On Criticism and Street Photography

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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).

Online critics

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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

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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.

Being opinionated

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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

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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

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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.

You can disable comments on Flickr or your blog. I know blogs such as Zen Habits and Seth Godins blog have done so to focus less on negative criticism, and to not be distracted.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion

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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:

1. Marcus Aurelius – “The Emperor’s Handbook”

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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.”

2. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

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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!

3. The Moral Sayings of Publilius Syrus

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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!

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  • Doug

    Hey Eric, I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time and I’ve been meaning to let you know how much I appreciate your hard work. In my honest opinion you easily have one of the best photography sites on the net. Your thoughtfulness and sincerety is a welcome reprieve from the amateur, gadget obsessed sites that contribute so little to the photography community. Photography is a serious hobby for me and something I do purely for my own exploration, education and enjoyment. That being said, the comments and feedback of others is necessary for me to better understand my photography and encourage my pursuit. Thinking about my own need for feedback on my photography , I realized that I’ve never thanked you for your words of encouragement and inspiration. Keep up the great work on the site and with your photography. Two thumbs up buddy!
    Doug
    http://Www.dougbushphoto.com

  • g g

    I like your blog! Thanks for all the hard work. I’ve been trying to handle some malicious and dishonest and fabricated negative online feedback — I’m a physician — and your article helped. Thanks.

  • Bush Jung

    Everybody has right to criticize someone or something. Everybody could be criticized by someone.
    It should be done with respect for them. If that criticism is helpful for each other for improvement.
    That will be wonderful.

    Through this blog, I learned a lot since I found and still learning. Hope you do not stop running this website and stay being helpful for you and even others who is starting to take pictures on street.

    Happy Christmas..Eric

  • Diarmuid McDonald

    Hey Eric, the quote was sort of my bastardisation of something Kurt Vonnegut wrote (in relation to writing fiction – but I think it applies to both photography and the blog): “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” (source: Wikipedia – lol)

  • Simon Kümin

    I always wonder why someone puts in such a lot of energy. Apparently, those persons are moved/touched by your work. Be it jealousy or whatever but in a certain form, it is a great compliment.

  • JH

    I’ve been following your blog for quite a while and have left some sincere comments that I think blend constructive criticism with praise. Not everyone does that. It seems you’ve become a magnet for some genuine haters. I sense they may be drawn to you for several reasons, including your positive attitude – opposites attract. Another reason may be the tone in your “Lessons”. Student versus teacher animosity. And of course there is also the group that thinks the caliber of your photography isn’t worthy of the height of pedestal you’ve achieved on the internet. In my opinion most creative people judge other peoples work more harshly than their own. It’s easier to criticize than be creative. (I often tell people that during the critiquing process.) In any case, I follow people like you to see growth over time.

    I conclude with one piece of constructive criticism. The Red Cowboy is getting overexposed, and it isn’t really a street photograph. I understand you want to use it as a signature image, but I’ll bet you have many other worthy images to use as well. HCB is best known for his man-jumping-over-the-puddle image, but people remember him for MANY images. Get some more signature images out there…

    And if you really don’t want to deal with the haters – turn off comments.

  • Pedantic

    Eric, I realize you may not read this comment, but just a suggestion: have someone proofread your writing. You sometimes make salient points which are at times almost unintelligible because of the convoluted grammar. 😡

    • twhite6878

      Agreed but he does have some good points (and good photos).

  • David Sierra

    There will always be Monday morning quarterbacks when it comes to street photography and a lot of them shoot flowers and sunsets, some good wisdom in this article.

  • martin_davey

    Don’t ever let people put you off picking up your camera Eric, always shoot to please you not others. You must doing something right for the critics to look in the first place! ;)

  • Ian T

    Eric, Good stuff. I think a lot of negativity comes from both laziness and jealousy. I mean, just think about how long it takes to build a sweet sand castle, and how quickly it can smashed with one good two-footed stomp by someone who doesn’t have the chops to build a sweet sand castle.

  • james

    Hey Eric..The problem is there are so many fantastic street photographers in the world who are much much better than you and who take fantastic images..I have seen your work and others as well..I rate them much much higher than u but the point is then don’t have ideas to express themselves like you do..You have a fantastic style and vision for marketing yourself as a street photographer.. Honestly speaking you don’t need to attend any workshop to learn street photography but most people in this world are not self-starters and require guidance..I am sure you learned most of the things by yourself.. I can also safely bet that the best street photographers or any kind of photographer never gets fame and success and they are always unknown hidden somewhere on instagram or flickr who only get comments and praises from random people on internet…but the best bloggers and writers are always famous as their words attract people towards them… Just simple questions..How many of your images will win a street photography competition ? not many or none but your writings and way of teaching street photography can win you the best blog/teacher on street photography.. I can safely say in next 10 years down the line you will be called legend of modern street photography..

  • Ptr Slzr

    This is your best article / advice I’ve seen from you to date. It is original, honest, and personal. – Ptr Slzr

  • amosk

    Good stuff. I see the stupid things and smh. Not that i haven’t said stupid stuff, but it seems to be a lot of jealousy.
    You are a great resource. Your personal struggles reflects those of every artist. Keep up the good work, Eric!

  • Joakim K E Johansson

    In Scandinavia we talk about Jantelagen (The Law of Jante). It is the idea that there is a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. But sadly it’s not a typical Scandinavian behavior. When I read your blog i can see it’s a global phenomenem. Your blog is very good and you have made impressive progress. Don’t let Jante bring You down!

  • Nabaz Anwar

    Criticisms is good when it constructive.
    You have many followers on your blog, so expect some criticism from people who are just basically angry at anybody.
    Don’t forget that probably most of your followers are happy that you are doing what you are doing.
    Life is a learning project, and so is street photography. You never said that you are the best street photographer in the world, but some people may have misunderstood you.
    Generally you are doing a great job for the street photography community. I don’t always agree with some of your points, but generally very good.
    Whenever those negative people effect you, just remember that probably 90% of your readers like your stuff. No need to feel hurt.

    Just keep do what you are doing. Good luck.

  • Jasmine

    There are always naysayers out there but as far as I am concerned, your blog is smashing and I’ve learned tons from your posts. Keep it up!

  • http://stephenbray.me/ Stephen_BRAY

    To answer your specific question I deal with critics and criticism in a number of ways, but I don’t have all the answers!

    Firstly, I know where I’m coming from – for example, if as is the case at present, I’m focused on ‘contemplative photography”, then I don’t expect people with expectations of a narrative style to respond favorably. I still put work up though, because I’m curious to see how people do respond.

    Secondly, I treat others as I would like to be treated. As far as street photography goes that means I may miss some images, but I don’t care about that because, for me, people are more important than the photographs.

    If I were down on my luck I wouldn’t like to be woken up from under my cardboard box by a guy with a camera and flash, nor do I want to be photographed with my pants down, or included as an unpaid extra in someone’s narrative images. It’s fine for people such as Newton, Duffy, and Bourdin to manufacture stories, because their subjects were aware of what they were doing. Cartier-Bresson’s images too tend to be kind, as were those of Eduard Boubat, and Robert Doisneau. Indeed they tended not to objectify people, although Doisneau could be a little sentimental.

    Street photography isn’t, to my mind, opportunistic. It’s not the same as being a paparazzi. As Joel Meyerowitz says, it’s about finding a point of clarity in all the chaos surrounding us.

    So, if people don’t like my images because they don’t relate to the values I put behind them then I plug on anyway – I really don’t mind, because those that can’t relate to my work will eventually move on to someone to whom they can relate.

    Thirdly, I have a core of people with whom I work, and whom respect. We send each other work via e-mail and, as friends, provide each other with criticism. I listen to them mindfully because they help me to develop themes and directions.

    As for that Gilden video, that was years ago ;)

  • Jacky

    This was a very courageous post. Your willingness to share your emotional experiences as a photographer are very much appreciated. Many of us go through the same range of emotions, whether we share our work or not, but to publicize those experiences takes bravery indeed. Thank you for setting an example.

  • http://christophergriffiths.weebly.com/ ChrisGriffiths

    For the criticism to be valid you first need to understand the critics intent. Why are they giving it? I’d guess more often than not anonymous internet critics seem to be Walter Mitty types. They know everything in theory and just want to appear witty, knowledgeable or smart. They can take a good picture of a sunset or a bee and examine them down to pixel level. Good for them.

    If it was my blog or youtube channel I’d certainly moderate any comment I thought to be made with the wrong intentions or didn’t add value for my readers. I’m the editor and I choose what content has my name associated with it. Your name and reputation is golden – don’t leave it to others to look after as you suggest.

    Don’t waste time over thinking it or responding to it. You might run the risk of coming over like the chick who cries because everyone hates her for being too pretty.

    You’re come across a personable guy with a real strong work ethic. Just keep doing what you’re doing and the rest will fall into place.

    • Daniel

      Agreed, except for the Walter Mitty part.

      Walter Mitty is a pretty awesome and cool dude…

  • nillic

    Thank you for this. It was inspiring to read. I love your work and hope I can come to one of your workshops someday.

  • http://www.blogfia.com/ Birgitta Rudenius

    Interesting to read and reflect about! But I am not sure if you differ critiques from your person to your work. Or are you your work? Some minds out there are not very creative.
    I hope the critique is about shooting and pictures :)
    I think Eleanor Roosevelt was very wise and I keep her words with me:
    “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. And small minds discuss people.”

    All the best and thanks for your great work here!

  • Mark Seymour

    Eric, what a great post.. Sorry I missed you in the uk. Wishing you both a happy Christmas , all the best. Mark

  • Lulu

    Hi Eric..I like ‘conclusion’ very much, it’s a strong portrait..Also I always respect the amount of energy you put into sharing your ideas.
    Best. Lucy

  • Michael Meinhardt

    “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for
    something, sometime in your life.”

    Winston Churchill

    Keep it up, Eric!

  • John Craft
  • Daniel

    Great website that’s about taking photographs that genuinely gives something different to the reader that I’ve not found elsewhere on the web. Most websites out there talking about taking photographs are really about equipment and give nothing to the reader other than a lusting for new gear.

    I agree with the other poster that says you are the editor and you have a duty to ensure that what appears on your site adds value for your readers and enhances and not detracts from your brand.

    I love the 11 lessons series of articles they are well though out and presented.

    Hope you had a good Christmas and all the best for the New Year, I look forward to reading what you come up with in 2014.

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  • Dipanjan Mitra

    helpful post. thanks Eric.

    http://www.dipanjan-mitra.com

  • Patrick

    I really, really like your blog !!!
    I’m always curious to see the “wonderful achievements” of all those people that produce a lot of criticism about your blog-articles.

  • matt haines

    I watched some of the video you reference…didn’t make it to the end but that’s not the fault of the video. :) I started to read the comments and then thought, no, why bother, I know what they’ll say. So after a couple I moved on. What I was interested in though was how did having a videographer with you change things? Does it make things easier? Especially in Hollywood, I could see where having a film crew (even if it’s just of one) would legitimize what you’re doing somehow. “hey this must be for some TV show” rather than “hey who’s this creepy guy taking photos of me?”

  • twhite6878

    As a new street photographer I value this blog. Only trying to get better, and the more resources I find the better. You seem to be the most vocal and the most popular (at least when I search Google, your name is at the VERY TOP). I haven’t lurked here very long and am planning to come back more often. I link to your blog quite a bit on my street photography FB page, just trying to share info. Glad you’ve found a way to deal with the “haters”. Keep doing what you’re doing. It is really invaluable.

    http://streetlitpittsburgh.com

  • Toby Madrigal

    On one level, you have really missed something and that something is really important: If people are giving critiscism, then it proves they have noticed you.

  • http://www.iAwani.com/ iAwani

    i read a lot about Steve Jobs and i always remember his quote on believing our own guts, also being not live in dogma.

  • click

    Was just listening today how Ridley Scott deals with criticism because I also am too much concerned of what other people think of my work or me. He doesn’t read criticism at all, he is his biggest critic, I think it goes under the same mentality that if you trust yourself and know how to improve, then other peoples comments won’t seem that bad.

  • Brian Barbieri

    “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”- Aristotle

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  • Kevin

    I found your article very helpful and reassuring. Thank you,