I was ready to give up, sell my gear, and get a real job

Above: Image by Gina Milicia

“Your portrait style just isn’t strong enough…we’re looking for photographers with edgier work – but thanks anyway.”

This was the 5th time in a row I had been told that my folio sucked. I was absolutely gutted.

This last blow was delivered by Dave, an art director from one of Melbourne’s most well-known advertising agencies.

Back then, I was 25 and had just spent the entire day schlepping my folio around in the hope that I would land my big break and pick up the Coca Cola account – and a couple of other big brands – before lunch. 

All my appointments that day pretty much went the same way

*flick, flick, flick* of the pages of my folio… Silence… Followed by “Thanks” with a tight smile. “Your work is not really what we are looking for… but… “

I can’t remember what else they said but in my head, I heard:

“You suck, your folio sucks, and everything about you sucks. Why would you even bother coming back? Sell your gear, give up and go get a real job.”

Is this true? No – and I know I’m not the only person in the world who does this.

What was everyone really saying to me?

Believe it or not, this is a common scenario that happens when artists are starting out. Many artists quit at this point but getting your work critiqued by people other than family and friends is really important. Taking this criticism and using it constructively is the best and fastest way to improve and grow as an artist.

After I recovered from this huge blow to my ego I realised that all these critics were my greatest teachers. Here are the lessons I learnt.

1. You don’t know what you don’t know

When I was starting out I thought my work was ready for Coca Cola, Vogue covers and billboards. Being rejected by these clients was actually a gift because I was nowhere near ready to shoot for these companies.

Being told where my work needed improving was incredibly valuable. I was too inexperienced to notice any flaws. 

2. ‘Every great achiever is inspired by a mentor.’ – Lailah Gifty Akita

The truth was my work was nowhere near ready but after I got over the initial pain of rejection I realised that this was a valuable opportunity and began to seek out mentors.

Showing my work to these industry legends was a great opportunity for me to learn and grow.

3. Rejection is never personal

Constructive criticism from the right people was the best way for me to grow and develop as an artist. I just need to learn how to embrace it and never take it personally. It’s not always easy to hear but I’m getting much better at it.

The other kind of criticism that can be really painful to deal with is negative comments from people who are not in the industry.  

I used to get really upset by negative comments and would take them personally. We are artists and that makes us really sensitive. This is great when we need to create beautiful art to share with the world and not so great when it comes to dealing with any negativity.

The best advice I’ve heard to date is to reframe the way you look at negative comments directed at any of your work.

  • 20% of the population will adore what you do
  • 20% will hate it
  • 60% will be indifferent.

It’s not personal. Just life.

4. People who matter

Brene Brown says that everyone should carry a piece of paper with the names of 5 people whose opinion they respect. Whenever you receive a negative/mean comment from anyone not on that list, ignore it. They are not part of your “people who matter” group.

5. This is my all-time favourite quote about critics by Theodore Roosevelt

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Have you experienced negative comments or rejection? What did you do to work through it? I’d love to hear your comments.


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About Gina

Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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