“Letters from a Street Photographer” #2: How to Deal with Negative Criticism (Part 1/2)

Provincetown, 2014

For this chapter in my on-going “Letters from a Street Photographer” book, I wanted to write a topic that I am very familiar with– how to deal with negative criticism (and thrive and benefit from it).

For those of you who have followed me and my blog for a while– you will know that I have a fair amount of negative critics and negative criticism. Here are a list of things I have been critiqued (or criticized, hated for) – and a list of (sort of similar to real-life) comments I’ve gotten:

  • “Eric, your blog sucks. You’re just a wanna-be street photographer, who bites off all the styles of other photographers like Bruce Gilden. You’re a fake. You need to find your own style and voice, not just imitate others (and do it horribly in the process)” (something like this on the blog)
  • “If you ever took a photo of me with a flash, I would punch you in the throat, bash your Leica in your face, and then throw you in front of a bus” (YouTube)
  • “I’ve been shooting longer since you’ve been a little sperm in your daddy’s left nutsack. Don’t tell me what to do.”
  • “You’re a scammer and a charlatan. What gives you the right or the authority to teach workshops on street photography? Why don’t you do everyone a favor and refund the money they give you for attending your shitty workshops, and send them off to a real workshop?”
  • “Eric Kim is the Ken Rockwell of the street photography world.”
  • “Eric Kim is the Kim Kardashian of the street photography world (famous for doing absolutely nothing.”
  • “I hate asian people– that Eric Kim kid is really annoying.”
  • “Eric, not to sound like a jerk, but honestly you should stop blogging about street photography. You obviously don’t know anything, and you’ve stuffed more mis-information into the minds of your viewers than give back something of value. Please. Just. Stop. Blogging.”

Those are all the ones I can think off the top of my head– but I’ve gotten hundreds (maybe even thousands) of negative comments and criticism over the last 4 years I’ve been running this blog – directly on the blog comments, on YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook messages, email, online forums, etc.

A lot of people ask me, “Eric, how do you deal with all the critics and haters?”

Honestly– I don’t deal with it very well. Whenever I read a negative comment (can even be constructive criticism) – my heart rate instantly spikes, and I start breathing heavily. I start to get tension headaches, and I can feel stress in my body elevate via increased cortisol through my body. I start becoming anxious and paranoid, and then I feel deep and sharp pangs in my heart.

I put my heart, soul, energy, time, and blood into this blog and everything I create. I try to be as authentic and real as I can. I try to promote transparency. I try to make myself vulnerable by being as honest as I can, but by wearing my heart on my sleeve– I leave myself open to being attacked and wounded.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at dealing with negative criticism.

The first time I got tons of negative criticism online (a video of me shooting with flash in Hollywood on YouTube)– I literally had a quarter-life street photography crisis in which I did feel like a fake, a wanna-be, a poser, a noob – whatever– and ended up putting down my camera for a month (and didn’t take any photos). It was the first time in my life in which tons of people said lots of negative, hurtful, and even violent things towards me, and I didn’t know how to react. I just huddled up into a ball. I am fortunate for my friends, family, and close colleagues who helped me through that part of my life.

So how have I been able to deal a lot with this negativity and criticism?

Bingo, you know it– the art of stoicism.

“The Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius

One of the biggest sources of inspiration (and defense against negative criticism) was from Marcus Aurelius’ book: “The Meditations.” A quick background: Marcus Aurelius was once the most powerful man in the world (emperor of the Roman Empire) – and also a stealth-stoic. He followed the philosophy of Stoicism (not seeking for happiness in externals, but internals) all in a world filled with chaos (death, back-stabbing, and uncertainty).

The lessons I’ve learned from Marcus Aurelius (he wrote them over 1,000 years ago) still apply greatly today. I don’t think in the last 2,000 years human interaction, society, or conflict has changed much at all. We still feel jealousy, envy, anger, pain, confusion, guilt, and depression.

To be fair– the ancient Romans had it far worse than we did. They dealt with uncertainty in terms of death and life. Our problems are much more insignificant compared to theirs (our “first world problems”). However the pain we get from negative criticism and critique is still as painful (instead of getting it from back-stabbing political conspirators, we get it from co-workers, colleagues, strangers on the internet, false friends, etc).

Stoicism and Street Photography (and life)

Once again, Stoicism has been one of the best philosophies that help me wake up in the morning, take on the uncertainties of everyday, and not just survive– but thrive. What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger.

For this blog post, I quoted from a new modern translation of “The Meditations” – titled “The Emperor’s Handbook”. It isn’t as faithful a translation as the other ones out there– but much more readable and understandable.

I wanted to share some strategies that Marcus Aurelius wrote (to console himself) in private– which has helped me greatly:

1. Everyday, expect negativity

The interesting thing about “The Meditations” is that Marcus Aurelius wrote them in private. I don’t think he ever intended anyone else to write them. If anything, it was a form of self-therapy for himself (the stresses of an emperor is quite great).

So in one of his passages in the book, he writes that he expects everyday to be filled with negative people:

“First thing every morning tell yourself: today I am going to meet a busybody, an ingrate, a bully, a liar, a schemer, and a boor. Ignorance of good and evil has made them what they are.”

However he reminds himself that these wrong-doers are in-fact his brothers. By associating the negative people in his life as his family, it helps soften the blow:

“But I know that the good is by nature beautiful and the bad ugly, and I know that these wrong-doers are by nature my brothers, not by blood or bleeding, but by being similarly endowed with reason and sharing the divine.”

Marcus also puts together some beautiful words of wisdom– in the sense that he will not let anyone’s thoughts or feelings hurt him. He reminds himself: we were all put on this earth to help one another:

None of them can harm me, for none of them can force me to do the wrong against my will, and I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids, and upper and lower rows of teeth. To work against one another is contrary to nature, and what could be more like working against someone than resenting or abandoning him?”

Takeaway point:

I think it is foolish for us to wakeup every morning and expect life to be easy-peasy, and for there to be no conflict in our everyday lives. We should always expect there to be negativity, criticism, and pain in our lives. I once read a quote (think it is from Marcus Aurelius) that said, “Life is more like wrestling than dancing.” Life is tough.

I think when it comes to street photography, it is foolish for us to think that everything is going to be easy. The fact is, sooner or later (if it hasn’t happened already) – people are going to give you shit for shooting street photography. You’re going to have people be suspicious of you and your intentions, you’re going to have people who tell you to ‘fuck off’, you’re going to get threats of physical violence, you’re going to get people threaten to call the cops on you, you’re going to have people call you a creep, etc.

Furthermore, your photos are going to be criticized. Whether verbally (or non-verbally) people are going to think your photos are boring, that they’re cliche, that they’re shitty, that they’re uninspired, that they have poor composition, whatever.

I think therefore like a Roman Centurion getting ready for battle– we should always go into the battlefield with our full-body armor on. What kind of foolish soldier would go into a battle without any sort of armor?

The same way in our daily lives and in our street photography, we should put on our mental armor. We need to expect the flying arrows, the jabbing spears, the slashing swords. We need to expect to be hit, trampled over, or elbowed in the side of the head.

Life is a battle, and life is tough. But realize that ultimately– we are all on the same team, the same army. We were all born from the same stock, and ultimately– we are all brothers in sisters in this war of life.

However I think we often get misguided– and fight with one another (instead of fighting together). So the next time someone critiques you, yells at you, threatens you– whatever, remember: he is your brother or sister. Don’t take it personally, and don’t resent others for their words or actions.

2. Just do it (and don’t worry about the consequences)

The Nike motto: “Just do it” is quite apt in life (and street photography).

There have been tons of times where I’ve wanted to shoot a street photograph, but chickened out because I was scared or afraid of the consequences. I don’t want to get yelled at, threatened, or punched in the face.

Similarly whenever I upload a photograph on the internet, I get a tinge of anxiety– because I know my photograph will be judged. I know that some people will think my photos suck, that they’re not as good as my “old stuff”, or just critique me for being me.

What advice does Marcus give us? Just do it– as it is better to have done something (and be criticized for it), rather than not doing it at all:

“Claim your right to say or do anything that accords with nature, and pay no attention to the chatter of your critics. If it is good to say or do something, then it is even better to be criticized for having said or done it.

Ultimately, we need to follow our own conscience and inner-system of morales. Everybody is different, so let us not compare our actions and thoughts and words with others. Let us follow our own inner-compass:

“Others have their own consciencies to guide them and will follow their own lights. Don’t be gazing after them, but keep your eyes on the straight path ahead of you, the path of your own nature and of the nature of the universe. The path of both is the same.”

Takeaway point:

Our thoughts, actions, words will always be judged by others. This is because everyone has a different inner-compass. Everyone has a different drummer that they march to.

For example, when it comes to the way you shoot street photography – others might find it offensive. But you might not find it offensive.

Others might not like your photos, but you like your photos.

Others might not like your definition of street photography, but it resonates with you.

Sometimes I think many of us fall victim to “paralysis by analysis.” Meaning– we worry too much about over-analyzing actions or our words that we fail to do anything at all (because we worry to much about the consequences).

For example, I have silenced myself a lot from speaking my mind because I was afraid of being criticized. Or similarly, I have missed thousands of potential street photography opportunities because I was afraid of being negatively judged (or criticized).

Follow your own inner-moral compass, and just do what feels right to you. Don’t look at others for their approval. Just do it.

3. You are nothing but a tiny speck in the universe

To be honest, at the end of the day– no matter how mean or critical others are you, it doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. The universe doesn’t care about your suffering– or your small problems.

We tend to amplify our own problems, and think that they’re the biggest problems in the world. A co-worker or boss yells at us and criticizes us and our work, a former lover cheats on us, a hobo chases us after (wrongly) assuming we took his photograph.

Whenever I personally have tough shit going on in my life (or what I think is tough) – I remind myself: I am nothing but a tiny speck in this universe, and what I am experiencing doesn’t really matter in a vast scale.

Marcus Aurelius reminds us to think about how small we are– and how insignificant human affairs are in general:

“Imagine if you were able to soar above the clouds and look down upon the whole scope of human affairs how trifling they would seem in relation to the vast expanse of space and the hosts of heaven. No matter how often you took flight, you would see the same things, so monotonous, so fleeting. What grounds for pride are these?”

Takeaway point:

Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us and our suffering. Imagine a bird’s eye view of the world. Think about how tiny our buildings are (which cost millions of dollars) – and how tiny human beings are (they look like little ants that can just be stomped on.

In-fact, whenever I go on a flight and look out of the window– I realize that all of my problems, stresses, and anxieties, and lust after wealth, power, and prestige is really insignificant. I see San Francisco as a speck of dust from an airplane, and think to myself, “Man, there is all this stress, anxiety, and suffering in humanity– but we are all so tiny at the end of the day.”

So not to diminish your own personal stresses, trials, and tribulations– but realize, we are all going to die one day, and none of it is going to matter. Who is going to care if someone yelled at you for taking their photograph? Who is going to care if you got someone to threaten to call the cops on you? Who is going to care that there is a random troll who talks shit about on you Twitter or anonymously via the comment sections of blogs, or behind-your-back (in real life)?

We are nothing but a tiny speck.

So next time you have any personal (or photography-related) negativity or criticism or hate, zoom out of your life, and realize that it is not really a big deal– and sooner or later, it will come to pass.

4. See the world from your critic’s perspective

“Devle into what motivates and governs them, and you will expose the critics you fear and see what poor critics they are of themselves.” – Marcus Aurelius

I remember when I was a kid and being bullied in middle-school, someone told me: Bullies only bully because they themselves are insecure.

I remember when I first heard that, I thought that was absolute bullshit. Why would bullies bully others if they were insecure? Didn’t they know how much it hurt? Why would they want to do that to themselves?

Personally– I’ve met some (former) critics of mine over coffee, and realized that a lot of their past critics of me weren’t about me– but about their own insecurities.

For example, I have a friend (who used to be a “hater”) tell me that when he was writing a lot of negative stuff about me on the internet, he himself was going through a divorce, going through financial problems, wasn’t getting much work as a photographer, feeling insecure about his photography– and he just needed a place to vent his negative feelings and emotions. And of course unfortunately, that scapegoat ended up being me.

Similarly, I’ve once had someone write stuff on the internet not to sign up for my workshops – that I was a hack and charlatan, and just trying to steal money from others. And then I find that photographer is now starting his own series of street photography workshops – advertising, “Watch out for the fake street photography workshops out there– mine are the ‘real’ street photography workshops.”

So nowadays, when I see people writing negative things about me online– I have realized, it is less about myself and what I am doing. It is more about them.

Think about it: most people don’t anonymously troll others on the internet. What kind of sadness, pain, loneliness, and depression must that individual go through to go to the lengths to anonymously criticize another person on the internet (that they don’t even know in-person)?

Takeaway point

Now whenever I get negative feedback or criticism, or hate– I don’t get angry at the other person. Rather, I feel pity.

I feel pity for the person that they must (also) be going through tough shit in life. I almost want to sit down with that person and ask them, “Hey bro, you’ve been putting a lot of negativity out there. Is everything okay personally in your life? Is there anything you want to sit down and talk about? I’m all ears.”

So the next time someone is negative or critical of you and your photography– don’t take it personally.

For example, if someone doesn’t like vanilla ice cream (and criticizes you liking chocolate ice cream)– nobody is “wrong.” It is just a matter of taste.

So let’s say you like to shoot portraits of people on the street with permission (and someone likes candid photos of people without permission). Nobody is “wrong” – they just have different tastes and approaches. But often a lot of arguments happen over “what is street photography– and how others demonize others for doing it the ”wrong” way.

Different strokes for different folks.

So once again, don’t take negativity feedback or words or actions personally. Rather, feel love and compassion for others. Give them a hug.

5. It might be unintentional (or an accident)

We take all this negative feedback and criticism personally– but sometimes it really isn’t bad at all.

For example, sometimes people say words (without really thinking) – which ends up hurting you. But it isn’t exactly the words that the person said which hurt you, but it is your own interpretation of the words.

For example if someone said, “Wow– you lost a lot of weight!” Some people might take it as a compliment, while others might think to themselves, “Wait– that person used to think I was fat? What an asshole.”

Or if someone says, “The background of your photograph is a bit messy and distracting– I’d ditch the shot” they might just be trying to give honest feedback and critique (intending to help you) – rather than criticizing you.

But of course we are all defensive. We are risk-adverse. It is natural, but we can over-ride that from some psychological tricks.

The first strategy is this (given to us by Marcus): Imagine you are working out at the gym, and someone accidentally bumps you in the back of your head with your elbow. It really hurts, you turn around, and you found out that it was on accident. You don’t take it personally– because they didn’t intend to hurt you. It just happened:

“If someone accidentally scratches us with his nails or butts us with his head when we’re working out in the gym, we don’t make a fuss, or strike back in anger, or suspect of him of intending to do us future harm. At the same time, we’ll probably give him a wide berth, not out of hostility or suspicion, but with good-natured circumspection. Apply this principle outside the gym, and cut life’s sparring partners some slack. You can always avoid them, as I said, without suspicion for hating them.”

There was another analogy I read somewhere: You are rowing a boat in the middle of a foggy lake, and suddenly you feel another boat suddenly ram you in the side, and it shakes you entire boat. You get neck pain from the whiplash. You are angry, and look over (ready to yell at the other person) – and realize that it is just an empty boat that happened to collide with you. You have nobody to be angry at– it just happened.

Takeaway point:

Realize that a lot of what we interpret as negative feedback, hate, or vitriol isn’t really so. A lot of might be simply misinterpreted by us– or unintended.

For example, there are some people out there who have mild forms of Asperger’s syndrome (or autism) in which they’re not that adept at social interaction. So they are very direct with what they say (because they don’t have the ability to understand facial expressions or social cues). They therefore don’t have any social tact. But they don’t act the way they do to be purposefully be mean– it is just who they are as human beings.

So once again, realize that everything you experience in life is not objectively “good” or “bad” – it is just what your internal filter thinks it is.

My personal psychological trick is this: Always assume what others say (or do) towards you is positive. Assume that they are trying to help you, compliment you, or guide you in the right direction. While that might not always be the case– sometimes fooling yourself can be the best strategy to deal with it, and also make you stronger and more confident in life.

6. Have you done (or thought) the same?

When I lived in Los Angeles, I often got cut-off in traffic by crazy drivers (switching 5 lanes at once). I used to have moments where I wanted to have road rage, but calmed myself down by saying: “I can’t blame that guy, I’ve probably done something similar before.” Or who knows– maybe the guy has a wife who is pregnant and is on the way to the hospital? You never know.

Similarly, when someone ever says anything wrong or negative to you– think to yourself: Have I ever done or thought the same to another person? Marcus shares with us this thought:

“When someone wrongs you, ask yourself: ’What made him do it? Once you understand his concept of good and evil, you’ll feel sorry for him and cease to be either amazed or angry. If his concept is similar to yours, then you are bound to forgive him since you would have acted as he did in similar circumstances. But if you do not share his ideas of good and evil, then you should find it even easier to overlook the wrongs of someone who is confused and in a moral muddle.”

Takeaway point:

It is easy to see how others have wronged us, without reminding ourselves how we have wronged others.

So the next time someone critiques your photos (and says something negative)– think to yourself, “Have I ever critiqued someone else’s photos in a negative way?” If yes, don’t be offended by the criticism of someone else.

If you ever have someone yell at you (either on the streets while you’re shooting, or from a spouse or friend) ask yourself, “Have I ever yelled at a random stranger on the street for being an idiot, or to someone I love?”

Similarly– (and this is huge) ask yourself: do you, yourself feel comfortable being photographed in the streets by a stranger and a camera? If the answer is “no” – perhaps you should rethink about why you expect others to feel comfortable of you taking candid photos of them in public.

We should ultimately treat others how we would like to be treated, and similarly– expect others to react the ways we would react. Furthermore, we shouldn’t be angry or upset for others reacting the way we would react (in a similar situation).

I think at the end of the day, we are all much more similar than dissimilar. By learning how to realize that we are all coming from the same place, we can better learn how to empathize with others, their feelings, and the way they see the world.

To be to continued, I will write more on how to deal with negative criticism in Part 2.

You can also read my prior post: ““Letters from a Street Photographer” #1: How to Live and Shoot without Regrets

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