Earlier today I posted a picture in my FB feed (No big surprise there for anyone who knows me 🙂 The photo was well received and got likes and comments. I’m thankful for every one of them. I posted the same picture to Flickr, and again was blessed with another member adding it to their Favorites folder. This kind of stuff makes photography rewarding and, to be honest, makes me want to go out and take more pictures. I also uploaded the same picture to a Google+ community, my first post to that group, and even followed what guidelines I could see by posting it in the “Digital” subfolder. The only comment there? “You didn’t follow the rules. Edit your post in 24 hours or sadly it will be deleted.”
No positive comments or Plus Ones. Just a directive from the admin to change my ways. Maybe I get reactionary about this kind of stuff, and there’s a reason. I have history in this department. It reminded me of a time about six years ago, when I uploaded the picture above to a railroading website – a film shot that I was very proud of. It was rejected from publication. Twice. Reason? “Poor Aesthetic Quality.” I posted it to a community board within the site, asking for guidance. It was picked apart for the smallest of offenses:
“It’s too dark in front.” / “It’s too dusty in front.” / “There’s something weird sticking out of the top.”
One photographer, who proudly announced that he was an advocate and guide for our work on the site, had only criticism for the above shot – paraphrased in his final comment, “Sorry…not a fan.”
Dudes: It’s a flippin’ train.
Still, I believed in the picture and, to this day, it is still one of my favorite train photos. I posted it to Flickr, and within a couple days it had been chosen as a Seattlest Pic Of The Day. A couple months later I was asked if it could be added to a guide book for the neighborhood where it was taken. Six years later it is one of the most viewed photos I have on Flickr. So what do the rules do anyway? The rules commanded by the railroading website did nothing to help me be part of the group. They were looking for perfection within railroading. Yeah. Perfection from big greasy billowing loud diesel locomotives that shake the ground you walk on. The website was looking for 1% of the photos uploaded by all photographers, and I was in the other 99.
James Victore says “Perfection is a myth.”
He also says, “You know what’s better than perfection? Done. Done is better than perfection.” The desire for perfection can mire you in non-action; I saw this in my mother-in-law when she was alive, as she would gather up all the things needed to complete a hobby yet never start it – because the conditions weren’t perfect. When I was part of the railroading photography community, I was constantly against creative barriers to sharing my photos, because the shots weren’t perfect. Too grainy, too contrasty, not enough detail, bad cropping.
“Poor aesthetic quality.”
Sometimes rules that push towards perfect photos end up squashing creativity. When I couldn’t get my vision published, I started trying to take pictures based on the standards of others. I thought being part of photography communities and groups would help me become a better photographer. What I got, instead, were non-constructive comments from people who did little to build up my desire for skill or creativity, and everything to build up their own self-worth. In my pursuit of perfection in photography, I got nowhere. Groups and communities were places where I could find no good connections or support. Many talked endlessly about gear, and never about actually getting out there to take pictures. They lost sight of the art in the art. I ended my connections to most of them because there was nothing constructive coming back to me. It was then that I decided to find my own vision and my own eye, learning as I went and making mistakes without the the guilt of having a photo rejected.
Then I got pulled into the world of music photography.
Almost immediately I found acceptance for my vision. Music fans and musicians “got it.” They understood the conditions in which I was shooting, and lifted my confidence every time I posted something online. Then a magical thing happened; I got better at photography, not because I chased perfection in the final product, but because I chased a feeling that was conveyed from the stage. I tried to capture the excitement, the movement, the mood, the energy, and all the hard work that musicians put into their craft.
And what I produce now are imperfect images that I am way more proud of than anything I shot six years ago.
Rules should be in place to keep us safe, and to keep the creepers out of our groups and communities. But it’s important to note that getting caught up in the rules can also cause someone to miss the emotion or the feeling of something that is being presented. I will never profess to being a perfect photographer; in fact, I still have trouble calling myself a photographer at all (even though I know I am). But I will promise you this: if you ever ask me for photography advice or critiques, I will do everything in my power to provide you with something constructive and supportive. I’ve learned what I don’t like about online groups and communities, and would never put you through the emotional agony I’ve experienced there. And what happened with that photo I posted in the Google+ Community earlier today? I deleted the picture and left the community.
In my imperfect way, I’ve outgrown them.