Dana Stirling isn’t exactly what you’d call unsuccessful. Her photographs have been exhibited in prestigious spaces around the world, from Saatchi Gallery in London to Aperture in New York. Not at all bad for a 26-year-old.
But in a new book, Stirling reveals her private — yet universal — struggle to make it as a photographer. Dear Artist, We Regret to Tell You features 13 rejection letters from various grant foundations, residencies, magazines, and websites. They’re just a fraction of what she’s received over the years. “After 50 rejections letters, I stopped counting,” she told Hyperallergic.
In a success-driven culture full of child prodigies and overnight media stars, the book speaks to the slower route most artists take to getting their work out there. “While your photography is no doubt skillful, it is not quite a good fit for our magazine,” one letter reads. The words are depressingly familiar — many of us have heard them before, in one disappointing form or another.
Stirling said the most painful rejection letter she ever received was from the gallery at the School of Visual Arts, where she’s pursuing her Master’s of Fine Arts and had applied to show her images. “Even though there is really no room for them to show all of the students, you kind of feel as if even your school doesn’t believe in your work,” she explained.
The way Stirling responds to these setbacks offers a lesson to creatives of all stripes. Though she sometimes feels like throwing in the towel, she always disregards that impulse. She said the rejection letter from SVA pushed her to prove herself even more — it resulted in the book, which incorporates her wider artistic practice of repurposing found footage and objects in her work.
“I think artists are very strong people, because they have to deal with rejection and judgment all the time, on a regular basis,” Stirling said. Ultimately, her vision of success doesn’t involve loads of accolades and prizes. She just wants people to connect with and understand her work. “You have to believe in your work first, and in time others will believe in it too.”