Disregard Critics: Make More Art

Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013
Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” ― Andy Warhol

As street photographers, I think we are all artists. We craft our version of reality from fragments from everyday life. We don’t just take photos– we make them.

In my art– I am quite insecure at times. I want to make great photographs– images that awe and inspire my audience. Whenever I upload an image that doesn’t get as many “favorites” or “likes” as other images I wonder to myself, “Perhaps that photograph wasn’t any good?”

I also worry about the negative criticism I get from my photographs. I am the type of person that I want to please everybody. But then again, I know if I try to please everybody– I will end up pleasing nobody (especially myself).

I just came back from a week in Singapore, and had an amazing time hanging out with my host Callan Tham (a member of the street photography collective, “5ive Foot Way“). With him, Adam Rahim, Dav Cheng, Gerald Chew, Aikbeng Chia, and many other photographers– we talked a lot about the philosophy of making images, and listening to critics.

Indianapolis, 2013
Indianapolis, 2013

One thing that Callan does which inspires me is that he constantly publishes his work in his “Nisshi” zines. Each “zine” (magazine) he publishes of his work — he has created something. He knows that not everybody will like it, but ultimately he wants to get the work out there. I have also noticed that with each issue, his images have been getting better and better.

Callan also told me something that resonated with me deeply: We can’t control whether people will like our images or not. When it comes down to it, whether people like our images or not isn’t based on some objective measure. Rather, they are a reflection on the viewer.

For example, let’s say your images are like ice cream. Some people like vanilla and some people like chocolate. If you make an image which is vanilla (and your viewer hates vanilla and only likes chocolate)– they’re going to hate your image. And no amount of convincing will make them suddenly like vanilla.

As in the words of Andy Warhol– don’t think too much when it comes to making art through your photography. We like to talk a lot about our ideas for projects and concepts– but don’t talk. Just do it. Just go out and shoot it, and figure out the edit later.

Also it isn’t within your power whether people like your shots or not. Sure you can make nicer compositions and stuff– but no matter how good your photos are, not 100% of the public will like your work (not everyone likes Henri Cartier-Bresson or Josef Koudelka, two of the great masters). And like what Andy Warhol said– while people judge your work, just keep making more art.

Whenever it comes for me to upload new work online– there is always a moment of hesitation. I don’t want to upload ‘bad’ work — images which I think are good (but others may not think are good).

Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013
Garden Grove, Los Angeles 2013

Therefore I have been applying this new method which makes me feel a lot better (and helps me focus on my work): I ignore the number of “likes” and “favs” I get on my images.

Sure I love the little nicotine hit I get whenever I see the little pink stars and red hearts hovering over my photos on social media. But likes/favorites don’t tell me anything really about the images. Hypothetically if I took a photo of a rainbow, a cat, and my cappuccino I would get tons more likes/favorites than any of my street photos.

What I have been doing instead is sharing my images privately with photographers I respect and trust, and getting their feedback whether they think the shots are good or not. I then take their feedback into account, judge their thoughts against my own personal thoughts– then make a conscious decision whether I like the shot or not. I think this method allows us to get enough critical feedback on our images, while also aiming to please ourselves.

So ultimately you want to ask yourself the question: Who do you aim to please in your photography? Do you aim to please yourself or your audience? My take is that you should first aim to please yourself through your photography, then let others decide whether they like it or not. And you will build a small but dedicated following of people who appreciate and like your images. And while the others criticize your work or disregard it– just keep going forth and making more art.