December 3, 2011
Receiving another rejection notice can be discouraging at best, and at worst can cause you to lose faith in your abilities and cause creative paralysis.
I have submitted my work to hundreds of shows, exhibitions and magazines; and while I have gotten in some, I have also received many rejections. What is one to make of a rejection? Does it mean your work is not good enough or are there other reasons why it might have been rejected?
To put a rejection into perspective I first ask myself “why did I submit to this event?” Understanding your motives can be useful in understanding your reactions. For example there was a time when I submitted my work to receive validation, to have someone say “your work is good.” And of course when my work was not accepted I interpreted this to mean that my work was not good and perhaps I was not a good photographer.
But over time I have come to understand that my opinion of my work should be based on what I think of it and not what others think, and certainly not if it gets accepted into exhibitions! One of my favorite quotes is: “What others think of you is none of your business” and likewise what others think of my art is none of my business; my opinion is the only one that matters. That is not to say that I do not enjoy exhibiting or receiving compliments about my art, but there is a difference between enjoying compliments and needing them to feel good about oneself and ones art.
So back to the rejection letter and what it might mean. The first possibility that I had to face was that my work was not good enough. It is very difficult to objectively evaluate your own work and even harder still to admit that it may not be good enough, but we must do that if we are going to improve. Rejection can be a good thing if it leads to change and improvement.
But from my experience, a rejection can often mean something else much more innocent. Juror’s like anyone else have their own tastes, likes and dislikes. They tend to choose images that they personally like and that’s not a statement about your work. To increase the odds of my work being accepted I would research the juror’s own work and exhibitions they had juried to see what type of images they liked. If my images were in stark contrast to their preferences, I would skip that submission.
For example I used to regularly submit to Shots Magazine even though their selections were “younger” and more “hip” than my work. I never got in and that bothered me so much that I irrationally set a goal of submitting until I got in, which I never did. It took a while before I realized that this was simply not the right venue for my work and it was not a reflection on the quality of my work. It simply wasn’t a good fit.
Another selection factor is how your image fits in with the other images in the exhibition. A juror doesn’t just choose the “best” images but actually creates a new body of work by combining the individual images into a purposeful and intentional grouping. Sometimes images are chosen because they tie in with other of the juror’s selections, which is again not a reflection on the quality of your work.
And then there is the “different” factor. I’ve had jurors tell me that they see so many images that they end up looking for ones that are simply different. If “different” is not your style and you’re more of a traditional photographer, your work may not be selected by that juror.
There are so many reasons why an image may not be selected and so many of them have nothing at all to do with the quality of your work. That is why it’s so important that you believe in your work and continue to improve and persevere. Everyone has rejections and the people who win in the end, are the ones who do not give up.
Strategies for Improving the Odds:
Over time I devised a strategy that allowed me to improve my odds of getting my work selected, here is what I did:
1. You must have good work, and “good” is more about the composition and feeling your image evokes rather than its technical quality. From my experience a juror will almost always pick an emotional image with poor technical quality over a technically perfect image that has no feeling or soul.
2. Research the juror and their personal tastes. Does your work fit in? Can you select images for submission that seems to be more in keeping with their preferences? Are there jurors that have similar tastes as you, if so submit to shows that they are jurying.
3. Focus on the smaller exhibitions that are likely to have fewer submissions and less on the really big exhibitions. I’d rather submit five images to a show with 500 submissions than submit five to a show with 5,000. Also look for shows that extend their deadlines, that often means they have received fewer entries than they expected. Let the numbers work in your favor.
4. Submit as many images as you can afford. Submitting five images versus one dramatically increases your odds. Look for shows that are offering discounts, this will allow you to enter more images and improve your odds even more.
5. Submit a variety of styles. I often would see someone submit five images and they were all virtually identical in subject and style. I would submit five very different images, figuring that if the juror didn’t like one then another might appeal to them. This is one of the best strategies I pursued to increase my odds.
6. Select images that you love and have a passion for. In the beginning I would survey friends and family to try to pick images that had the widest appeal. That approach never improved my odds and it left me feeling conflicted and uncertain. You should pick images that you’re passionate about and forget what others think. I do not know how it works, but your passion does make a difference and improves your chances of getting accepted.
By using these techniques I was able to achieve a 50% success rate; meaning that for every two submissions I’d get into one. Some of that was accomplished by improving my art and some of it by using these techniques. Use both to improve your odds.
Rejection is a part of the artist’s life and while you can never remove it, you can reduce it. And more importantly you can better deal with rejection when you believe in your art and understand that the rejection was just another person’s opinion.
In the end, you must be pleased with your work regardless of what others think.