It’s that time of year again, where I have a large deliverable project for my course, also known as ‘the longest degree course in the world’. As I progress through it, the creative assignments get progressively harder and require me to demonstrate the more and more learning from the coursework. This makes perfect sense of course, as by the end of the degree I should be expected to understand my own craft and produce work that has meaning the context of photographic art history.
I’ve written about my imposter syndrome and highly developed skills in procrastination before, and nothing brings these to the fore more than producing a body of work in a specific, relatively short timeframe. It goes something like this: I find that the more I try to force an idea to fruition, the harder it becomes and the more I start to question whether this is ‘really me’ (imposter). I then try to relax and take my time, which means that progress slows to a crawl (procrastination). Although I have some techniques that I can deploy to control these negative responses to the brief, I find the best way of combating them is through feedback.
This image, showing the setup for a series last year, received feedback about the use of its two types of light. It helped shaped the finished picture
Feedback is something we experience every day in some form or another, whether about something fairly trivial like the choice of clothes on a night out or something more serious like our performance in our job. The former is something we illicit based on trust; that which we build in relationships with our family and close friends. When we receive feedback in this way, it’s often both solicited and unsolicited, with the common objective that the person cares about us and is trying to help. It doesn’t make it any easier to take the feedback of course; how many times has a friend warned us off a bad relationship or criticised our behaviour on some occasion, and we haven’t appreciated it? If the relationship is a strong one, the feedback is somehow ‘safe’ and most of the time, moved on from. However, the second form of feedback which exists where the relationship might be built more on respect than love, is a different thing entirely. This is the type that we use in our professional lives, is more powerful and sometimes more difficult to accept. That’s not to say that it’s more important to us, but it is more likely to be solicited and more constructive. As an example, a critique of a piece of creative work such as a photograph or painting, will be balanced when another artist is asked for it, as opposed to a family member whose reaction might be ‘I like/don’t like’ that. The latter might not feel comfortable in saying anything at all, to avoid hurting our feelings. I love it when people 'like' my work, but that’s really more of an ego massage than a tool to help me improve. When it comes to avoiding my old friends imposter syndrome and procrastination, I’ve tended to ask other artists for their feedback as it helps me to overcome creative blocks and helps me move the project forward. The reason this works is that when you ask someone who is familiar with, or skilled in your area of creative interest, you had better be prepared for what comes back because it will challenge you to think about your idea or approach, whether you like it or not. In my previous life, I used to tell my team, and people that I mentored, that you could accept feedback or ignore it, but you cannot reject it. What I mean is, that feedback becomes a tangible thing. Our response might be to be happy or dejected, and our subsequent actions could be to embrace or ignore, but we cannot reject something we asked for because, well, we asked for it and therefore made it ‘a thing’. The person offering it needs to be objective though, in order to make the feedback useful. If they were to say something like “this doesn’t work, it’s just shit”, there is nothing the receiver can really do with it apart from be disappointed or angry. A mix of positive notes (understanding the idea, what you’re trying to achieve etc) and less positive ones (this element doesn’t fit, perhaps an alternative would etc) is what is needed. The definition of criticism is actual a structured critique of a work or subject, and includes both of these elements. It’s not, as commonly misinterpreted, a wholly negative thing as in “he or she can’t take criticism”, meaning that they are stubborn or closed off in some way.
In the case of this project I am working on now, I hit what felt like a major roadblock fairly early on. My subject is the modern phenomenon of online abuse or ‘trolling', and how the word has more in common with its origins in Norse mythology than we might expect. I’m representing the subject by using portraiture (mainly self), and tableaux or mis-en-scene, which are constructed images that are directed rather than naturally occurring. I’ve had feedback before about being restrained or ‘holding back’ creatively, so this time I’m letting my imagination run wild. Sounds like a good idea, but actually causes me to worry more about whether I’m on the right track, letting my old foes back into my frontal lobe. This is where I’ve turned to the rest of my cohort, with whom I meet up fortnightly on Zoom. Feedback from these folks is based on their understanding of the course and how we arrived at this point, some having finished the unit already, but also their understanding of how I approach storytelling in photographs. By asking them, I have to steel myself to receive their feedback, but I know that they are essentially both trying to support my process and help make the series better. So far, they have been overwhelmingly positive, but all the time challenging my to think about what I want the series to say and how it will come together when I’ve finished shooting. The discussion, which takes place in amongst reviews of everyone else’s work, inspires me to alter the direction of my work, with some great ideas that I hadn’t thought about previously to consider.
You may be wondering what the big deal is with the idea of asking for and receiving feedback, I mean it happens all the time and is surely an integral part of study, right? Well, here’s the point. My course is distance learning, with all of the reference material for each unit provided upfront. We have tutors, they provide feedback on our specific deliverables for marking, but beyond that contact is very limited. The students had to elect to form their own cohort group, run regular feedback meetings and structure them so that we help each other. The university is delighted that we are doing this, but they had no part in its creation. The key message here is that if you are struggling with a creative idea, nobody is just going to solve if for you. It's best to find people that you think may be able to offer constructive feedback rather than platitudes, support your ideas even if they don’t immediately understand them, and make sure you engage with what comes from them. Criticism in the true meaning of the word, is a powerful and positive thing that we shouldn’t be afraid of. I’m currently not sure whether the outcome of this project will be exactly where I thought it would be when I started it, but with the help of my peers, it will be much better than it would be with a single perspective on it. In doing so, I keep imposter syndrome and procrastination at bay when it comes to my studies. It just leaves me with the internal debate on what to have for dinner and whether I’m good enough a cook to make it. One day at a time, Rich. One day at a time.