Portfolio reviews: what I saw from the other side


Last weekend I had a chance to sit with a reviewer at the FotoFest portfolio review for a day. It was an opportunity made available through my MFA program. Here’s what I noticed, sitting on the other side of the table:

Reviewers have their own biases. My reviewer is the editor of an European photography magazine. Now, everybody will tell you – and reviewers first of all – that reviews are not a job interview op for their organization, be it a gallery or a magazine.  If you are a photographer, you have heard that they are supposed to be seen as just honest feedback independent of, say, a specific exhibition opportunity that the reviewer may or may not be in a position to offer. But in reality, even with the best, most sincere effort of the reviewer, biases exist. My reviewer was professionally interested in documentary photography and despite an online bio that expressed interest in any type, the richest, most informed feedback went to straight documentary photographers. It’s human nature, I guess…

That said, the reviewer was quite nice. Positive and constructive even with relative beginners who showed up – which, believe it or not are quite a few at FotoFest. I’d say 25% were people who should’ve worked more before paying that fee to come for a review. Even they got thoughts, ideas, or encouragement. And this was totally sincere and shared with me afterwards. Still, don’t expect a thorough critique if you need more direction; there are better places for this: a workshop, for example.

If you like to make object-based, sculptural or alternative process photography work, FotoFest may not be the right place for you. It’s just not constructed for that. But my reviewer still said it was the best photofestival around (again, there may be bias to that).

It doesn’t really matter if you are famous or have a big cv. My reviewer liked  most of all the work of a graduate student from the Emirates – while he wasn’t much enthusiastic about a professional photographer who has shown with Gursky.

It does matter if your work fits a theme that’s fashionable right now. Certain themes are just hot at the moment and will get more opportunities even if not very well done or thoughtful than others that are not as trendy even if excellent.

And last and a bit contradictory: many photographers just don’t realize and often squander the precious opportunities that only they have in making unique work and fall instead for fashionable or popular themes. It was truly heartbreaking to observe as a bystander how they are not taking advantage of something they have access too but fail to see. For example, a real estate developer who takes generic touristy pictures of dunes in Saudi Arabia, where he goes often for work, yet disregards the theme of real estate development, construction vs. natural environment and a whole world that only he has access to. A photographer who makes her living from high-end portraits of precious Lusitano horses around the world – and has access to that peculiar world – yet wants to exhibit collages based on Holocaust images that many people can also make.

I totally understand them… they want to separate what they do for work from what they do for passion. But how I wish to see a documentary story of the world of high-end Lusitano horses that only she could do! With all its quirks and behind the scenes insights.

Just made me wonder what I am disregarding that’s in plain view right in front of me.


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