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In modern society, failure has developed a persistent stigma of remorse. As I writer, I can relate to that visceral emotion of stupidity and letdown I feel when my articles are rejected. The time I spent working on them seems wasted, and the words I was once proud of, I suddenly feel embarrassed to call my own. But what an afternoon spent in Dana Stirling’s studio taught me was that the main thing I’d been failing at was the act of failure itself. As aspiring creative professionals, hopefully you can gain similar perspective from her refreshingly insightful optimism.
I first learned of Dana while browsing photography features one morning at my desk. Amidst illuminating underwater shots of jellyfish tentacles and compelling portraits of bruised street fighters, a small blue book caught my eye. “Dear Artist,” it read. “We Regret To Tell You…”
“I was on the bus,” Dana remembered aloud as I took notes. “On the phone with my husband.” We sat in a small studio in midtown, above the school of visual arts where she studied. There were no windows in the room- just a few computers, boxes of old photos, and some scanning equipment.
“It was during a weird time in my life,” she confessed. “I was getting rejections one after another, and I was starting to think there was something wrong with my work.”
She began typing and pulled up a Gmail account on her desktop, signaling me to look at something. It was an entire folder she had created in her personal email account. ‘Rejection,’ it read.
Originally a citizen of Jerusalem, Dana had been taking pictures nearly her entire life. But it wasn’t until high school that this hobby truly transitioned into a lifelong passion.
“I had this pocket digital camera,” she said, trying to recreate its tiny shape with her hands as she explained. “It was so basic. But I was obsessed with it.”
After completing some school in Israel while incessantly taking photos in her spare time, Dana moved to the United States with her husband, a fellow artist and photographer. Here she continued to pursue her photographic passion while studying visual arts- and like most fervent photographers, after putting in the time and gaining experience, she began reaching out. She entered her best work in photography competitions and submitted her favorite pictures to countless publications.
But what I confirmed as we scrolled though that agonizing Gmail archive was that she sometimes had trouble finding people to appreciate her shots and feature them. And like many once-hopeful creators, she began to doubt herself.
“My husband and I joked back and forth over the phone that day about all my dismissals,” she said. “He told me that maybe rejection itself could be an interesting creative venture.”
Sitting on the bus that afternoon, Dana likely had no idea how truthful his statement would become.
She took the stirring advice and began working on a personal project, transforming these once-hurtful messages into something artistically symbolic and meaningful. What originally began as a private outlet for Dana’s feelings, however, slowly transformed into something very evidently relatable. Clinically impersonal messages on a dull computer screen became colorfully vibrant inspirations etched onto ‘Venus Teal’, ‘Opal Silk’ or ‘Frozen Pond’ colored paint swatches. These words that once made Dana feel inadequate now looked like something arranged on a trendy coffee table display. Thankfully, she once again gained the courage to share it with others.
“It’s ironic how it happened, actually,” she explained. “A good ironic though.”
I had previously asked Dana what she would say to her rejecters if we lived in a consequence-free world. She told me she’d be polite, and thank them for taking the time to look through her images. I pressed her- “Really? No part of you would want to tell them off?” She held her ground and explained.
It’s easy to fall prey to that initial reaction of indignant anger we feel when someone doesn’t like the work we’ve done. “But never burn bridges,” she warned me. “If I had burned mine, you would have no idea that my book even exists.”
And the reason? The same publication that repeatedly rejected Dana’s photos wound up being the publication that loved her book. When Dana reached out to them about it, they immediately got back in touch. “Dana- this looks amazing,” they wrote. “We’d love to run it on the site- perhaps as an interview with you.”
As aspiring photographers and students, many of you will encounter similar bouts of rejection and dismissal. The creative energy and inspired dynamism with which you choose to handle it, however, is entirely up to you. But we hope you heed Dana’s advice.
“I used to think rejection letters were like little symbols of failure on my part,” she shared. “But I know better now, and I don’t care as much about them anymore. My work comes from a very personal place, and it means a lot to me. No tacky email could ever change that, or ever make me want to stop trying.”