Every now and then I get an email, phone call or Facebook message critiquing a photo I’ve made, or a message I’ve posted. I’m fine with someone not liking a photo; taste, after all, is entirely personal. Criticism of my choices and morals is another matter. And when that criticism is brought in public… Houston, we have a problem!
So this is the blog post to which I’ll refer you when you send me a message like that! I won’t respond; I won’t defend myself, and I am not going to engage you in discussion. This is the only response you’ll get. It’s in English so I only have to explain it once.
Let me say a couple of things to help you understand where I’m coming from. There are a couple of principles that govern my approach.
1. I claim full artistic freedom
I do not consider myself a great artist. I may never be famous, or very successful, or very wealthy.
There’s a chance you will find some of my images erotic, even pornographic. I’m OK with that.
I’ve said the following before, but I think it’s worth saying again. I categorically reject the evangelical view of sexuality and how the human body may or may not be portrayed. Some of my readers will know I come from an evangelical context; I decided in 1997 that I could no longer consider myself as such.* There is no use appealing to me on the common ground of a shared evangelical value-system; it’s not shared. Based in part on personal experience, I believe the evangelical perspective on sexuality and the human body (or ‘purity culture’) to be quite harmful; I have no desire to abide by its do’s and don’ts.
I don’t know if I can be clear enough about this. I am going to photograph nudes. I will explore the sensual and the sexual. The fine lines between fine art nude and the erotic. I doubt there will be many images like this, but occasionally you may find them on my website and timeline. Should Playboy call with a job-offer (not likely), I won’t turn them down — at least not straight away.
Perspectives change. I respect yours may be different from mine; you don’t have to like my photo’s. This picture is of Annette Kellermann, the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel (1905). In 1907 she was arrested for wearing a one peace bathing suit, as pictured here. These days not even the strictest of christian perspectives would find such a bathing suit indecent.
I have come to accept that some people will always find my images erotic, maybe even pornographic. I’m OK with that. Not because they are, or because I endeavour them to be, but probably because you are living in another world, where expressions of the nude form are considered ‘shameful’ or ‘sinful’ or ‘inappropriate’. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that these norms change. Your criticism often shows more about you than it says about my photo’s. You may regard the world I live in as fallen and debased, and so think I’ve allowed myself to be too influenced by my world. So be it. We’re not going to see eye to eye on this. I hope we can be friends, but please let me be me. Again, feel free to look away. Unsubscribe if you must.
2. When you make your criticism personal
There is a big difference between saying ‘you wouldn’t do something’ or ‘you would make a different choice’ — and saying I shouldn’t do something, or my choice is wrong. Let me be very clear: I’m fine with you saying you would make a different choice. But when you say what I am doing is wrong, you are putting your value-system on me. And that is plain offensive. Your value system is relative to you; it’s not absolute. Do not expect a kind response when you make it absolute and put it on someone else.
3. Anonymous criticism
“Don’t feed the trolls.”
4. Emotionally manipulative
Then there are people who share their disappointment ‘out of concern’. “We want you to be well, Rogier,” they write. And “we wouldn’t want you to loose any customers!”
Thank you very much — now please take your concern somewhere else, as I find it emotionally manipulative. You are using emotional arguments to get me to do what you want. It will not work. On the contrary, it’s likely to strengthen my resolve to go further in the direction I was going.
You might also want to consider the shallowness of what you are saying. Some choices I make may loose me clients; yet they may gain me others — clients who like my experimentation, or who appreciate the diversity of my work. I loose and find clients all the time. In fact: if I really want a lot of new clients, nude photography attracts them much better than pious ethics… It’s not why I do it, but you should understand the argument has no substance.
5. Social Media is my shop window
Every now and then someone thinks it’s necessary to critique me on my Facebook timeline. Please understand: I will remove any and all such comments.
Censorshop? On my Fb timeline? You bet!
This happened just this week. Someone thought something was wrong with something I posted, and proceeded to outline so in a lengthy response. I promptly removed it. Of course the person was upset: this was censorship! Was Facebook not a public forum, fit for debate of any kind?
Yes, Facebook is a public forum. You are welcome to post whatever you like — on your timeline. For me, however, my Facebook timeline is my shop-window. It’s where I show current and future clients what I am doing. Censorship? You bet! I am going to take everything I don’t think is helpful, and promptly remove it.
Here’s what happened. I posted a call for models on Facebook. For this project I needed slim girls. The first response was by someone who felt my call for slim models encouraged anorexia. He posted his reply, and then added a second, and then a third, and then a fourth… None of this was done privately. All of a sudden I had a conversation about modelling and anorexia on my timeline. Of course no models responded after that.
Again: my Facebook timeline is my shop window. My Facebook statistics tell me that an average of over 150 people see my Facebook page every day. It’s an important channel! Feel free to post whatever you want on your timeline. But comments on my timeline that steer away from my purposes will be promptly deleted. Just like no shop is going to allow you to set up your shop in their shop-window, I won’t allow you to do so in mine.
Do you feel you need to share your concern with me, or ask me a challenging question? Feel free to approach me privately. I am not opposed to receiving criticism — but the manner and place in which you give it, will make all the difference. If you are going to challenge me on something like ‘why do you do nude photography?’ I will simply refer you to the above. But for serious questions on other issues, like anorexia, there’s always a chance I will engage (provided I have the time and you have approached me in a open and respectful manner).
6. Criticism from fellow photographers
Every now and then a fellow photographer seems to think that my posting an image is an invitation for him or her to critique it. Too saturated! or Needs more colour and Better in Black and white or Should be color are comments quickly made. I understand the temptation to do so. I’ve been a professional photographer for a little while now, and I see dozens of images every day that could be dramatically improved upon. I understand the temptation ‘to help’ (and to showcase your own skill in the process).
Yet here’s the thing: the maker did not invite my input. He is show-casing his (or her) work. The last thing this photographer needs is for me to trample all over his or her work. I am sure there are photographers better than me who see my work and wonder if I’ll ever learn to do such-and-such — but I really appreciate that they don’t do so in public. In fact they only do so when I invite them.
Let me be as candid as I can be. I think you are pretty sick if you need to trample the work of another photographer to demonstrate your superiority. You say that’s not your intent, you’re only trying to be helpful… Sure. That’s why you did it in public, so all his friends and potential clients saw how bad he was and how good you were. If you really wanted to help you would have approached him privately. Your conversation would have started with a question: ‘would it be helpful if I shared one or two thoughts about this image?’ Then you would have waited for an answer. And if the answer never came, or had been ‘no’ you would have kept your insights to yourself. Anything other than this approach in my view says a lot about you as a person — and nothing that is good or positive or likeable. My interest in your skill is exactly zero.
So: leave your criticism on my Facebook or Twitter timeline, and it will be deleted and you will be unfriended or blocked.
Conclusion: the thing about advice
I try to live by the following mantra: unsolicited advice is seldom welcome. If you don’t ask my advice, I’m not likely to give it. And if you give your advice when I did not request it, do not be surprised when I respond less than kind.
* I actually did so quite publicly in an article I wrote for Next Wave on the discourse between theologians Stanley Grenz and Don Carson. Don Carson wrote Grenz could not possibly be considered evangelical because of his view of scripture. I wrote “if Stanley Grenz isn’t evangelical, than neither am I!” Dr. Grenz responded within an hour of the article going online: “Bravo!”