How to handle unconstructive feedback from a professional body
February 8, 2023 5:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm a photographer. I recently applied for membership of a professional body, and was rejected. The feedback I was given was simply "The committee enjoyed your work but felt it's not quite developed enough yet for membership." This has had a surprisingly strong impact on me, and I don't quite know how to handle it.

Now, to be clear, I'm used to receiving critiques of my work. I was always told that one should take critique gracefully, say thank you, and then work through the critique and decide whether to improve on those points or just ignore them.

But this just felt like a flat-out rejection. I felt humiliated — I've spent > 10 years in the industry and have built a decent business whilst still maintaining other work (because I've never trusted myself to make the jump to photography completely, and because life pressures meant that I needed other income streams). My clients are happy with my work; I am happy with my work. I don't know why I reacted so strongly (and I'll address that in therapy).

But — therapy appointment not being in my immediate future — I don't know what to do next. I did all the things that I usually do in the face of humiliation: sulked like a 5-year-old, went and lifted weights, went and mucked out the horses. It's eased the burn of the anger but it's still there, gnawing at me.

Having talked to folk in the online photography community I know that I'm not alone in thinking this is a pretty awful response — I've had some really sweet responses, actually, which really helped yesterday.

I'm past the point of wanting to send back an email of the nature of "Unforuntately, I find your feedback to be not well-developed enough to take seriously," but I still need to figure out the following:
  1. How can I get over this feeling of humiliation, given that this is clearly a pretty impersonal response without much meaning, which I'm probably taking too seriously.
  2. This situation arose because a client asked me if I was accredited by the Association… how do I answer the question if asked in future?
  3. How do I prevent this from stopping me from applying to other bodies in future?
  4. How should I respond, if I should respond at all? I'm loath to ask for detailed critique, because it feels like I'm begging for praise after being put down. Also, I have a feeling it would result on them trying to sell me one of their workshops, which I definitely wouldn't want to do.
Overall I don't need this body's approval to continue to work as a headshot photographer. I know I do decent work, and I continue to work on improving what I do. So how do I stop hating on myself after this and move forward from here whilst remaining professional?
posted by gmb to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"Dear [ ],

Thank you for reviewing my work. I would be grateful for any constructive criticism or guidance on what would bring my work up to membership standards.


posted by Dolley at 5:46 AM on February 8 [26 favorites]

Also, I have a feeling it would result on them trying to sell me one of their workshops, which I definitely wouldn't want to do.

Any chance rejecting applicants (regardless of ability) and then selling them workshops is just a scheme to raise funds?
posted by mcduff at 5:58 AM on February 8 [21 favorites]

This probably hurts because your work hasn't been critiqued, it, and you, have indeed been rejected.

First option to manage: accept as a rite of passage.
Anyone successful at any pursuit can share at least one and often many more moments of exquisite, soul-crushing, burned-into-memory rejection by critics. Many can share at least one instance in which they were told by experts or industry leaders that they should abandon what they are doing. This is so common that it is standard fare in award speeches. Accept this moment as par for the course, a signpost on a road, and keep going in the direction you were going.

Second option to manage: Accept it.
To the extent you wanted or needed membership, accept the criticism in the rejection, as given. The criticism is your work is enjoyable, but not developed enough. What does this mean to you and to others? It could mean its commercially pretty, but you don't yet have a unique signature style. It could mean that you make clients look good, but your technical skills otherwise aren't what they could be. It could mean that your portfolio is good, but it is not diverse enough to demonstrate the hallmarks of professional dedication that membership in this group requires. It could mean that your portfolio is just fine but something else in your presentation is sending the signals that you yourself convey above: you are not fully devoted to photography. I think if you want to accept the rejection you need to focus on the word enjoy -- it's not enough for membership in this organization for your work to be enjoyed, they are looking for additionally developed style and/or technical expertise. If you have the technical expertise required to maintain a business, what they are probably looking for is a more developed individual style.

You yourself use this word to describe your work, and you use it more than once in your post: decent. You also say you only applied for membership because a client randomly asked you if you were an accredited member.

Take some time and resubmit when you have a portfolio you can look at and say: damn, this is good, its the best I have ever done to date, and everyone would know this is my work.

Third option to manage: ignore it completely.
Just ignore.

What to say in the future if a client asks you if you are an accredited member of this or that professional association? Some suggestions:

"No, I don't see myself or my work that way -- I'm an artist."
"I'm not. I like to let my work speak for itself."
"I'm not. Is that something you require? If so I can make referrals."
"No, I'm more focused on developing my practice and unique body of work right now."
posted by desert exile at 6:01 AM on February 8 [13 favorites]

Honestly, it would never have occurred to me that there existed or should exist an accrediting body for headshot photographers. I certainly wouldn’t take this into account at all if looking to hire one. I could see there being some useful photography accreditation for specialized equipment such as Steadicam or drones, but an organization based on the format and subject matter of the work doesn’t totally make sense to me.

When I think of professional accreditation I think of fields like (off the top of my head) accounting, plumbing, electrical work, driving/piloting, medicine, operating machinery, etc., and objective criteria such as passing an exam or an audit of your business practices.

Within the arts, most guilds or associations I’m aware of have membership criteria strictly based on how much professional work you’ve done (i.e. SAG or Actors’ Equity).

If none of that is the case here and membership is based on a committee’s subjective assessment of your work, it feels more like a club (or even a racket to charge fees and sell workshops, as you allude to) than a legitimate or necessary organization.
posted by staggernation at 6:05 AM on February 8 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to threadsit but just to clear something up:
You yourself use this word to describe your work, and you use it more than once in your post: decent. You also say you only applied for membership because a client randomly asked you if you were an accredited member.
Just because I say decent, doesn't mean I don't think my work is good, or that I'm not confident in it. I just don't like saying that, because I grew up being told that no-one likes a showoff, and that taking pride publicly in what you do is a faux pas.
posted by gmb at 6:14 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]

This sounds more like a career crisis than a feedback crisis. Were you hoping that with this accreditation you would be able to make the leap to full-time photography? Could that be why it's hitting so hard?

If so I would channel those feelings into a business plan, any sales or marketing training that would help, and going out and getting new clients. It sounds like at the end of the day that's what that was about? If so, it sounds like you have a really good base for that!

I've had similar experiences - I was shortlisted for a residency that I told myself if I got it would make a huge difference in my life - that I would be able to slow down and focus for 6 weeks. I realized that was the issue.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:24 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seems like you already feel about as bad about this rejection as you are likely to feel. And the rationale for the rejection is so vague that your own imagination (and any possible insecurities you may already feel about your own work) can just fill in all those details; and often our own imagined scenarios are far worse than what's actually going on.

So, what do you have to lose by requesting a more specific critique? How much worse can it feel when you already feel humiliated? If they really are just trying to sell you a workshop or something, maybe knowing that would even help put this in perspective. And if they do provide more details on what they felt was coming up short, at least you can actually "work through the critique" as you describe.

Sometimes you get hurt, grab the hurt body part, and then you're afraid to move your hand to look at the wound. But you have to overcome that dread and look at it and clean it out so it can heal. And sometimes it turns out it's really not that bad. (And if it really is that bad, it's still better to know what you're dealing with.)
posted by fikri at 6:33 AM on February 8 [9 favorites]

Best answer: A lot of these photo "professional bodies" are just clubs. Their critique (or lack of it) is meaningless. They choose to accept you based on your benefit to their brand. That's why there's no meat to the critique, nothing you can respond to. They just don't want you for whatever reason. As a professional creator, I would feel disgusted to be accepted by a group that didn't care about my work and only wanted me for my name or my reputation. I have a friend who was constantly being solicited by Magnum and he'd keep telling them to go fuck themselves and their old-boy network and their self-congratulatory wanking.

Who needs that shit.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:37 AM on February 8 [22 favorites]

If they do try to sell you a class, I would stay away. Their initial response is lazy and disrespectful, and I think it's likely that their organization has poor company culture.
posted by happy_cat at 6:41 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

I'd look at this as two separate issues. One is the rejection, which - pretty much every published author only became published after numerous rejections, and lots of extremely famous, popular, and influential books were passed on by major publishers who are supposedly experts at recognizing potential. Judges are often wrong, or apply irrelevant standards.

The second issue is whether you feel like this actually says something about the quality of your work. Clearly your photography, not to mention your personal and professional skills, are strong enough that you've received acceptances from many clients over the years (and they're the only judges that are relevant anyway). You probably have room for improvement, since pretty much everybody does, though it also sounds like you're good enough that it's a choice, not a requirement. So if you want, whether now or at a later time, you could look for critiques, programs, books, and so on and work on honing some aspects of your craft. Or not!

Besides other feelings, I get annoyed by rejections like this because they don't give the recipient the respect and recognition of a more detailed and thoughtful response. And we all deserve respect and recognition, both as people and as professionals. At the same time, maybe issuing responses is a volunteer position, maybe people were stressed for time or dealing with personal issues, maybe it's organizational policy not to provide details - who knows. Maybe it's just a low-quality, under-developed organization.

This situation arose because a client asked me if I was accredited by the Association… how do I answer the question if asked in future?


(...If you want a bit of a lighter way of looking at this, there's also the classic anime approach: I have been rejected! This only fuels my passion to excel! I will take pride in my own style and become... a Photography Master! My way!)
posted by trig at 6:44 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

From the perspective of a one-time wanna-be writer, this is totally normal.

One of my first writing instructors explained the process she went through when she had a story ready for submission. She printed ten copies. Got ten envelopes. Addressed the envelopes and put the copies inside. Mailed the first one. When the rejection came back, mail the second one. Lather, rinse, repeat. It's very rare to get any feedback at all. (One of the highlights of my brief non-career was a handwritten I'm so sorry on the rejection letter I got from The New Yorker.)

The point is that it's normal not to get any explanation along with a rejection. Same thing with job applications. Sure, you can always ask for more feedback. But whatever they do or don't say, don't let that be the judgement of your work. Have confidence in your work and keep going. It's the only way.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:05 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

felt it's not quite developed enough yet

Well obviously, you need to spend more time in the darkroom. Photography pun zing!

More serious answers:

1. It is an impersonal response. In fact, it says so little about your work or your application that it's probably a form response. Not unlike the "thank you for your interest in our position, but we've decided to go in another direction, and we wish you good luck in your job search" rejection letters you get from job sites. It's not worth paying attention to, not least because it's so vapid that there isn't anything to pay attention to.

2. "No, I haven't found membership in certain organizations to be professionally beneficial." Or "no, I've found that organization exists mostly to sell seminars" if you want to be catty.

3. Be more judicious in which ones you apply to. Don't apply just because someone mentioned it. Research the org and see if membership would actually be valuable to you beyond just telling clients you're a member.

4. Don't respond to the org. Respond by taking more photos and enjoying the process. Or by taking a nice check from a client to the bank and saying "how's *that* for not developed enough?"
posted by kevinbelt at 7:05 AM on February 8 [5 favorites]

The only part of this rejection to accept is the resonance within yourself that it generates.

Is your work extraordinary? Or adequate? If it’s adequate, are you fine with that? “I turn out highly competent work that pleases my clients” is a perfectly defensible stance, possibly saner than “I must go through a life crisis and years of labor to create work at the highest level.”

I know several friends whose photography is competent. The details aren’t burnished, the horizons aren’t quite perfectly level, the color grading isn’t exquisite and, above all, the shock of a new visual recognition isn’t there when you look at the photo. Things look basically as you would expect, but there’s no extra bit of style or perception that lifts their work out of the ordinary. I think they lack the obsessive trait that might drive one to create truly astounding work. But they get paid! You don’t have to be astounding to be worthwhile.

Now, is that what this organization is spotting? Maybe, maybe not. They may just be full-time gatekeepers with the power to squeeze would-be members for money. But if this event sets off a contemplation within yourself that leads to an understanding of your role in this world as a paid photographer, then it’s worth it.
posted by argybarg at 7:12 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

I grew up being told that no-one likes a showoff
just butting in to say that I love showoffs

posted by phunniemee at 7:14 AM on February 8 [15 favorites]

I totally understand the motivation for being humble, modest, or even self-deprecating about one’s work and not being a show off. If that’s your value system, respect it by simply ignoring pressure to show off professional credentials and resolve to be unfazed by that whole showy apparatus. That’s completely legitimate!
posted by desert exile at 7:25 AM on February 8 [4 favorites]

It is no fun to be rejected. It hurts, and I am sorry you were not accepted. That said, I do have a suggestion about this part:

This situation arose because a client asked me if I was accredited by the Association… how do I answer the question if asked in future?

Consider a professional response that is focused on the client (please do not be nasty about the Association, that will not serve you), something like, "I have been a professional photographer for more than 10 years and have built a thriving photography business over that time. I simply haven't seen the need to become accredited by the Association. Might that be a problem for you? Would references from satisfied clients resolve any concerns you might have?"

IMPORTANT: Just listen to how the potential client responds. It may be that some companies have a kind of checklist and accreditation from this body might be on the list. But if you are only just now bumping up against the question, surely accreditation is not a big deal (apart from your understandably pained feelings, I mean).

You don't need to feel defensive about not being accredited, your body of good work and happy clients is proof of that. If a client asks about X, just find out why they are asking. Usually you can make 'em happy, at least in my experience.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:26 AM on February 8 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Ok if the association is the first one that comes up from basic googling they do seem to at least present themselves as an exclusive type club rather than a professional body if that makes sense? I'd expect a professional body to be assessing for competence and skill which you clearly have. For instance a nursing professional body is assessing for nursing competence, that you can do the job. So this might be making it more confusing as it doesn't appear to me to be a professional body in the sense that I'd think someone not part of it wasn't professional, or that they're assessing for professional standards you're not meeting in the way it would be the case for someone doing a gas install or working as a therapist. They look like they're doing something specific but acting like they're universal which is kind of misleading.

It might be an opportunity to think more about what kinds of headshot work you enjoy, what kinds of client you like working with, techniques or aesthetics that excite you, other photographers who inspire you or who are doing something interesting to you, rather than focusing on prestige, and then focussing energy on things that resonate with what you're doing more specifically.
posted by mosswinter at 9:00 AM on February 8

Best answer: In my opinion your "no one likes a showoff, don't take pride publicly" enculturation and your feelings about this rejection are connected.

Artists and other creative professionals often don't allow ourselves to self-assess positively, nor to straightforwardly talk about our ambitions, because that goes against lessons we've been told: do not seek interpersonal validation, do not publicly take pride in your work, etc.

Those who want any systematic assessments of our skills and/or public recognition from other skilled practitioners, recognition that meaningfully validates our personal mastery, basically have to do that through one of a few fora that therefore accrue less-spoken emotional freight. And this of course leads to hurt feelings if we get rejected, and hurt meta-feelings when we have shame about wanting our mastery confirmed.

I learned a lot of this from Anna Fels's book "Necessary Dreams" which discusses ambition in a way that helped me understand what I wanted. She points out that what we sometimes call "desire for attention/validation" can also be understood as part of a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one's peers or community. And that it's really normal to want that recognition! Skimming the first half of that book may be helpful to you.

One way to move forward is to experience life on the other side of the desk -- judge other people's work as part of a mentorship program, a juried prize, submissions to an anthology, or something like that. You'll more viscerally understand that the professional body's judgment was fallible, impersonal, and limited, which can help you get a balanced perspective on that rejection in the overall landscape of your work and life.
posted by brainwane at 9:02 AM on February 8 [12 favorites]

Best answer: It hurts to realise that your metier has gatekeepers who are blocking you from participating simply because they don't know you and you are not one of them. If they were blocking you from participating in their club because you needed to take some steps to get there they would tell you clearly what the steps are. But they are almost certainly really presenting a nebulous objections that are designed to make you flail around trying to change without knowing exactly what it is.

The metrics you need to pass are sufficiently nebulous that there is a strong chance that no matter what you do you will never meet their standards. It's also possible that there are simply unspoken rules you don't know about and which they won't tell you unless you get a connection - something like needing to apply three times and have had a gallery show in the a certain area, or having done corporate work for any of a small list of companies.

Art communities are usually a mutual admiration society with a very narrow range of what they like and consider good. The longer the exist the more narrow that range becomes and the harder it gets to join the group.

While it IS possible that you have overestimated your skill, talent and aptitude, and a good mentor could show you what it is you are failing to do, it is much more likely that you just got told that you are a smelly girl and not allowed in the tree fort. Part of why it hurts is realising that the people who looked like they would be so much fun to play with are a bunch of jerks, and if you do get to join the club you won't have fun there.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:45 AM on February 8 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh also: if you are feeling humiliated specifically, then probably something struck at your sense of self-worth as tied to identity or belonging, and maybe reminded you of a past time when others excluded you from a group and undermined you.
posted by brainwane at 9:51 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

It's entirely possible that this is just kind of a clique-y in-clubby sort of organization and this is their "not our kind, dear" phrasing of rejection. I concur with Jane the Brown's answer.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:38 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

I saw some reference to an article titled something like "The 17 important settings you have to change in your camera". If Gordon Parks ever knew! I don't know if it was a joke or not, but the techy end of the photography world is out of touch with the real world. If they though they caught you using the $200 "kit" lens and not the $1200 pro lens, they'd dismiss you without a thought.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:14 PM on February 8

I worked for many years in a position where I sent out letters rejecting hundreds of applicants every year. The letter they sent you sounds like boiler-plate. The same letter goes to everyone they don't admit - it's not personalized to your work.

And it's difficult, I know, because their entire process is opaque. You have no idea what their standards are or if they reject a certain % of all applicants, or if they rejected all applicants that month because the association is in chaos, or whatever. Whatever the case may be, everyone they didn't admit got the same letter.

I wouldn't take the wording of the letter personally, and I wouldn't ask them for feedback. And I wouldn't consider it indicative of your future success applying to other organizations, because their rejection has very little meaning.

Trying to extrapolate off my previous experience mentioned above, I would suggest looking for a local mentor whose work you admire, maybe one who is in this organization, to confer with about your work.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 7:36 AM on February 9

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