Physical Training Feb 2006
Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies

Critique and Criticism:
the budo of photography

copyright © 2006 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

The martial arts and the "fine arts" are not so far removed from each other. Musashi said so in a book, so it must be true. I've also found it to be true, for both my martial arts training and for my photography. After a 20 year layoff I'm slowly training myself back into photography, this time with auto-everything digital cameras and editing instead of my trusty old manual 35mm and a darkroom full of chemicals. As part of this training I've been reading a lot of internet photography forums. One of the first things I noticed  is the similarity between the majority of photographers and the majority of martial artists. Both seem to want to "get it" immediately without any long training process, both are constantly asking for approval in one way or another, and both are more or less allergic to any hint of critique. At the same time, both types are also very quick to criticise the work of others.

On the other hand, I've also noticed that on many of these forums (both photographic and martial arts related) there are some very accomplished people who can only be described as sensei, as top artists who have time and kind words for those fighting to learn. There are, of course, various types of "kindness".

As I said, many, perhaps most people don't want critiques when asking "how do you like my work", or "how is my form", they want an ego stroke. To say nothing or to say "very nice, keep it up" is considered kind, and it's what I usually do with strangers if asked. But saying that really doesn't help them, it's the ribbon awarded in public school for showing up at field day. As my kids themselves say, if everyone is excellent, nobody is excellent, we're not fooling them but as adults we seem to want to be fooled ourselves.

When asking for criticism on photography forums, I received "nice work" for a long time until one day, a very top fashion photographer from New York City ripped into me, asking just what the hell I was doing, why was I trying to do fashion work with crappy models and crappy styling and crappy makeup and why was I not in New York or Paris instead of some small town in Canada.

I was elated.

I had finally become good enough to be noticed, good enough to be told my work isn't good enough. It was my first hint that I was on the right track.

Now, if someone is just starting out, and therefore not very good, a little positive reinforcement is called for. But if that fellow has been training for 6 years and has an ego the size of a house, perhaps the worst thing in the world would be confirmation of his imagined abilities.

Teachers have to know when to stroke, and when to sting. But mostly they just need to demonstrate, to show how it's done and to provide an example.

I'm not talking about "those who can't, teach" here. Teachers who can't perform what they're trying to teach can only talk and read manuals on teaching. They can  encourage and hope the student somehow gets what they never did.

Very hard, I sympathize with both the student and the teacher. One has to leave and the other has to push them out as soon as possible. These teachers can only start folks on the road and then go back to the gate for the next traveler. Never having been far down the road themselves they can't do much else but point out where the next teacher lives. If they're good teachers they'll do this. If they get caught up in "being a teacher" they can keep students as dull as they themselves are by flattery and desparagement of their betters. Students are mostly lazy, if they're told they're doing fine they won't go further.

The Japanese word for teacher is sensei which means roughly "gone before". That implies someone who can lead, pull, entice and otherwise encourage students to come to where he is. Once a student is at the level of the teacher, that teacher passes the student on to someone who can continue the education, or boots the student out of the nest.


A student's job is "shu, ha, ri" to "keep, break and leave". The first level is to keep, to copy, to shut up, take the crap and learn the basics. At this level the teacher will often be very cruel, the ego has to be broken fast by showing the student just how little he knows or everyone wastes time with a false sense of ability. Praise for nothing holds the student back. He must understand just how little he understands. The best the student gets at this point is a grunt, usually nothing at all when the practice is done correctly. After all what praise should there be for NOT forgetting to breath, for NOT hitting a car while driving home from work. Only criticism is heard here as the basics are learned.

It's here that many poor teachers become as stuck as their students, unable to go beyond criticism into critique.

The next step is ha, to break, in the sense of breaking down the learning that you've done into it's fundamentals, to understand the theory behind the technique. This is of course, the opposite of the Western way of teaching where theory comes first and practice later. In the Japanese traditional method, rote practice (kata) comes first, and the student derives the theory from that kata. Once the student starts to feel the fundamentals "in the bones" there may come a small word in the ear, perhaps an offhand comment now and then, even more rarely perhaps, a question directly answered instead of simply thrown back with the word "practice!" The criticism becomes a critique, "try it a little more like that and a little less like this, see how that changes things"... "oh yes, interesting isn't it?"

Here the teacher must be masterful, when the technique looks a certain way, insight is possible and a small hint, a kind word, even a raised eyebrow will allow a sudden realization in the student, and that insight is reinforced by an even more subtle nod or grunt... or if it's very profound, a head-shake of disgust which says "yes, it was so obvious you should have understood that months ago you dull fellow" but there's that twinkle in the eye. A good teacher doesn't hide ALL his pride in his students at this point.

Finally, when all the learning is done, when the student no longer needs the practice, when he can create his own "kata" at need, then there must be a leaving. The student rarely leaves the teacher if the lessons have been well taught, but the teacher slowly leaves the student and becomes instead the senior partner, the older brother, someone the student may ask for advice once in a while, or turn to with a difficult student of his own, but who is no longer necessary for the understanding of the art.

Now, perhaps for the first time, the student might overhear the teacher praise him to another teacher. The student will quickly turn away and pretend he didn't hear, the teacher will smile a little bit and the other teacher will wink, "this one may be better than you are some day my friend" "Oh I surely hope so, I'm getting old and would like to retire leaving better than I arrived with".

That tiny glimpse is worth more than all the hearty pats on the back and thousands of "well done" you've received in a lifetime.

It seems like so little for so much effort, but if you've been through it you know exactly what it really is worth.

One tiny grin from the old man...

Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies
Physical Training Feb 2006