HOPE & HUMILIATION

A year ago, I passed the ballot for a year of mentorship of the fotobond. The fotobond is the Dutch organisation to which all amateur photography clubs belong nation-wide. I chose to become a member of the fotobond itself, rather than a local club, because I wanted to improve my photography on the highest possible level and I'm a member of several clubs, already. For this purpose, I aimed at applying for the master class of the fotobond (BMK). The mentorship appeared to be the best way to help me in achieving this goal.

MENTORSHIP

I made three proposal for projects to be executed last year: one about food and street photography, one about artificial nature (where nature and infrastructure meet) and one about portraying and documenting the life of a blind person. The first one was rejected immediately. I worked on the second one for quite a while without much success and eventually dropped it (for now). The third one, however, developed well. More information on that project can be found here: I See What You Don't See. In fact, the resulting book was received with a lot of enthusiasm wherever I showed it. My mentor Harry Sikkenk, who is also the organiser of the BMK, encouraged me to apply for the BMK ballot. It looked very promising, indeed.

BMK

With all the good hope and satisfied with a promising result, I applied for the BMK and got through the first round of selection. Yesterday, the second round took place in the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam. There were 39 candidates left for the second and final round. Each of us had the opportunity to present our work for 10 minutes to one of the five members of the jury. The members of the jury are professional photographers, hence not members of the fotobond. I presented my book to Rosa Verhoeve. She had a very critical look at the book and my explanations. I left with mixed feelings. Of course, constructive criticism is good for improving and learning. For me, the ambition to be accepted to the BMK is partly for the recognition of my work, but mostly for the opportunity to meet and learn from better photographers.

After lunch, all the projects were presented in public and the verdict was pronounced with respect to being either admitted, admitted as a candidate or rejected. The order of presentation was in alphabetical order and so I witnessed how two of my colleagues from the mentorship got admitted as candidates. They will be supported for another year to improve their series and can apply for full membership again next year. When it was my turn, the verdict was that I'm rejected. Not only came this as a surprise after all the promising reactions before, but the presentation of the juror left no doubt that there was, according to her view, nothing positive worth mentioning in my book. None of the other four members of the jury cared to say a word, either, as they frequently did for the other projects, admitted or not. There was at least one good thing to say about every project, except mine. The negative points were the following:
  • The story is not visible. She looks like a normal person doing everyday things. It's not clear that she is blind.
  • There are too many doublures, for example the two pictures each in the metro and of the dog.
  • There is not enough diversity, too limited choice of subjects.
  • The backgrounds are boring and nothing happens.
  • The pictures get too close to her, rather than showing the environment around her.
  • The choice for using available light only was wrong. Flash light should have been used to make the pictures technically less deficient.
While I agree with some of the points and like to learn from them, the combined reasoning for rejecting the series and the complete lack of positive feedback is shocking to me. Is this all that I achieved after working on this project for a year? What went wrong in the interview? Did I do a bad job in presenting my work? Although, as a photographer, we prefer to let the work speak for itself, a photographer has to be a performer sometimes, too. Maybe, that's true more than ever in these times of "social" media. Of course, I explained my motivation for several of the choices I had made. For example, the focus on the hands was intentional, in order to show how she interacts with the world (her hands being her "eyes"). Avoiding busy backgrounds is usually seen as positive in (portrait) photography. Using flash light would not only have been very cumbersome, but would have killed the atmosphere and authenticity in the pictures, in my opinion. And if you really can't see the story you have to be blind. Nevertheless, according to me, the criticism as presented yesterday shows a lack of involvement and empathy towards other people's work. How can it be that everybody, including the mentors of the BMK themselves, were very enthusiastic until the last day and one person cannot find anything interesting in my pictures, while the other four jurors don't even care to comment? Am I really doing everything wrong? Haven't I learned anything?

THE AFTERMATH

Where to go from here? What are we going to do with our plans for publishing the book? Does it makes sense to remain a member of the fotobond? Where else to go? Give up on photography? Work on other projects? What for?

This unexpected rejection and the harsh way of doing so has seriously damaged my belief in my work. I hoped for confirmation of myself as being a respectable artist. This is obviously not the case. A lot of thought will have to go into plans for the future. Comments are welcome.

UPDATE: The winners have been announced, in the mean-time.