Choose Your Mentors Wisely

Bromance courtesy of Jeremy Cowart

Bromance courtesy of Jeremy Cowart

I love criticism. I’m a huge proponent for having my work chopped up into tiny pieces and ripped to shreds by my peers and mentors. The honest feedback of a friend can be invaluable for your growth as an artist. We tend to get stuck in our own tunnel vision sometimes and fail to see the flaws in our work until its too late. How many times have you posted something new online and a week later gone back and said “whoops, missed xyz thing, should have fixed that.” In college, when my professors weren’t doing a good enough job of facilitating constructive critiques in class, a few friends and I started a critique club where we could give each other feedback. This club had one rule: No positive feedback. None. See, we figured we already know what we’re doing RIGHT with our work. We didn’t need pats on the back, we needed kicks in the ass. 

I believe that mentality is critical to hold onto, in art and in business and in life. I still seek out the advice of others before I release or post any new work. I have a small circle of great friends who I ask to look over my photos before I deliver them. I choose to humble myself and listen to their advice because I know two sets of eyes are better than one. I also know that taste can be subjective, and my clients might see things a little differently than I do. After all, I’m particularly attached to my work and may not want to revise or throw out work I’ve done, even when it needs to be done. I call this “being willing to kill your babies.” Morbid, I know. But it kind of works? No? Ok. 

Anyway, now onto what I really want to speak to in this post. You’ve gotta pick those peers and those mentors wisely. Especially the mentors. I spent my first three years out of college working as a photographers assistant,  as many of you know. I got to work for (sometimes regularly and very intimately) many of the worlds most reputable and successful photographers. I got to learn from the best. As a result, I looked up to a lot of these guys. After all, their work was leagues ahead of mine and they clearly had done something right to be in the position they were in. 

What I learned though, was that some of them didn’t care that I looked up to them. Many of them didn’t want to be a mentor, and that’s ok, albeit mildly disappointing for me. I found myself searching for affirmation and guidance from photographers who simply weren’t willing or able to give it to me. In a couple of cases, they’d deliberately hurt me or try to hinder my growth by giving me extremely negative and unhelpful criticism. One photographer in particular, when I was first starting out, tore me and my work apart so badly and with such disrespect that I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a camera for a month. I felt pretty weak and useless after that. He made me question my entire career path. To him, I’d simply never make it. I continued to work for that guy, believe it or not. I needed the money, but honestly I just wanted to prove him wrong. I picked myself back up and said to myself that I’d never improve if I let people better than me tear me down. 

On the flip side though, there’s been a couple of other photographers who have had my back since day one. If you’re reading this, you guys (and gals) probably know who you are, because I make a point to thank you every chance I get. My current mentors give me all the advice I need, and they’re never annoyed when I call them at night asking for help bidding on a job. They deliberately take the time to look through my portfolio and let me know what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. They encourage me, and give me all the ass kicking I need, but never to tear me down, only to build me up. 

Here’s some examples of good and bad critique, which have been said to me:

Bad crit: “I don’t think you even know what you want to do with your work. Its all over the place. Figure yourself out and get rid of every one of these shitty photos and get back to me.”

Good crit: “You’ve got a lot of studio work in your portfolio but not a lot of location work. You should get out of the studio more, it will make you more diverse and marketable.” 

Bad crit: “If you want to get real work, you’ll have to leave Nashville. The entire industry laughs at this town, they think its full of red necks and idiots.”

Good crit: “It looks like you want to get into entertainment work. Most of that industry is in LA and NYC, so you should probably consider moving there, or at least fly out and schedule some meetings.”

Do you see the difference? There’s not a single compliment or pat on the back in any of the comments, but the good critiques are HELPFUL. They gave me tangible, constrictive feedback that I could take action on. The negative critiques are just… Lame. They don’t really say anything, they’re just annoying and hurtful. 

You’ve got to pick your mentors and your peers wisely. Who you surround yourself with is critical to your development. You want people who are on your team, not competing against you. You want people who have your back, but are willing to smack you upside the head if you get off course. You won’t succeed if you’re not willing to take some harsh critiques, but you also won’t succeed if you surround yourself with people who want you to fail.

Matthew is a commercial portrait photographer specializing in music/entertainment and editorial photography based in Nashville, Tennessee