Surviving “Hell Week” in fine-art photography

The phrase “Hell Week” refers to a number of similar rituals, among them the initial time of hazing in college fraternities, the most rigorous component of the United States Navy SEAL training program, a police academy’s most rigorous training regimen, the technical week of theatre rehearsals or the most common usage, the week of intensive conditioning before the start of any season of a sport. There are undoubtedly other examples of this ritual of hard work, emotional stress and personal challenges. The first “Hell Week” that I survived was at the start of my first of two seasons playing water polo in sunny Southern California. A couple of friends recently survived what I have come to think of as the “fine-art photography” version of “Hell Week.”

They were both having their portfolios reviewed during the “Meeting Place” component of the Houston FotoFest. You can read more about that event, occurring every other year, at: http://www.fotofest.org/biennial2010/meetingplace/ Read more about FotoFest’s international Biennial of Photography and Photo-related Art, which goes on across Houston, at: http://www.fotofest.org/about.htm

To say they were having their work reviewed is a less than complete way of describing what happens in these portfolio review meetings. In reality the two women and hundreds of other photographers were:

• Spending hours nervously waiting to present their work to reviewers who may or may not be at all interested in actually seeing or discussing their work.

• Jockeying, metaphorically and literally, for position to show their work to those reviewers who were kind enough to look at work outside of the scheduled time slots.

• Keeping a nervous eye on their competitors who are also their peers, simultaneously nurturing their friends and borrowing ideas from their most successful rivals.

• Continually taking feedback, some of which was nurturing and some almost abusive. They needed to do this with a smile on their faces, a spring in their step and enough energy to do that same thing as many as six or even eight times in one day.

I have endured the “Hell Week” of FotoFest a number of times. On one level it is not obviously as physically grueling as swimming mile after mile as I did for water polo. On the other hand, my photography, which is at the core of much of my emotional life was on the line. Perfect strangers appeared to have the opportunity to make (or break) my career. Though that was a simplistic perspective, it was what I believed at the time. It is one of the reasons many participants find portfolio reviews so grueling (yet so worthwhile.) For a few years I found it worthwhile, though the emphasis has shifted towards fine-art and away from the publication/stock photography world that I am most interested in.

An excellent article on the pros and cons of these portfolio reviews can be found at:
http://marketingphotos.wordpress.com/2008/08/13/portfolio-review-events-deadlines-ahead-to-attend-or-not-to-attend/

An equally valuable guide to preparing for the portfolio reviews, the Photolucida Review Festival How-to Guidebook, can be found at: http://www.photolucida.org/images/photolucidabooklet_2009.pdf

Partial lists of these portfolio review events can be found at: http://thewellspoint.com/about/resources-fine-art-promotional-venues/ and http://www.festivaloflight.net/

One of the photographers who was in Houston, having her work reviewed, sent me an excellent summary of her experience. I will paraphrase it rather than quote because what you can learn from her experience is not about the work. It is about seizing opportunities, being open to feedback, critically analyzing the sources of the feedback and wisely acting on the feedback that actually mattered.

Hi David,

I just returned from Houston last night. It was really helpful! I can see the project in new terms already and I am inspired to attack on a new front… It was enlightening, really, to view my work in these terms. I feel like it was a real break-through and learned a ton.

First, if I had not had those portraits I think I would have lost a lot of supporters. The portraits seemed to get people engaged, far more than just the street photos might have.

After seeing Ariel, I split the two apart and did not go with the original diptychs strategy of pairing the portraits and the street photos.

I know the reviewer in question. Ariel Shanberg is a photography curator and the director of the Center for Photography at Woodstock, an important, mid-sized non-profit photography center. He is a wise and generous person who looked at the photographer’s work and gave her specific suggestions. I am guessing he said something like: “Split up the diptychs and show the portraits primarily and the street photos, secondarily, if at all.”

The woman writing me said she considered his advice, reorganized her portfolio, tried the new strategy on a couple of other reviewers and realized that he was right. She did not take the criticism personally, nor was she angered by what he said. Then she critically analyzed the subsequent reviewers, writing me:

I had three meetings where the reviewer was totally bored/put off/ disenchanted. Most people were moderately curious but these guys might as well have been yawning.

I had a few really “supportive” folks in that they were notably cheerful and happy to be chatting with me while offering advice.

And then I had a handful that were real fans and saw something there and want to be kept in the loop as I continue my photography career.

I have a tentative plan now as a result of the stimulation I just received. Iideas are firing in my head. I feel like the experience really tapped into a side of me that is less literal and more figurative and that I can enrich my images by adding texture to them either in the materials I shoot with or develop with and / or in the way I control the subject matter…

Her experience with the ups and downs of the portfolio review process reminded me of my own “Hell Weeks.” Whether swimming laps or getting verbally abused by disinterested curators, “Hell Week” is something that one has to experience to believe. It also something one needs to do to get better at whatever it is your pursuing. All things being equal, I prefer the dress code (casual but serious) for the FotoFest version of “Hell Week” over the water polo dress code (skimpy nylon Speedos.)

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