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Chances Are, You Suck

Chances are, you suck. Worse yet, nobody is going to tell you.

In the past, before the internet made us equal, your friends, the ones you had actually met in person, would let you know when your pictures didn’t quite cut it. Most of the time they wouldn’t even need to say anything.

You’d know it yourself as soon as you showed them your work.

Of course, plenty of other times they’d bust your chops, but that was a different time. Before we all became so polite and nonjudgemental. Back when respect was something earned and not a right of birth.

Your work is not you.

Sometimes great people produce work that isn’t so great. Friends don’t let friends do this.

Do you know that feeling? The one when you’re showing images to someone (perhaps an editor or producer that you were hoping to work with) and you get to that picture, the one that looked perfectly acceptable moments before, but as soon as you show it, you’re immediately filled with regret.

Yeah, I hate that feeling too.

There are plenty of things photography-wise that I’m not very good at. I’m not great at creating images, but I’m pretty good at finding them. I’m terrible at self-promoting, marketing and the business stuff makes me squirm. Yet I’m good with people, I travel well, I solve problems, and strangers often accept me into their lives. Hey, I’m a people person (or maybe I’ve just got one of those faces)!

There’s nothing really exceptional or surprising about my self-evaluation. It’s fairly common among former photojournalists.

So that’s me, those are my strengths and weaknesses. I also publish too many pictures on my websites. I’d look better if I kept the numbers down, but this isn’t about me. It’s about you and why you suck.

There’s nothing wrong with not being good at photography. Everybody started out bad and none of us do all aspects of it well. But it’s a crying shame to want to be good at it, to spend time and money trying to be good at it, and not getting any better. People get frustrated and if nobody is willing to give them an honest critic, they’ll likely give up. How’s that okay?

This isn’t like teaching a child to read. With creatives, positive reinforcement is often your enemy. Your Facebook friends, your Twitter followers, those awful people on Instagram with their perfect lives… hate you. Instead of taking ten seconds to say, “This doesn’t work. You need to do better,” they readily push the “like” button because it’s easy and they hope to get the same from you.

They’re cowards. They’re afraid of the internet mob. Nobody wants to get on the wrong side of a mob, so it’s best to play well with others. They’re also calculating, because making nice is a financial decision, not a moral one. Go along to get along seems to be the secret to a happy and profitable online life.

Let me share a little personal information with you. The night before a shoot, I don’t sleep well. The gig could be something easy, a situation that I know will produce a good image, but that doesn’t help.

Fear of failure is a beautiful thing. The trick is to use that fear to get as well prepared as you can possibly be, and then to ignore it once the shooting starts. Don’t be afraid of risk, just failure.

So how do you become a better photographer when you’re reinforced with so much unearned praise from your internet buddies? What’s your motivation, to get a thousand likes instead of just a hundred? If so, there’s an easy recipe for that, start making pictures of cats. Better yet, kittens … kittens and boobs (I wonder if the URL is taken). You’ll soon be more awesome than you could possible imagine and you’ll also have the “likes” to prove it.

I only bring this up, because I stumble upon (as do you) so many social media sites that are just filled with hideous images that are raised up by meaningless praise. I find it depressing.

If nothing is bad, can anything be good?

More depressing, Google “great photography.” Better yet, don’t. I take that back. Once seen, some things cannot be unseen (either me or Gandalf said that first).

There are sites that are doing an amazing job at publishing great photography. If you want to become a better photographer, look at them. Better yet, start buying books. There’s nothing like paper in hand, that you’ve made an investment in, to get one to really engage with the work.

When looking at photography, study it, ask yourself, “How would I have approached this situation?” or “Would I have made better or worse pictures than this photographer?” Also pay attention to simple technical things, like what shutter speed or aperture was used. Not because the technical things are difficult, but because it helps to engage the other side of your brain. Both sides of the brain need to be working together to pull knowledge out of information.

Not sucking is worth the effort. Seek out great photography. Devour it, and be suspicious of any undue praise.

Here are two sites that are doing a consistently excellent job of publishing great photography:

The New York Times‘ Lens Blog

The New Yorker‘s Photo Booth

For commentary on the editorial and commercial photography world:

A Photo Editor

My work awaits your criticism at www.kennethjarecke.com.

Books by Kenneth Jarecke available on iTunes:

Just Another War (with Exene Cervenka)

Husker Game Day

Pictures — How to Make Them (Introduction)

Pictures — How to Make Them (Fascinated with Photography)

Pictures — How to Make Them (Street Photography Smarts)