truth about truth
I love making pictures and looking at images.
Once in a while, I get asked to look at portfolios. Such encounters
are usually pleasant and flattering since I must be a 'somebody'
to be asked. Don't get me wrong, I am not complaining or ungrateful.
But sometimes, I get a little worried.
A critique is a serious affair for me, which is why I never offer
to do it. But in instances in which I have been asked, I take the
task seriously. I will try my best to make sure that what I say
makes sense and to be responsible in dispensing advice.
Some people expect me to have all the right solutions or answers.
I don't. What I can probably offer is, at best, my honest opinion.
Let's just say that I learned things the hard way. A few personal
examples will probably help to illustrate my point.
I once showed my work to an award-winning photographer who shoots
regularly for an internationally-renowned magazine. Ten minutes
into the critique, I was quite prepared to either quit photography
or kill myself.
In his opinion, my portfolio was shallow and disjointed. One sore
point was my lack of sports and studio images, which to him, was
totally unacceptable. His prognosis was that I would never get a
full-time job as a newspaper photographer.
Less than half an hour later (I honestly don't remember how I had
the courage to do it after round one), I cornered his wife, also
an award-winning photographer, and I was given the king's treatment.
In her opinion, my portfolio was personal, unconventional and stylistic.
My lack of sports images was, in her opinion, a gutsy and refreshing
move. She advised me to stick to documentary work since it was obvious
to her that I could tell stories.
The sceptics will probably conclude that they were playing the 'good
cop bad cop' routine. They were not. They did not know that I had
spoken to either of them.
The truth is that they were both partially right.
Having some sports and studio images would put me in a better position
when applying for a newspaper staff position. All entry-level jobs
require one to be a generalist. The luxury of specialising in one
field is only given to those who have done their time. But since
my storytelling was better than my handling of artificial light,
I was better off emphasising my strengths and hiding my weaknesses.
Fortunately, I did get a newspaper job which allowed me to learn
more about sports photography.
A few years into my professional life, I attended a workshop on
picture editing. One editor I met told me I had "the best portfolio
he has ever seen in his years of involvement with the workshop."
Well, common sense told me he was lying. The seemingly nice guy
just wanted a consultancy job with my newspaper and was under the
wrong impression that I was powerful enough to make him an offer.
By all means show your work to as many people as you can. But for
your own sake, make sense of the critique yourself.
Understand that not all professionals are professional. There are
insecure people who will discourage you so that there will be less
competition in the market. There are thieves who will discourage
you from pursuing a certain project, so they can steal it for themselves.
There are control freaks who only want you to follow one way - their
way. There are photographers who will, because of a scarred childhood,
decide to take it out on others.
One of them told my classmate to explore options like basket weaving.
Another accused me of injuring her eyes because my slides were one-stop
And there are photographers who simply have no idea or opinion.
Some are just too specialised in their own fields to care about
However, when you are fortunate enough to be critiqued by a true
professional who really cares, the advice can change your career
forever. I had the good fortune of showing my work to the late Howard
Chapnick, author of the seminal book, Truth Needs No Ally, in the
early 90s. Chapnick kept telling me that to be good, I need to get
closer to my subjects.
The meeting was during the judging of an annual photography contest.
A few days after we first met, his protégé, Donna
Ferrato, arrived for the prize presentation. Chapnick had remembered
my work and thought that it might be useful for me to also hear
from another top professional. He gladly introduced me to Ferrato
and insisted that I showed her my work.
And, there is a time and place for everything, so spare some thought
on when and where to pull out your book.
In a recent public talk in Singapore, a world-class war photojournalist
was asked to publicly critique images of flowers and sunrise. What
can we really expect him to say? The seasoned pro was game enough
to do it, but honestly, I could feel his pain. It is a walk in the
park for professionals to make general remarks like, “the
composition is pleasing”, “the lines are clean”
and “the palette is interesting”. But in actuality,
the audience learns little.
Dimly-lit restaurants are good for making small talk, eating and
getting drunk. They are hardly places to discuss exposure and composition.
To have a meaningful discussion, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting
in a proper and comfortable environment where there is no distraction.
Just like other people, photographers also engage in banal talk.
Often, these seemingly “waste of time” chats are useful
in sizing others up. Seasoned professionals are very good at asking
the right questions.
A question such as "What issues concern you?" is likely
to lead to the follow-up, "Do you think you can address your
concerns with pictures?" A simple "Do you come from a
close family?" could be a lead-up to "You need to get
close to people to make good pictures."
As long as you seek the opinion of others in your “journey
to enlightenment”, be open-minded. Rest assured that the advice
given is often tainted with the giver’s personal experiences
It is hard not to have expectations. When we ask for opinions, it
is only human to expect solutions. But there will be times when
the magic potion that has worked for others do not work for you.
When that happens, you can either get really upset and blame the
person for giving the “wrong advice”, or be happy that
you have journeyed that far.
The biggest mistake you can make is to lap up everything that is
said to you and let someone control your fate.
column first appeared in Grain Magazine.