When I was growing up, my father told me after every small tragedy—be it a scraped knee or a lost toy— to “turn a negative into a positive.” Crediting the quotation to Rudy Tomjanovich, the now-retired coach of the Houston Rockets, he seemed to think it a cure-all for the childhood blues. He still repeats it to this day, each time as if I’ve never heard it before, and until recently I mostly brushed it off as a well-meant but ultimately unrealistic outlook on failure. That changed last week when I received an unexpected email from New York-based photographer Dana Stirling, who had just created a book composed of all the rejection letters she had received in response to a wide array applications for awards, grants, exhibitions, and magazines.
The subject line of Stirling’s email read simply, “Re: Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Award Winners Announced,” a response to an email I had sent on February 20th, 2015 after the judging for the award had come to a close. The refreshing thing about Stirling’s response was that she carried not an iota of bitterness; quite the opposite, she had written to let me know that my note had been included in the book and incredibly, to thank me. She stressed that “this project is not coming from a hateful or a resentful place – but from a place of creativity,” and sent me a few shots of the book. She concluded by saying that she hoped I enjoyed it.
I did enjoy it. Beautifully constructed by hand, the book confronts one of the last taboos that still exists in the art world: rejection. Stirling is decidedly a success in her field, her work having been exhibited and published internationally; she is a 2012 Finalist for the Google Photography Prize, the recipient of the Gross Foundation grant for excellency in photography as well as the Weizmann institute scholarship for outstanding student achievement. She too has had her disappointments along the way, and she has in the truest sense turned those negatives into positives. We spoke with Stirling about the book, titled dear artist, we regret to tell you.
When did you first get the idea to write this book? Was it a specific letter?
“I was on the bus, on my way back home. I was thinking about this for few months that were filled with rejections from different websites, competitions and other platforms I sent my work to. I was speaking to my husband (Yoav Friedlander, also an artist) about my idea to make something out of all of these rejection letters – but we didn’t really come up with any real idea for presentation.
“I am auditing a class this summer – a book making class, and I decided to utilize the new skill I acquired. I decided to use wall paint swatch colors from Home Depot, first because they are free and easy to get, but also because they hold so much potential in them- The color swatches are titled with promises, some kind of hidden dreams painted with different shades and unique colors.”
Why do you think people have a hard time talking about rejection, when it’s something everyone goes through?
“I think people see it as a failure, and I did too. Rejection means that your work wasn’t enough for a certain website, competition or grant; you didn’t make the cut, which probably means your work isn’t good enough. Everyone remembers the winners not the losers.
“People share on social media their success, accomplishments, things they are proud of. No one wants to share their failure or the ‘Dear artist- we regret to tell you….’ for people to see their rejection out front. Artists today are measured by what they HAVE done, not by their journey.”
Had you saved all these letters throughout the years, or did you have to dig for some of them? What was it like returning to the letters that first arrived years ago? Did any emotions come up?
“I never saw the reason to delete them from my email inbox. In some way, I think I kept them so I will remember that I once sent my work to them, so I shouldn’t resend it ever again. I did have to dig around my inbox to find them and made a special “Rejection” folder. Many places never replied back, and technically they are rejections, but not verbal ones. Once I had this mission, this idea in mind, in some way I actually was sad I didn’t have more rejection emails to add – failed in failing I guess.”
Does rejection get easier with time? What advice or words of wisdom would you give to photographers just starting out?
“Yes. You become numb to these emails. You know it is a rejection within the first couple of words, and the rest is mainly a sugarcoat telling you that your work is still valuable. Rejection is a large part of life and of an artists life in particular. If we never got rejected, we would never push ourselves harder. This project came out of rejections, and its our “Failure” that keeps us going, makes us better and drives us forward. We are artists – we can and should make art out of our successes and failures and treasure them the same way.”
The book is beautifully—and unconventionally—made. Why did you choose to bind it as you did, so that it can fan out, rather than along a spine?
“I think a conventional book would give it some kind of narrative. These rejection letters are all the same, none of them are unique, special or more important. This way, the fan allows you to look at them in no real order, and also you see them all at once. The fan allows a flow, a different kind of read. I liked the idea that they are all connected in one place – a small grounded place – what keeps it all together from falling apart.”
Do you have a particular favorite of these letters? Does any one of them stand out as particularly absurd, painful, or amusing?
I do like the one that starts with ‘Dear All,’ I found it funny in a way and a small reminder that the emails are not personal, even though you take them very personally.”
Did you encounter any clichés or phrases that kept cropping up throughout these letters?
“‘Thank You.’ They are always very grateful for you taking the time to send in your work, and I do believe they appreciate the time and effort you take in sending the email. They would not be able to do anything if the artists wouldn’t have taken the time to show their work and be open to judgment and rejection.”
What do you wish, if anything, that the writers of these letters understood or kept in mind when crafting them?
“First it will be great if they will find the rejection letters interesting and will publish them, it will create a loophole, which will be great and will expose the work to a large audience, and also will be funny and positive. I actually don’t think they need to change anything. This is just the way things work. I guess that in an ideal world, I’d love for them to sit and individually write each artist an email, instead of creating a mass email that is sent to everyone, with no personal touch.”
“But, I do understand the fact that there is no real man-power and energy to do such a thing to hundreds and thousands of emails and artists. There is no real good way to reject art. It will always be hard for the artists to accept, but some people have to be rejected and some have to be selected.”
As a fine art photographer, do you think these experiences have been valuable to you?
“Yes, very. I think that you find inspiration in strange places. I made this book with a frustration and self-doubt about my work, but since I have been receiving great response and positive reaction to it. This might not be my everyday art, my thesis project I have been working on the past year in school, but it was a creative outlet which helped me re-group and appreciate all of the success I had, and appreciate the fact that I created something simple, yet that many people can relate to and also inspire.”
You’ve had a great deal of success, despite these rejections. What is the most valuable feedback you’ve ever been given?
“It is hard for me to choose. I think every article, post, blog, website and publication has made me better and helped my in this journey into becoming an artist. There is a long way to go, and I recognize all who have given me a stepping stone so I can build my path forword.”
Why was it important to you to make this book, and what plans do you have for it? Is there a place where we can buy it?
“It was important for me first on a personal level. I needed an outlet to these feelings of rejection and self doubt. I then found out that many people could relate to this, and that in fact people are desperate to talk about rejections and that they admire the willingness of this book to speak openly about this. I hope this book can make people smile and take these rejections letters with humor and fun. To understand we are all rejected and accepted at different times throughout our journey.
“I am working on creating this book in different shades – purple, red and others. It is all hand made. For now, people can contact me and buy handmade copies of the book, but I will be happy to talk to anyone interested in supporting it, and with the right demand I will go all-in on mass producing it.”
All images © Dana Stirling