Where are all the mentors? An introverts quest for feedback

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Following an aborted personal review of 2015 where I was unable to find a consistent set of images I was happy with and generally left feeling disappointed at the quality of the images I’ve produced in the last 12 months, I spent some time looking out at the seemingly six millionth consecutive day of grey, dull wetness through the window, putting myself through the usual rollercoaster of introspection, self doubt & consideration of knitting as an alternative more practical, less stressful pastime, trying to find answers to questions I didn’t even know I was asking.  I know we all do this from time to time, and this definitely isn’t a phishing blog attempting to elicit several comments of “don’t doubt yourself” or “your stuff is OK”, but let’s be honest i’m not the only person to struggle through the last few months of unbearably crap and uninspiring weather we’ve endured.

Anyway, I was revisiting the Ffoton interview of Matt Botwood by Rob Hudson (if you haven’t listened to any of these podcasts sort your act out, seriously) and it led me to consider my own photographic process and purpose.  Two things resonated, firstly the lack of purpose in my image making, secondly the need for feedback.  The lack of purpose or intent is a whole other blog that I’ll tackle soon, but in the quest for a semblance of brevity and most importantly in an attempt to avoid boring those of you reading this introspective, self-indulgent waffle, the search for open and honest feedback is the subject of this particular blog…

Matt spoke in the interview about mentoring and the importance of honest feedback from a set of trusted peers, and this reminded me of something I read from David Duchemin a while back where he introduced the concept of the four voices we as photographers listen to.  They are the Critic, the Friend, the Mentor and the Sycophant.

To paraphrase David, the Critic is the one who wants to tell you how good they are whilst letting you know how flawed you are, the Sycophant is the well meaning person who shouts “love it” to anything they like the look of, both these sorts of people are generally uninvited to our world and unfortunately don’t bring much to it in our search for constructive feedback. The remaining two types are those we actively invite into our world. The first of these, the Friend, doesn’t necessarily understand the work, but knows us and likes what we do, they’re our cheerleaders and boy do we need them when we’re full of creative doubt and bereft of self-belief. The last one however is the most useful yet also the most elusive, they are the Mentor. The Mentor is the person you ask in to your world to give you the truth about your work, both the positive and the negative, and you invite their feedback because you trust them and their opinions.

So, here’s my problem…internet forums are full of critics, life is full of friends, social media is full of well meaning sycophants, the mentors are missing from my life.

Now if I was lucky enough to live in one of the many landscape hotbeds in the UK such as Yorkshire, Norfolk or even Nottingham I may have the opportunity to occasionally bump into some fellow photographers on a hillside, beach or maybe in a nice pub warming up with a pint by a log fire after a long afternoon in the field, and spend some time discussing one another’s work and swapping tips on the best spots to find that unicorn and rainbow combo we’ve been seeking that will ensure that next competition placing.

However the reality is that I’m a somewhat introverted chap living in Monmouthshire near the Welsh border, who treasures the limited amount of time he gets out in the landscape with the camera as a means of mentally and physically recharging from the mundanity of the day job.  Making images for me is a solitary pursuit, and without that solace I struggle to focus properly and create anything of any worth. The question of whether I ever do create anything of worth or not anyway is one of the reasons why I need a mentor 😉 #SelfDoubt #NotAPhishingBlog. Anyway, when you couple that with the fact that the likelihood of me bumping into anyone over a cosy log fire locally is, well zero, then it begs the question where do I find that feedback, where do I find someone who is willing to act as that sounding board?  And if I’m asking this question, who else is asking themselves the same thing out there?

We spend inordinate amounts of time chatting on social media, trying to compress meaningful conversations into 140 character snippits, and on occasions actually meet face to face at events like Meeting of Minds run by the OnLandscape team, Connected run by Rob Knight, or Masters of Vision organised by Pete Bridgwood, but whilst these are fantastic events and great opportunities to put faces to names (Twitter handles on foreheads should be compulsory at such events by the way), they are all too infrequent.

So the question I guess I’m posing, and more annoyingly for you the reader having come this far with me, not answering…sorry…is how does an introverted, time-limited, geographically challenged, landscape photographer find another time constrained, landscaping jedi master selflessly willing to spend some time being brutally honest in a constructive way? I’d like to think my work is ok, but it feels like it’s lacking direction and purpose…it’s purposeless…and its purposelessness is where I need to explore right now, and maybe having that feedback might make my images exhibit less purposelessnessless….sorry…I’ll stop the plagiarism of Rowan Atkinson and his Sir Marcus Browning M.P. sketch right now I promise.

At the end of the day we all need that honest feedback in order to progress and grow as a photographer, or do we?  Am I the only one looking for it? But assuming I’m not the only one, how do you get that feedback? And also, how as photographers can we make ourselves available to fill that role to help someone else around us who values our feedback? More beer and log-fireside discussions gets my vote as a starting point…

8 Comments

  1. Richard Hurst  —  January 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Totally agree with the points you have raised here Karl. Unfortunately there is far too much back slapping on social media and not enough honest and open critic.

    Reply
    • admin  —  January 20, 2016 at 12:13 am

      Cheers, there’s no substitute for face to face discussion I’m afraid. Social media is great for building those relationships, but not quite so good at taking those discussions to the next level IMHO

      Reply
  2. Paul Davis  —  January 19, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    Hi Karl. I hadn’t realised that being in Nottingham I was in a landscape hotbed! I’m now convinced that they’re all hiding from me because I’m crap and boring. In fairness I’ve no doubt that with a bit of effort on my part I could get together with others who could give me some honest feedback – Steve Cole lives locally and has extended an invitation so it’s available if I overcome my own introversion. I didn’t know that there was such a paucity of toggers in your area. I can only assume that they can’t stand the competition? But with your friend list I would have thought there are plenty of talented people who could mentor at a distance? Maybe we need a site dedicated to seeking feedback (unless there is one?) people post their work and get feedback. But then it may be feedback from people whose opinions you don’t value? If a few well respected photographers would commit to it I’m sure it would be very popular.

    Reply
    • admin  —  January 20, 2016 at 12:19 am

      Oh it’s a hotbed alright, some great togs living in that neck of the woods strangely enough. You can get a level of critique over social media, but it’s never going to be a substitute for a pint and a chinwag, well not for me anyway. To open yourself up to someone creatively requires a huge amount of trust on both sides, that’s hard to do in 140 character tweets really. Those trusted relationships take time to establish, and more time to be truly productive. It’s like any coaching and mentoring relationship, hard work and time consuming if it is to work properly, but hugely satisfying when you see someone develop as a result of your interactions. No better feeling in my book!

      Reply
  3. Neil Hulme  —  January 19, 2016 at 7:56 pm

    Fantastic article, I do sooooo relate to everything you have said.

    Reply
    • admin  —  January 20, 2016 at 12:21 am

      Cheers Neil, I think I’ve just managed to brainfart out what a lot of us tend to feel like, it’s why large numbers of us are on Facebook, twitter, flickr or attending camera clubs. It’s a largely solitary pursuit that means nothing if no one sees the work. And we all need a bit of approval now and then don’t we?

      Reply
  4. Bri Wig  —  January 20, 2016 at 8:51 am

    As soon as I started reading your article, then this could be written by myself, I look at my images and think , no , wrong place , wrong time , wrong this , wrong that.The inspiration bug seems to have left the house long before I make a move, yet week in week out I try and find the elusive unicorn as you put it.Still we keep on going and trying find that one image we are completely satisfied with.

    Reply
  5. Rob Knight  —  January 20, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    A superb article Karl and feelings we all go through, I think social media is full of well intentioned folk as well as some self pontificators. Finding a trusted mentor is not easy at all, it’s someone you not only need to trust but also to build a very good working relationship with.
    Arguably also mentoring isn’t just about advice, I think it’s about working together, collaborating and learning more about a persons motivations and personal experience before offering guidance and asking challenging questions which the mentee can use to frame their development.
    A mentor doesn’t necessarily have to have all the answers either but should be someone who can understand a person and ask the right questions to help them develop through self reflection and honest guidance in the right direction.
    The main thing is to remain positive, find a fellow tog reasonably local who you can meet monthly maybe and whom you can share the journey with and challenge each other through regular (online if need be) discussion.
    It would be easy to tell you we offer mentoring to all types of togs / creatives (which we do) but I do believe you need someone localish and someone who isn’t necessarily perceived as being an experienced tog, you can learn well and gain valuable mentorship from someone of similar experience as you can share the journey and challenge each other….. When one is down the other can both empathise but also encourage and be the positive one.
    You soon see over the course of months how things start to develop for you and get you might even decide to collaborate on a project and really crystallise the joint journey too.

    Hope this helps chap, give me a shout if you need any more info or bounce ideas around.

    Cheers

    Rob

    Reply

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