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Walk of Shame

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date
Today I endured the annual inconvenience and waste of an afternoon to collect my rejected portraits from a certain national prize.

From the series Edelweiss by Sharon Boothroyd, 2011, rejected 2013.

As I walked through the deathly corridors I realised I was classified, for that moment in time, as a loser.  Or at least I felt that everyone who saw me was defining me as one (until I realised that they were likely to be there for the same reason) and I wondered if I would define myself as a loser too.  There was a time when I would have.
I started wondering about what it means for an artist to put their work out there for others to judge; how we make ourselves dependent on others for value.  What are my intentions in applying for these things anyway?
One thing I remember from uni. was my course leader saying that just because someone was showing their work in The Photographers’ Gallery didn’t mean they were successful or good.  It made me think.
How do we define success?
Who do we make art for?
Who validates it for us?
Who are the ideal judges?
I suppose we would all answer differently but I realised that the reasons I entered this prize (for the exposure and potential recompense) were not particularly in line with what I value as an artist; talent, persistence and honesty.  Actually, and this may be the spite talking, I wouldn’t be honoured as an artist to be included in that particular exhibition but I would be pleased to receive £30,000.  I wouldn’t have seen it as a high validation of my creativity and ideas but rather a good way of getting my pictures in one of the Great British galleries and in front of a teeming crowd… who may or may not know anything about photography.
I learnt a few things about myself, I learnt that I like niche. I want to belong there.  I would rather have a few followers who love what I do for the ideas and the photography than for the fact that I had hung some frames in a big gallery.  I also learnt that Terence Conran (one of the judges) is not my hero nor will I ever be his.  Rejection is never going to be easy and it’s important to have good work recognised, but maybe talent, persistence and honesty are good enough for now.
How do you validate what you do?

Posted by author: Sharon
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27 thoughts on “Walk of Shame

  • Ha ha, this post has resonated with me.
    Up until a couple of months ago I’d never submitted a photo in a competition but on the suggestion of my tutor I have submitted to two in the past few months. Indeed very few people see many of my images because they are taken primarily taken for my own needs.
    Of course I take the usual sorts of photos – to mark family gatherings or events – but the images I am driven to shoot for YOP and Advanced are much more expressions of my emotional state and responses to my situation. They are rather like a little secret diary that I share with a tutor, assessment panel and a few other students and only no one else. (Although this is beginning to change and I am sharing more and more of this type of work with more people than ever before).
    But there is a need for someone else to see my photos as otherwise I wouldn’t know if they communicate effectively. Indeed I put an enormous amount of weight on tutor and assessment feedback – how else would I know whether the images speak as intended? But putting a photo in the public domain seems wholly different in nature.
    So I take photos primarily as a way of expressing myself in a way only photos can. It’s both the process of looking and taking shots (Winogrand comes to mind for some reason) and output that provide solace.
    Thus validation comes in a variety of ways: student comments, tutor feedback and, of course assessment. Knowing a group of experienced practitioners have scrutinised and considered ones own approach (I’m visualising this as I write!) is important. Each line of the assessment feedback will be read, reread and interpreted and reinterpreted for each and every morsel of nuance.
    I didn’t get anywhere in the competitions (Jerwood Encounters Curated by Photoworks on the Theme of Family Politics and the Taylor Wessing portrait prize) but enjoyed, and learned, from the process of developing and making the submission so the effort was not wasted.

  • Thanks for this very interesting post… Personnally, I feel like as soon as my photography helps me to express myself, to understand myself and the world better, I am successful. As long as the path is fruitful and rewarding, the destination does not really matter… Then, it is just a question of taming our annoying egos but that’s not always as easy as it seems…
    Honesty seems the most important value to me, even more than talent or persistance.
    But I guess it all depends on what we want in our life. I don’t want to judge somebody who really wants to ‘win’ a competition, because may be he really needs it.

  • Hi Sharon,
    First of all – commiserations that you didn’t bag the £30,000.
    And thanks for being vulnerable enough to share your feelings with us.
    I suppose I always knew it, but the experience of actually studying art and getting regular feedback has brought home to me the on-going trauma of rejection that artists face. Its so important to learn to take something from each apparent knock-back, and to use it to re-define our own purpose – as you clearly do.
    I’ve been reading a book called ‘Resilience‘ by Mark McGuinness
    Its written specifically for people who work in the various arts and creative industries, and is full of helpful ways to turn around the feelings of rejection, or to ensure any submission of work is ‘on-brief’ if we really don’t want to be rejected. (I’m sharing this for other students who, like me, might also get big emotional swings around assignment feedback , or assessment time!)
    The other things that strikes me in what you write is about ‘audience’, and how you have become clear that you have a specific niche that you want to be part of, and specific people who appreciate your work..
    In the book ‘ How contemporary artists think and work’ (on the Painting reading list) there’s a whole section about knowing your audience. And it talks about the fact that the world of Art is so diverse now that no one critic can understand and identify with all forms and themes of art. So knowing what we want to say, and who we want to say it to are important – we have to find our audience and run with our tribe. Just because one critic doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean that another one won’t fall in love with it. Its a HUGE world out there, and more and more people are engaged with art. We will all find our audience if we are clear enough about what we want to say, and take enough care over saying it.
    To answer your question: how do I validate what I do?
    I’m slowly finding my own ‘tribe’ of artists and friends who give me helpful feedback, show me ways to improve, and get into discussions that deepen my insights. This is my most important on going validation. This tells me whether I am managing to communicate what I want to communicate.
    But I’m also using the education system as a means of validation – can I ‘think like an artist’, and is my technical skill improving?
    I want to move on to MA study and research, so right now I’m rather focused on what is required to get a good degree. This is not necessarily the same as what is required to feel internally validated – for example, maybe what I am trying to communicate does not have broader resonance. The academic validation will allow me to know that that I have given it my best in terms of conceptualisation and technique.
    Thanks again for posting this – its something we all need to face (again and again)
    This is a beautiful and tender photograph.
    Be happy.

  • Thanks for highlighting something that I know I have felt many times over the years. That of utter dejected failure. the thing that you say is very very true that in the end you realise it is not that you have failed but more that you have been lucky in not becoming one of the many shooting stars that are promoted above talent and then crash burning with a big big bump. I have taught students who have had that rise and I have sen them crash and burn after while I just plod along being rejected and living off the scraps of what I can.
    As I have aged I have become aware that I have been lucky; very lucky in fact not to have been a casualty of my own areas (music) calous mistreatment. I was luck enough to have a 50th Birthday concert recently with performers who were commited and understanding of what I have produced. Thanks be to them and an audience who appreciated the gift I have, and have tried to give over the years. It may only have been a small gathering but then I would rather like yourself be appreciated by a few than by a passing phase of a big organisation and then discarded and ignored completely.
    Your observations will hopefully be a big help to others too.

  • Quickee…
    How do we define success?
    Surviving (on?) photography until we die.
    Who do we make art for?
    Ourselves with people looking over our shoulders.
    Who validates it for us?
    No one.
    Who are the ideal judges?
    Anyone who validates us.
    If it wasn’t for Terence Conran then I wouldn’t have been a photographer so experience varies.
    One thing being a professional teaches you is to detach your ego from your work. It might be called art photography but it’s a business and people, more usually the ancillary trades, make money from it. If you’re making work that’s personally meaningful there’s every chance that it won’t fit the contemporary market or perhaps your niche is filled already, scarcity creates value.
    Competitions are marketing vehicles, it’s a numbers game, there’ll be another one along in a minute.

  • Yes experience varies, just to clarify I have nothing against Terence Conran or any of the other judges or the NPG. I was just saying that the role of a judge can be somewhat arbitrary.

  • Hi Sharon, Thanks for sharing your thoughts, feelings and photo. The latter made me think of some of the images of Sally Mann who I have recently been looking at and I have previously looked at your images and enjoyed them.
    Rejection is a horrid feeling and needs management. We all have it through our lives from a early age when we may not be selected for a team, not being selected for a particular job etc.
    Now I have to think of myself:
    How do I define success?
    For now with regard to my photography I think I have two parameters at level 1, where I am. Firstly, Meeting targets, meeting the brief and having positive feedback from my tutor. And, of course, taking an image I am proud of.
    Who do I make art for?
    For me and a few friends, my tutor and my assessors. Last weekend also for a friend who was cycling in an international race.
    Who validates it for us?
    The same people I make it for!
    Who are the ideal judges?
    Not really sure. For now I guess it remains the same people I make it for, especially me.
    However, I am lucky as I do not have to earn any money from my photography and I am sure that if I did I would answer differently and probably make different images. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

  • The is nothing shameful in putting your work out there – quite the opposite. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Sharon.
    We often judge success by popularity. I learnt the falseness of this when I did a project at college which was really popular amongst my peer group, and I left the crit’ session beaming, and was understandably disappointed that my tutors awarded a much lower mark than I was expecting. With a bit of help and time I got my head around the fact that the work did have some pretty mega flaws, although on the surface of it it seemed rather clever.

  • Hi Carol,
    Thanks for the book link- will investigate that. I do submit entries into competitions, while I’ve never been successful, sometimes just seeing my work amongst them and hanging up, open and anonymous for all to see is worth it. If I win, great, if not I’ve had some exposure to a different audience. Although for me, external validation through winning just once would be amazing and confirm that I am actually talented in some way. The other validation I hope for is a very good degree classification once I’ve finished!

  • Thank you for your very honest response Sharon – that was brave of you.
    You just have to accept that sometimes judges get it wrong!

  • Aah the sweet smell of rejection, I know it well. But what is great about rejection is that the more you receive the more you get used to it and it stops hurting because you begin to understand the politics and in this case the financial issues that make these people set these competitions up in the first place. Straight after graduation I entered every competition going but soon got wind of the ones that offered very little chance of winning (for example looking back at the history of winners, if they all came from prestigious London colleges and you are outside that clique it is probably not worth bothering). Then I reduced my applications to the ones that didn’t charge, or only charged a modest entry fee and offered the real possibility of something interesting if I won. I looked at this process as a gamble and a bit of fun until I got bored and started to fine tune my applications to only those that I desperately wanted and put every effort into getting them, and to date it has worked quite well – I’m off on my second artists residency in the USA tomorrow and I didn’t have to pay an entry fee. If I can offer any advice I’d say avoid obvious money spinners and only go for those you’d be proud to be associated with.

  • I think it takes courage to put your work forward publicly, and even more courage to tell the world you didn’t succeed and share your learning Sharon, so thank you very much. thanks to Linda also for sharing your learning – you strategy sounds like a very good one to me.
    I’m not sure how I would define success just now, but one big part of the answer to that question as well as the one about who the art is for, is that it needs to please me most of all. Making a picture that I feel speaks to me and for me is hugely satisfying, and probably my main goal in art work.
    That said, as a human being and social animal, getting some form of recognition from others is important too and means a lot to me. I’m in the position of having two main audience groups – family and friends (nothing too challenging for them) and people who are interested in and open to art, currently mostly fellow students and a smaller number of friends. This latter group are the people I feel are the audience for the work that is most important and interesting work to me. I hope to grow this group over time. I suspect that Clive is right in that ultimately it is important not to take audience reaction too much to heart, but it is difficult not to do so.

  • Sharon,
    Being rejected is a difficult thing to face . Late in my career I started selling to major international companies. As a salesman you have to learn to cope with rejection just as actors do, or teachers or candidates for jobs or examinees. Its tough but most artists have to face this. I don’t think van Gogh sold many paintings, now he sells for millions. The reverse can also be true; musicians such as Meyerbeer who were hugely popular during their lifetimes are now almost forgotten. So success can be both short and long term.
    How do we define success? I suppose the first question to ask is are you as the creator happy with what you have produced. This can be a tortuous process. Walton agaonised for months over the exact chord for the word “gold” in Belshazzars Feast. Durufle tore up most of his compositions. If you pass that hurdle then your tutor’s view has to be given a lot of weight for the experience they have in your particular part of the creative world. Then there are your family and friends. Are they really enthusiastic about your latest oeuvre or are they just being kind? One calls to mind Noel Cowards reply to an actress friend asking what he thought of her performance in a play “Marvellous just isn’t the word, darling” Then if you are feeling bold you can submit yourself to competitions and shows. Do bear in mind that any judge of any creative art will not usually relish the task of failing someone if he or she has any sensitivity at all (I exclude popular tv shoes from this observation). It is very easy to destroy someones confidence. Choir conductors hate giving auditions for this reason.
    Perhaps one shouldn’t brand oneself as a loser. As Alan Bennett said in Beyond the Fringe “It matters not who won or lo(r)st but how you played the game.” (quoting in an hilarious way from a splendid Victorian poem – There’s a deathless hush in the close tonight etc). The problem with the creative arts is that it is bedevilled by fashion and by coteries of the elect who pronounce from on high about the worth of a painting or piece of music or photograph. Competitions are not always regarded with favour particularly in the music world where in these days of faultless technique it can be very difficult to judge but to come second means that your future opportunities are likely to much less than those of the winner. Music at the highest levels is such a cruelly competitive world. I knew a Chinese pianist who was superb but she had never won a major competition. She consoled herself by playing chamber music. And why not?
    Who do we make art for? Ourselves and our audiences be they experts or the general public. One has to decide whether or not to aim at being widely popular. In my own work as a very amateur composer I only write music which comes from an inner compulsion but I aim to make this acceptable to myself, my choir and to my audience. I console myself with the fact that 70% of all published music is only performed once. As artists we are competing for a share of that most precious commodities – peoples free time.
    Who validates our work for us? I think you can see from my ramblings above that this is not an easy question to answer.
    Who are the ideal judges? I would value the opinion of people you respect to whom you have access who are at the top of their profession. Anyone who can make a living from being a composer or an artist or a photographer has got to be worth listening to. Sometimes that person may have got to where he or she is by a stroke of luck. One thinks of Paul Mealor whose Ubi caritas was sung at the recent royal wedding. Luck can play a large part but to endure the lucky artist has to keep on producing the goods.
    Sharon, I don’t know if this is of any help or if it makes you feel better. I won’t comment on your photo because I suspect I am not very good at judging. I was not impressed by the recent man Ray Exhibition which probably says it all………
    Looking at the advice from Linda above I think that looks very practical to me. I wish you every success.
    John Read

  • Sharon, the following is from my blog of Sean O’Hagan being interviewed at the Brighton Photo Festival last november …
    “At first, talk turns to The Taylor Wessing Prize since Sean was one of the judge’s this year and the results are about to be announced. Sean regards the subject matter of the exhibition as a bit repetitive, is surprised at the poor standard of some entries, the conservative nature of the award and pressure from NPG staff to favour a classical approach. His choice of winner did not win! Although the competition does get a few thousand entries every year, they are not coming from the kind of photographers that might produce cutting edge work.”

  • As a student, I wonder, for those of us who got very bad feedback, or got much lower grade in the assessment than we expected, do we ask ourselves the same question when we have our “walk of shame” (fortunately, your student ID is masked in the assessment result if you click the right box!)?
    “How do we define success? Who do we make art for? Who validates it for us? Who are the ideal judges?”
    I learn to take photograph and to draw as a form of communication skill. There are some ideas I would like to share with the right people. To do that I need: 1) explore further into my ideas, 2) learn how to communicate them, 3) find the people I would like to speak to. Going to school to learn will help me on #1 and #2. I have a feeling that there are very few people who share the same sentiment as I do. Therefore, instead of hoping that someone will hand-hold me to where I want to be, I have to keep trying and failing to see what works. In that sense, getting rejected seems to be only way forward. In another word, I am the type of wierdo who makes stuff (rather than “Art”) that no one cares. So technically I will never success if I need external validation.
    A photography tutor once wrote on the forum (I am paraphrasing).
    … Whatever tutors say, it is constructive criticism…
    So, there is no rejection. It is always some sort of constructive learning experience if you looking at it in the “right” angle.

  • Commiserations on the ‘rejection’ Sharon which must be so dispiriting after all the effort and imagining that you’ve put into the submission. If it’s the image above and a personal, intimate one then I guess that must have made the feeling worse. I think it must take a considerable amount of courage to enter these competitions, where the judging seems so arbitrary somehow. Is it about the judges meeting certain criteria or following their inclinations? I’m certainly cynical about objectivity.
    I applaud your bravery in voicing your feelings. To me that’s a great sign of your innate self-belief and determination.
    For me I’m at the stage, like Eileen, where I look to relatively small circles of support for validation. People whose opinions I trust and know they won’t hold back on criticism but will do it constructively. In the first instance the work has to be something that I think is worthwhile and expresses something I hold deeply. I’ve been going through a difficult personal challenge of exploring what it is that I really want to say about the way I view the world, trying find a way that seems right for me. The quest continues.

  • Sorry to hear about the rejection, Sharon, but I applaud your courage for coming on here and writing about it. It takes a large amount of humility and self-belief to be able to tell everyone, and face it yourself. This is something that I think most people should be able to learn from; how to deal with rejection and disappointment, and bounce back from it.
    As is often said, how you deal with the disappointment and grow from it is the important thing, but that maybe doesn’t help right at the beginning, it needs time for that recognition to settle in. I guess retaining your self-belief and not staying bitter (which most of us would be at first, I think) about it are the most important things, and you seem to have managed that.
    Personally, I can’t see myself ever having the confidence to enter a competition even if I ever take a photograph that could be considered good enough, so I’m not sure at all how I would react to the rejection anyway.
    Catherine mentioned the objectivity of judges in competitions, and that’s something i’ve always wondered about too.

  • Rejection is something most of us have had to face at some time or another in all walks of life. It is not something to be taken personally, but actually may be a valuable opinion or a constructive criticism which helps us on our way forward. Failure is not a shame. One can only fail if one ATTEMPTS something.
    Most creative people have to enter competitions or submit project ideas a couple of times a year and dont get chosen everytime. But one HAS to keep doing this to keep one’s office or workshop running. Its all part of the game. The people making the decision will always have their own opinions and tastes. So its nothing to be taken personally. If one has to pay the bills with what one is doing, there is no other way than to go out into the wide world and compete for these contracts. But its a healthy competition and keeps one agile and alert.
    I also agree with Linda, that one ought to steer clear of such competitions which merely are money spinners for the organisers.
    It was courageous of you to have submitted your work – but doubly courageous of you to have aired your reaction and feelings, so that other students could also reflect on such issues. Thanks for sharing Sharon.
    I personally believe that if one enjoys one’s work, and believes in what one is doing, makes profound thoughts about why and wherefore, one will eventually find one’s niche. I think your tutors and assessors are your most constructive critics and a good degree will lend you a basis of confidence.which cannot be shaken by personal opinions. But even thereafter, one can never, ever stop learning and constructive criticism from a few trusted peers gives one a jolt every now and again and keeps one on the road to honing one’s talent.

  • I have been a professional photographer since leaving school 35 years ago. Local and national press photographer, shot over 2000 weddings, photographed BHS events for Horse and Hound, last ten years a portrait photographer.
    I have started the photography degree course and the also joined one of the photography organisations and I find this competition malarky quite intriguing, interesting and before I write the third I apologise for it……..quite funny.
    I have judged a couple of camera clubs photographic competitions by invite because of being a professional photographer. At both events I surprised them because without be asked I validated by decisions and explained them. Whether I made the right or wrong decisions this made people happy because it meant there was a reason for my choices.
    Via an email I recently asked a judge of a national competition why the winners had been chosen and to explain why mine had not featured. I was not saying mine should have but I wanted to learn. 6 months later and still no explanation. He offered to but said he was busy at that exact time but would do it. I have come to the conclusion that he had no solid reasoning for choosing the winners or it would have been an easy response.
    Running competitions where it costs £6 or more to enter is a great way of earning money for someone. so I agree with Linda Khatir, spend your money wisely

  • Sharon thank you for your honesty it is not easy to admit that that you feel like a loser but let me tell you that you are just human, you must had been very pleased with the print that you submitted and I know this maybe hard now but there will be times that you get what you want if, but only if you continue putting your heart and soul into your art. The one thing in life that I have learnt is that nothing ever comes easily – I am not an accomplished artist/photographer but in the past I have done reasonably well in camera clubs competitions and also in the martial arts in which they took no prisoners – winning or losing always came with pain.
    Your uni course leader seems like a very wise person and I agree with him / her whole heartedly. This is what I believe my photography means to me:
    How do we define success?
    This is very easy – if I love the images that I am doing right now and I can improve as I continue along this path, I will have enjoyed my life even if I never get recognised as a great photographer. Success is the enjoyment of my art (and other peoples art) and learning along the way
    Who do we make art for?
    Me, me, me, my wife (oh – and that’s right – mustn’t forget the tutors and the accessors)
    Who validates it for us?
    I don’t really care but it is always great to get good feed back.
    Who are the ideal judges?
    Don’t know – never meet one.

  • My limited experience suggests that trial by judges is a lottery, most of them having their own agenda, even Mr. O’Hagan. Finding a good agent and playing the marketing game seems to be a more productive route, as seen in Arles, where it’s not about the competition, it’s about the commerce. Can you have your photos printed onto a scarf for example?

  • Nice photo. I’m not sure that I do get used to rejection. It hits just as hard every time. Like Linda, I only go for things that I feel I have a chance with- the trouble is so many others are also going for the same things. I understand it is a bit of a lottery and that not being accepted isn’t a reflection of your talent, but it does mean you are not included. I find that with all the isolation being an artist can come with it is nice to be involved. I love going to big openings where I have a piece, partly to meet all the other artists too. I like being part of things as it balances the solitary life. I like it when other people see my work too and that doesn’t happen so much if it doesn’t get out there.
    Going back to the lottery thing, I fundamentally disagree with the way many Open shows are selected. I have been on selecting committees and have seen for myself the fallacy of counting up votes. Works that evoke strong reactions one way or another often don’t make the mark because the votes cancel each other out. Blander pieces often make it through because you only need one person to think it is better that average to get it in. I would advocate for each selector to get a certain number of wild cards, where they could bring a piece out of the reject pile. That would make for an edgier show.

  • I see that the shortlist has bee nanounced. http://www.npg.org.uk/photoprize1/site13/index.php It is interesting. This year’s pictures are all I think very formally beautiful, but if anything possibly more conservative than in previous years. The full exhibition often offers some more challenging work and I will probably go again this year. I find it a very interesting study of what is deemed to be valued or valuable in portrait work in this institution.

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