths in the family, and depression and simply need a place to vent their negative feelings. And many of these people turn to the Internet.
So unless you know the background of someone you are getting critiqued from, I would say don’t take it at face value. Perhaps the person leaving critique is drunk, high on some drug, or mentally unwell? You never know.
6. Only trust criticism from people you trust
I think when it comes to receiving criticism or critique on your work, it is important to know who it is coming from.
For example, if someone says he/she doesn’t like your work
who is it coming from? If you are a street photographer and a landscape or a macro photographer doesn’t like your work, it may not be as relevant as a criticism (as if it was coming from a well-known and experienced street photographer). Not to say that feedback from non-street photographers isn’t important– but simply be wary who the feedback is coming from.
Personally when it comes to criticism of my personal street photography, I mostly accept feedback from other street photographers whose work I admire and whose feedback I trust. Their opinion means far more to me than a random anonymous comment I get on my blog, on my Flickr, or Twitter.
So if you get negative critique on your work from someone
first of all check their images or profile. Do they have the experience to critique your work? Is their work any good? These are things you should consider.
7. Surround yourself with positive people
I think that at the end of the day, it is important to surround yourself with positive people who give you honest (and sometimes brutal) critique. This is far different from staying around negative people who only say negative things.
In sociology I learned the idea that “you are the average of the 5 closest people to you.” Therefore if you stay around with a lot of negative people, their thoughts and feelings will bleed onto you. It is like if you are washing your clothes and having a ton of white linens (and throwing in one red shirt). The one red shirt will stain all of the other white clothing, turning them pink. This is like negative energy and people– they will stain your vision of the world.
I therefore make it a point to constantly surround myself with only positive people. I am so blessed to have met some incredible people in the street photography who are nothing but good vibes (who also give me honest feedback and critique on my work). Also one thing I love most about teaching workshops is how it brings together so many wonderful like-minded people together.
I think that criticism is necessary in life. Others help us see the flaws in ourselves (and our photography) that we cannot see ourselves.
However we also have to be careful who the criticism is coming from
and whether they are being genuine (or just being plain mean).
Therefore I suggest the importance of surrounding yourself with positive friends who will give you an honest critique on your work (without just saying your work sucks).
At the end of the day, shoot photography because you enjoy it. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody else. The only person at the end of the day you need to prove something to is yourself.
Books on how to deal with criticism
For further reading, I recommend these books on how to deal with criticism:
Definitely one of my top-3 favorite books in my library. It deals a lot with living life with virtue, and how to deal with critics, and how to always stay calm under pressure. It is pretty much a new translation of the classic “Meditations.”
A great introduction to Stoicism– and the author gives practical tips on how to deal with critics: one of them being using deprecating humor. An easy read as well!
Full of some of the best aphorisms and quotes (written over 2000 years ago by Roman philosopher and former slave Publilius Syrus). Many quotes were included in this article (and many which I live by daily). You can download free epub, PDF, or kindle version here.
How do you deal with critics and negative criticism? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!