Thoughts on getting feedback

The class that I was teaching in India ended on the same note that many of my classes do. The students had made good progress and wanted to keep their creative growth going, after the class ended. I teased them, saying that about a week after the class they would all be “master” photographers. I say that to almost all my classes, because the things learned in a workshop take about a week to become an innate part of any student’s photography. The follow-up point is that about another week later, the skills they had learned in the class would start to diminish. The end of the joke is that about a month later, they would still be better photographers than when they entered the class, but no longer the “masters” they had briefly been. So what did I tell them to do to try to hold on to the “mastery” they had briefly achieved?

In my experience, the second best way to become a better photographer is to look, critically, at a lot of other pictures. That is something I think ALL photographers should do, in or out of my classes. That is one of the many things I learned in college when I concentrated my studies on the history of photography. My next video podcast, to be posted December 30th, draws on my college studies and explores how to look, critically, at photographs.

The best way to become a better photographer is, of course, to make photographs and get outside feedback on those images. Showing work to family members and other loved ones is sure way to garner complements, but not a way to get serious feedback.

On the other hand, every workshop is an opportunity for the photographers who make up the class to create their own critiquing community. I encouraged the students I was working with in India to set up just such a critiquing network. Through the class, they knew and trusted each other AND were used to seriously critiquing work. So that group seemed like a good place to send them to get serious, useful feedback.

In my own work, I was recently reminded of the importance of such feedback. Since April, I have been developing a new project, photographing inside foreclosed houses that have been taken back by banks and are about to be returned to the real estate market for sale. Some of the work can be seen at: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuForeclosedDreams/index.html#_self I am excited about the work (DUH,) but I also wanted to know if the work was compelling for other people.

So, since the late summer I have been submitting the work to various competitions. I do this to see if the work resonates with other people. I also do this in order to follow my own rule for project development. That rule states that if I have received no notable, positive, external feedback, after two years of sending the work out, I give up on the project. I have terminated a couple projects that I really loved because they never garnered the kind of external feedback I needed to continue such projects. Though two years seems like a long time, many of the competitions I enter only accept entries once a year, so if I miss a deadline, I have to wait a full year for the next entry opportunity.

I had only received rejections in connections with the first few times I sent the “Foreclosed Dreams” work out. But now, I am thrilled to say that in the last week I have received two small but encouraging bits of feedback.

Though my work was NOT accepted for the ASMP New England’s call for “Personal Projects,” I did get an encouraging rejection that noted:

“However, we thought the work was great and we will continue to find ways to showcase our New England talent moving forward. That’s so much for letting us know what you were up to, we really appreciate it.“

Even though my work was not accepted I was still pleased. As I tell my students, a rejection with a personal note, or even being told you are a finalist, is a great sign. It means that some part of the work struck a chord with the viewers. The same week that I almost made it into the ASMP New England project, I also received another bit of good news:

“Congratulations! Your exhibit, Foreclosed Dreams, on SocialDocumentary.net submitted to the SocialDocumentary.net Call for Entries, received the second place in the People’s Choice Award with the second most visits. Your exhibit is terrific and I know that many people were deeply moved by it.”

You can see the same work, as I submitted it for the competition at: http://socialdocumentary.net/exhibit/David_Wells/561

The ASMP New England call for work was not a formal competition while the socialdocumentary.net submission was. In either case, what happened was very important for me, as it would be for any photographer. In both cases, people who had no stake in my work looked at it and decided that it worked for them. That’s valuable feedback.

The question I left my students with is how are they going to get that kind of feedback? If they figure out a successful way, then in fact they can hold on to the skills they worked so hard to improve during our brief time together.

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