Stockholm, 2014
Stockholm, 2014

I think in photography it is good to have some self-criticism. If you want to be the best photographer you possibly can, you want to be more discerning about your images. You want to produce better work. You want to see the extent of your limits.

But every once in a while we get a lot of these voices in our head that tells you that you’re stupid, you’re dumb, you’re untalented, nobody loves you, and that you will die and nobody will care.

They often call this voice “the mammoth” or what Seth Godin calls the “lizard brain” – that prehistoric part of your brain which self-criticizes you and puts fear into your mind (which prevents you from creating great work).

To be a photographer (especially a street photographer) is scary. Others are constantly judging you when you’re shooting on the streets. Some people might think that you’re weird, some might think you’re inconsiderate, and some might outright think that you’re an asshole.

However on top of that, if you add more self-criticism to yourself, sometimes you can become paralyzed and not want to do anything at all.

So my suggestion when it comes to self-criticism and that voice in your head that tells you that your photos suck and that you’re useless? Tell that part of the brain to shut the hell up, and simply ignore it.

The reason why we self-criticize ourselves is because we don’t want to be negatively judged by others. If we are able to stop ourselves before doing something “stupid” or foolish– we can save ourselves a lot of potential “embarrassment.”

So for example when it comes to photography, you might think that all your photos suck and that none of them are perfect. This striving of perfectionism can get in the way of you actually creating any work.

No work is ever perfect. Far from it.

But you need to really ignore the negative self-talk in your mind to create anything of meaning.

So what are some practical ways to overcome self-criticism? Here are some ideas:

1. Realize it happens to everybody

Sometimes when we get excessive negative self-criticism inside of our heads, we beat ourselves up. We think that it only happens to us – and therefore we feel sad and alone.

However even the best artists in the world have gotten paralyzed from their negative self-criticism. But the way they endure is by constantly pushing forward– and by continuously producing new work.

2. Don’t strive to be a perfectionist

I think that perfectionism is a disease that is often more self-destructive than helpful. While it is true that so many great things have been created by obsessive perfectionists (think Steve Jobs) – I think it generally brings more misery and is hurtful to creativity.

I think if you try to make everything perfect, you will end up never publishing anything or creating anything– because it will never be “good enough.”

Think about that one friend who has an idea for a novel and has been wanting to write it for years. But they want it to be so perfect that they never start (or they never finish and constantly re-write it).

In psychology, they call people who try to become perfectionists as “maximizers.” Maximizers try to get the best possible option at all times– but that often leads to dissatisfaction in life.

On the other hand, “satisficers” aim to do things “good enough” – and generally tend to be happier in life and satisfied.

Generally people have a genetic disposition towards being a “maximizer” or “satisficer” – meaning it is hard to force yourself one way or the other. And at the end of the day, neither one of these personality types are “better.”

However if you are constantly self-critical, depressed, and have a hard time making decisions– perhaps you should try to be more of a “satisficer” – and aim to do “good enough” and just finish things.

I have a personal rule: try to get something about 80% good and publish it. I personally feel better publishing something that isn’t perfect (than not publishing anything at all). This can apply to photography projects, writing, and any other creative pursuits you have.

3. Don’t compare yourself to anybody

I think another way to overcome self-criticism is to not compare you to anybody else.

If you are constantly measuring the ability of your photography to others, you will always be disappointed.

So rather than trying to be the best photographer in the world, strive to be the best photographer you possibly can. Shoot for your “inner scorecard” and don’t let anything else bother you.

I also recommend reading the book: “Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity

Conclusion

At the end of the day, having some level of self-criticism is necessary to help you become a better editor of your own work.

But the point at which self-criticism becomes dangerous is when you become so hypercritical that you don’t get any work done.

Try to find a balance between the both– but at the end of the day, don’t be so critical of yourself.

Unless you are making a full-time living from shooting street photography, you are probably doing it because it is your passion. It makes you feel alive. It makes you happy. It makes you excited.

After you die, honestly– nobody will really care about your photos. Even all of the famous photographers in history will sooner or later fade into obscurity.

So don’t produce work in trying to create some sort of legacy. Don’t try to make it into the photography history books. Aim to please yourself while you’re still alive– and shoot and live life to the fullest.

Other articles on Criticism

  1. Please Tell Me My Photos Suck (And How I Can Improve)
  2. On Criticism and Street Photography
  3. How to Deal with Negative Criticism