Surviving Rejection in Creative Fields

Image courtesy of digitalart /

Everybody deals with rejection in their lives, personal and professional, that's just a fact of life. It's never pleasant, never fun, and usually hits hardest when you are least expecting it. For creatives, like photographers, filmmakers, artists, designers, etc., we tend to take professional rejections as personal rejections. In fact, we see an attack on our art as an attack on ourselves. After all, the work we do is mostly an expression of ourselves, we put our dreams, our vision, all of us, out there on display for the world to see. We tend to be a very insecure group to start with, so putting our hearts into a project that just naturally is a representation of ourselves, only to have a client, or random stranger for that matter, reject it is like being run over by a truck. A big truck. A very large, heavy truck, pulling a trailer. A long, heavy trailer.

Professional rejections happen all the time, from small ones like bounce rates and click-through rates on blogs, websites, and marketing emails, clients liking but not loving proofs, to flat-out rejections and projects being scrapped because the final product just won't meet their needs. While the smaller types of rejection can be disheartening at worst, the more blatant rejections can be absolutely crippling when taken personally.

Rejection won't go away, no matter what level you're at, or where in your career you find yourself currently, however, there are things we can do in every creative field to minimize it. By minimizing our risk of rejection we also help our clients to be more satisfied and we'll be much happier overall. The satisfaction of having your work valued and appreciated is just as important to your business as your invoices being paid on-time.

I'd love to say that the first step is to stop taking rejections personally, but that's not always possible. Some are better at that than others, I'm working on it too. Realistically, it's more about understanding who you are as an artist and improving your communication skills. As a photographer I solve visual problems, illustrate stories, I work to make magazine covers command more attention, make people feel good about themselves, and plenty of other things to other people and clients. I can not, however, create the perfect photo to meet every need out there. That's why there are so many of us, and why we can all succeed if we know exactly what we all bring to the table.

I'm a portrait photographer, I could technically photograph a retail product, or shoot a wedding, but I'm not an expert in those fields. There are plenty of photographers that would be a better fit for that gig than I would be. Within portrait photography, I'm an editorial and commercial portrait photographer, family photos, Christmas photos just aren't my thing. Again, I can do it, but I'm not the best at it. Doing what you do best, and doing it for the people that want YOU to do will minimize rejection, add value to your brand, and make you happier because you're doing what you love for people that appreciate it. Even narrowing it down to commercial and editorial portrait photography, there are as many different styles as there are photographers. Not every client's vision matches my style of shooting. If I shoot a magazine cover for a client that has a different vision than I do, I'm not helping them and I'm not helping myself.

Know what you do best, seek out people who want what you do, and build your career on that. Knowing the clients that best fit your style and product is business 101, but it also greatly improves the effectiveness of your marketing and marketing budget. Better yet, knowing yourself and your target demographics will keep you doing what you want to do and what you're good at, reducing the small rejections that we all go through in every creative field.

Knowing your target clients and target demographics will allow you to narrow your marketing to those interested in what you can offer, greatly reducing the budget necessary to reach those interested in your product.

When you're working for a client that hired you for what you do and HOW you do it, your communication skills are still an important part of getting the job done to everybody's satisfaction. Differing expectations are a recipe for failure. About a year ago, I was hired by a production company for a commercial shoot at a gym. The gym was their client, and the producer was hired to commission still and video shoots for the gym's advertising campaigns. I came in and was briefed by the producer, who was on-site, and he reiterated all we discussed during the planning stages of the shoot. The concepts were clear, the portrait style I have would work well with the gym's style and after 3 hours of intense shooting with fitness models, we wrapped the shoot.

Model releases were signed, gear was packed up, turn-around times for images were discussed, and the shoot was a success. I was very happy with the images and knew I nailed everything on the producer's shot list, plus some extras I had in mind. Fast forward one week, I saw some previews of videos incorporating my stills, the producer was excited and loved the content. Casually, the producer mentioned the client was happy with the images and may want to schedule another shoot for more content. Win. The very next day I answer my cell phone, the gym's owner was on the other end and sounded very upset. He was satisfied with the images, but felt like there were important concepts left out - left out of the shot list is what I was thinking as he spoke. He told me matter-of-factly that I didn't complete my job and he wouldn't pay the rest of what he owed me unless I came out and finished my job. He hung up the phone before I could get a word in. I was incredibly discouraged. I knew the images were great, I knew I covered everything the producer and I discussed, several times and in depth, but there was a miscommunication between the client, the producer, and then to me.

There never was a second shoot, the client never did pay that invoice, and my shots were never part of the final ad campaign. I felt rejected and was really down about that job, I still am when I think about it. Poor communication between other parties can set us up for failure and rejection just as easily as taking on the wrong clients, the wrong jobs, or not clearly understanding the clients needs. I communicated clearly with my client's representative, the producer, but I still couldn't satisfy the client because of a breakdown in communication elsewhere in the chain. Like I said, rejection can still happen at anytime, but being proactive in your communication reduces the likelihood of that type of event.

You cannot be great in a creative field without investing yourself into your projects, and there will be times when you the photographer, you the artist, you the designer, gets rejected. You the person is not being rejected, as much as it feels like that at times. Taking every hit personally will wear you out. I'm saying that to both of us.

Work for those who value your work, understand what you do and know who to do it for. Understand the expectations of your finished work. Communicate well. When you feel rejected look at what went wrong, fix problems, learn lessons, and move on. Be creative. Be yourself.


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