Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

by Eric Kim on June 18, 2012

1x1.trans Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

(Above image reads, “Somebody is watching you”. (From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

I recently read a book titled, “Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity” – which was written by an author named Hugh MacLeod. The story goes that MacLeod was struggling and frustrated as a young copyrighter in NYC, and while living at the YMCA, started doodling on the back of business cards while sitting at a bar in mini-comics. His popularity lead to his popular blog, gapingvoid.com – and built a reputation for snarky yet insightful humor about society.

He gives a ton of great advice in the book (I highly recommend everyone who is interested in creativity or need some inspiration to read it). One of the things that he says that really hit me in the chest was, “Validation is for parking”.

I read that on the page, and had to sit down for a minute to fully absorb the message.

“Validation is for parking”

I then started laughing out-loud at the absurdidty of the joke, but at the same time was amazed by the power in that message.

The social and biological background for validation

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(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

Being a sociologist, humans crave for validation from others. After all, we are genetically hardwired to want acceptance from others in a group. For example, when we were all relatively small socities living in small villages, not having acceptance from some people in our tribe would mean we would be banished. After being banished, we would starve and die.

This is also where the biological evolution for shame arises. Cognitive scientists and evolutionary biologists suggest that we are hard-wired to feel shame because we don’t want to go against the popular belief in a tribe. Once again, going against the popular opinion and embarassing yourself in a small tribe – also means that you will possibly be kicked out of the group. Then we would starve and die.

Society today

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(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

Today society is much different. We don’t live in small tribes. We live in massive, bustling cities which are overflowing with people. Whereas in the distant past when everyone knew each other, we barely know our neighbors (at least in the states). People you bump into at the mall or at the grocery store, it isn’t that likely that you will ever see them again.

If you embarass yourself publically – it is highly unlikely that we will ever see those people again. Yet we still feel shame. However if you think about it logically, there is no real reason you should feel bad or shameful in front of people you might never see again in your life. This is different when it comes to tightly-knit communities such as your school, church, local club, or even online community.

We are hard-wired for craving acceptance and validation.

The “Flickr” mind-set

1x1.trans Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

When I started off in photography, I didn’t have any aspirations to make a living out of photography, nor making a ton of money. I simply wanted validation from others in terms of getting lots of positive feedback on forums, or tons of “favorites” and comments on Flickr. Therefore I would always go out hunting for that one street photograph that I would upload and get hundreds of “favorites” and comments – and have my inbox overflowing with notifications and validation for my photography.

What it means to be “successful” in photography

1x1.trans Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

Although we are socially hard-wired to crave acceptance and validation in society (and especially photography) – it is possible for us to re-wire our brains. In sociology they call this “re-socialization” – in which we break out of the norms of society and do things our own way, which is often strange and goes against the grain.

For example, in America to be “successful” is to have a nice-paying corporate job making over $200,000/year, driving a nice BMW or Mercedes (while having another sitting at home), having a white house in the suburbs with a picketed fence in front, at least two kids (attending private schools), and a trophy husband or wife that is also as prestigious as you.

In photography, there are also similar standards to be “successful”. To be successful nowadays means to have huge galleries and exhibitions all around the world, to have your name plastered in front of famous art and photography magazines, to win prestigious grants, and to have many books published with reputable publishers. This also includes having a strong online presence and having thousands of followers on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, 500px, DigitalRev, or whatever social media networking site exists out there – constantly praising and “favoriting” your work.

Who are you really trying to please?

1x1.trans Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

When it comes to validation, we crave acceptance from others in the photographic community. If we upload a photograph that doesn’t get many comments or favorites – we can easily become mislead that our photograph simply isn’t good (even though we may think it is a fantastic photograph).

We may continue uploading images constantly, yet barely get any feedback in general about our work. Sure we may get nice comments from people that say, “nice shot”,”love the light” or one of my favorites, “great rendering” (whatever that means). However those comments don’t really give us an accurate scale of how we are doing as photographers – therefore it is easy to fall into a numbers game. The more “likes”, “favorites”, and followers I have – the better a photographer I must be.

For the majority of my time shooting street photography – I have always felt this pressure to get positive feedback and conform to what was considered “popular”. When I started shooting street photography, I would google “street photography” and came upon only the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and those in In-Public. Because that is all I knew, I would simply try to emulate their style and aesthetic in capturing images.

After two years of shooting in that way (looking for an interesting background, waiting for the right person to come in- and creating a unique juxtaposition) I became quite frustrated. It didn’t feel “like me” – and I felt that I was simply trying to create images that were “pretty” and would please everybody.

But you know what they say, when you try to please everybody, you end up not pleasing anybody (especially yourself).

Therefore in my mid-life street photography crisis, I came upon Bruce Gilden shooting street photography with a flash on YouTube. I knew that his style of shooting was very controversial and unpopular, yet wanted to experiment (knowing that there would be a lot of people who it may piss off).

When I started experimenting shooting with a flash, many people out there told me that I should stop it – and simply stick with my old style of shooting which they preferred. Emphasis on the phrase: “they preferred”.

However I was really enjoying shooting street photography with a flash, yet felt enormous amounts of pressure to conform to what others were saying – and start shooting again my “old style”. Yet after having some supportive advice from several good friends – I stuck with it and haven’t looked back since.

Pleasing yourself

1x1.trans Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

Validation is and should be for parking. As a photographer, of course you want to create images that inspire and touch people. You want to create images that people can relate with- that resonate with them. You want to create images that will communicate a certain message to them.

However if you simply create images that please people- it won’t challenge their way of thinking and seeing the world. It won’t challenge the status quo – and it won’t create new ways of seeing and creativity.

When William Klein first started shooting street photography up-close with a 28mm lens and a flash, people are aghasted with what he was doing. Born in the states and growing up in Paris, he was always a rebel. He disliked the “french tradition” of Henri Cartier-Bresson of having very formal compositions and clean images. He experimented using slow shutters, creating super contrasty and gritty images, and different focal lengths. Rather than trying to please his contemporaries and art critics, he was just having fun himself, and trying to create images that the world hadn’t seen before.

Now of course, Klein is regarded as one of the great contemporary street photographers that broke out of the traditional mold of “classic street photography”. People hail him as a visionary and one of the most unique photographers out there – but they weren’t saying that in the past when he was first upsetting the power balance between what was accepted and what he wanted to achieve.

Are there any “rules” in street photography?

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(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

No, there aren’t any “rules” in street photography- simply guidelines.

Guidelines are there to help us build a solid foundation on the history of street photography, as well as some tradition. It is important to educate yourself on the work of past street photographers that came before you – so you have a general understanding of what has been done or what hasn’t been done. For example, people always criticize the work of Bruce Gilden and say that nobody ever shot like him – yet they are unfamiliar with the work of photographers who came before him. For example, Weegee (who shot with a flash) as well as Lisette Model (who was one of the first photographers to shoot really closely with a wide-angle lens).

There are many guidelines that I suggest to street photographers that I promote on this blog, including:

  1. Don’t crop
  2. Don’t chimp
  3. Don’t over-process your street photographs (HDR, selective color, etc)
  4. Stick with one focal length
  5. Buy books, not gear

Once again, these are simply guidelines- not hard-set rules. What I promote is based on my personal experience that has personally helped myself (may not necesarily resonate with you). However some guidelines I promote help people. Others simply pick and choose what they like and resonates with them (which I am totally cool with too).

Some practical suggestions

1x1.trans Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

So if validation is for parking, and we should aim to please ourselves first in our photography, should we simply ignore others?

No. It is important to get constructive criticism & feedback from peers, because they can usually spot out the faults in our work that we cannot see. It isn’t just photographers who have other people helping edit them – it includes other artists, writers, businesspeople, video editors, you name it.

Here are some practical suggestions I have that can help you achieve your personal vision in street photography:

1. Focus on projects

I always stress the importance of working on a short-term or long-term project. Why? A project helps you focus on your photography, and not constantly seeking validation for others.

When we are too stuck in the “Flickr-mindset” – it is easy to become discouraged with single images that we upload that may not get lots of comments or favorites.

If you work on a project, I recommend not uploading anything on the internet (publicly) while you are working on it.

If you are working on a project, it is very important to get feedback & critique along the way. However I recommend the best feedback you can get on a project is generally in-person, face-to-face. Therefore try to get to know other street photographers in your community that you respect their opinion. If you don’t have access to other street photographers locally, ask for feedback in private and tightly-knit street photography groups before you release anything publically. Or even email photographers for feedback & critique that you respect/admire.

2. Think about what you are trying to achieve through your photos

Are you trying to take photographs that are pretty and appeasing to the eye? Or are you trying to create images that express who you are as a person, which communicate a certain message with your audience?

Create images that resonate with you first, and are personal to you. What makes the way that you see the world unique from the way that others see the world? What are you trying to say through your photographs? Do your photographs accurately represent the intentions you hold in your heart?

If you can’t create images that resonate with yourself, good luck having them resonate with other people.

3. Haters gonna hate

There will always be haters and people who don’t like your work. It is simply something you have to accept. When it comes to photography and art, there is a huge amount of subjectivity that enters the equation.

For example, if you show a person who loves black and white photography a portfolio of your work (half in color and half in black and white) – it is highly likely that the person might prefer your black and white work.

One thought that I picked up from Seth Godin was the following:

“You either can be judged, or ignored. Choose one”.

I honestly would prefer to be judged. In the end, I would rather have comments from people that hate my work, rather than not having any feedback or comments at all.

Conclusion

1x1.trans Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

(From my Korea: The Presentation of Self series)

Validation is for parking, yet we constantly seek validation and acceptance from others. Sure, validation is hard-wired into us socially and biologically, yet it is something we can break out of by “re-socializing” ourselves with new ideas.

First aim to please yourself through your photography (by working on projects), then share your work with others. There will be many people who won’t like your work – but there will also be those who appreciate and love your work.

Remember that by trying to please everybody, you will please nobody.

Rules don’t exist- only guidelines. However if you know the guidelines well, feel free to break them and experiment with your approach, your technique, or your equipment.

Now go out there and create images that tell the world your unique story, your unique vision, and how you see the world.

TLDR; Parking is for validation, so aim to please yourself through your street photography before you try to please others.

Korea: The Presentation of Self

1x1.trans Why Validation is For Parking, Not Street Photography

To go along with the theme: “Validation is for parking” – I am excited to announce that I am finished editing one of my series, “Korea: The Presentation of Self” that I shot in Korea in January. The premise behind the project was a sociological one.

The concept of “The Presentation of Self” can be explained through the analogy: everyday life is a stage, and we are actors. When it is time for us to go “on-stage” (go to work, experience everyday life) we put on certain costumes, act certain ways, and express ourselves to have others have a certain impression of us. However when we go “off-stage” (go back home behind closed-doors), we take off the makeup, take off the mask, and that is where our “true self” is revealed.

Koreans are some of the most materialistic people out there (speaking from personal experience and being Korean-American myself). We love our fancy designer labels (every Korean girl out there owns a Louie-Vuitton purse), we love our fancy cars (every Korean guy I know aspires to drive a BMW or Mercedes – regardless of how much debt they go into), and they want to look “successful” in front of their family and peers. However the irony is that although Koreans love to show off, they still value their privacy.

In a world in which designer labels, fancy cars, consumerism, and plastic surgery run amok- there is a strong message I want to say through this project. Our identity isn’t through the clothes we wear or the cars we drive – but something deep within and innate. If we all try to create this same idealized self-image, we all end up looking the same at the end.

View “Korea: The Presentation of Self” >>

Have you ever felt the pressure to please others in your photography before yourself? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, and make sure to order a copy of “Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity” – I highly recommend it to everybody out there! 

  • Michael

    Wonderful. Thank you.

  • Martin

    I had the same problem. For years I tried to please everybody but not myself. I like the images I took at that time, as they are good ones but once came to a point where I realized that I was only making pictures for the whole world and not for me. I presented them on flickr or other communities and tried to change my photography based on the comments there but after a while I had to take a break from everything and left my camera for almost a year and a half. I bought myself a Leica and one lens and started with my mind set almost as a beginner but with all my photography knowledge from the past few years in my head. Now I’m not taking a hundred pictures a day any more, only a few per week but I like these because they show the way I see the world and what’s happening around me and this is much more pleasing than trying to please everybody but not yourself only to get good comments or awards in some communities! Thank you Eric for this article!
    Cheers Boss! :D

    Martin ( http://www.pholux.com/ )

  • http://profiles.google.com/markkalan Mark Kalan

    “If you work on a project, I recommend not uploading anything on the internet (pubically) while you are working on it”

    I think you mean publicly – or else you’re talkin porn?!

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Haha oops will fix that- thx!

      • http://www.yomadic.com/ Nate Robert

        One track mind Eric. One. Track. Mind. ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kári-Jensson/100001965958319 Kári Jensson

    I don’t have a single comment on my photos on flickr, not a single favorite, I do put my photos up for criticism on an Icelandic forum, I read the negatives and positives I get for them, I see if I feel they made a good point & hence I try to fix it. But if I am fine with it as is despite something negative, I don´t try to fix it.
    I ask for criticism purely out of curiosity of what people feel I am doing right and what I am doing wrong.
    Then I just go out and keep doing what I’m doing and learn from the criticism that I think is valid as each artist feels different about what they’re photograph should be like and should not.

    Hell besids I never try to get acceptance from others (Perhaps that’s why I have got 0 friends in real-life and only 5 online) I just keep being me and if people don’t like me, tough.
    I don’t like myself but I try to focus on positive things despite not having many positive things in life being unemployed, poor & starving for lenses other than the 12-50mm kit lens I have.

    • tom

      What name to you go by on flickr?

  • briscophoto

    I enjoyed this and found it helpful. I also have started to define my own street photography.

    It is great advice to suggest people shoot for themselves and not for others, Flickr, etc. I find lots of street photographers are offering advice online. That may be best for them, but not for everyone.

  • Matt Smith

    Great post from beginning to end. Perfect ‘validation’ title and all.
    I think I’m going to start spending more money on books. Good stuff and good ideas.
    -MS

  • Jeff Wieser

    This is a very good read accompanied by a strong group of images. Building up a project to present is definitely more interesting for the viewer to look through rather than tossing singles that most viewers won’t take the time/effort to understand. I definitely have a lot more respect for a finished product that has been edited down to a cohesive body over sharing a sketch pad of pictures one at a time with no end goal and no intention. Keep up the good work.

  • Amellemseit

    As a musician I know the next step is to also stop pleasing yourself. Just play the horn, pressing the keys, blow in the sax is enough. I can imagine it is the same with photography. Just press the shutter button.
    As a musician I sometimes come to this stage and experience this wonderful freedom of letting the body and unconsciousness do its work without the mind interfering. As a photographer I have a long way to go.

  • Ian McKenzie
  • http://www.facebook.com/tschut Teun Schut

    I can only say one thing: “Thank you.”

  • scott

    Nice post and very honest thought and sharing :)

    Good one Eric!!

  • Pete
  • RRRoy

    My opinion on some of the guidelines and practical suggestions above -

    1) Don’t crop – I think it has evolved purely out of technical reason. In the film era, the small size of 24×36 negative forced photographers to use the full frame or else they would have lost image quality. In digital, first of all, we have sensors of varying size. Even identical sensors vary from brand to brand – for example, Nikon APSCs have a crop factor of 1.5x while for Canons it is 1.6x.
    A 16 megapixel DSLR today can produce 14MB raw images. If 1/3rd is cropped out what we are left with is a 9.5MB image – good enough for a high quality 16×20 print.

    2) Don’t chimp – Chimping is actually good if the shot is repeatable but there is chance of missing the next moment. What is the ratio between the moments we capture and the moments we miss ? 1:1000?

    3)Don’t overprocess your street photographs( HDR, Selective colors etc) – What’s wrong with a single shot HDR ?

    4) If you work on a project, I recommend not uploading anything on the internet (publicly) while you are working on it. – Right now i’m working on a project which i intend to continue for the next 20-25 years. Should i upload it after 25 years? Absurd.

    http://squareflat.blogspot.in/

    • Marco

      1) You’re 100% correct. Eric would like to his devotees to this he’s some kind of street god. Cropping doesn’t mean crap these days.
      2) If Eric chimped he’d see that his images are actually banal, he’d stop shooting for the day and have nothing to do in his teenage girl-like videos (with horrible sound).
      3) HDR street photos suck.
      4) It’s his own justification for not posting anything he’s done recently. I’d imagine his material isn’t all that good and wholly plagiarizing Gilden’s established style.

    • Horatio Carney

      I disagree about the crop. Although I realize that there is some truth to what you have said, the main reason to avoid cropping is to get the shot right, on the scene, with the tools that you have. You maintain the highest image quality possible and you have no wasted any image space. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your frame and getting the shot right the first time. Photography takes place first and foremost behind the camera, not at home on a computer after the shoot. Otherwise, we’d all be known as graphic artists.

  • Marco

    Then why do you have a blog? You’re clearly looking for validation.

    Real street photographer post their current work and don’t hide behind, “I’m working on a project; I’m not posting for [insert time frame].” In as much as you think you’re the pied piper of street photography — okay, you could be but for an audience with a pedantic eye — you’re really not the voice of street photography.

    Instead of posting about books — something a perpetual student may do with a love of the academic — post your photos. Real street photographers have photo blogs.

    • Andrew So

      Eric just posted his project Korea: The Presentation of Self; doesn’t that make this a photoblog? As for his reasons behind the blog, you did not even allow him to provide an answer before projecting your own. It seems as if you’re attacking his position for being hypocritical but Eric himself admitted to seeking validation in his Flickr days, which was probably when he started the blog.

    • Arvin

      Blogs can also be useful tools for expressing thoughts and gaining feedback from an otherwise unreachable audience.

      “Real Street Photographers _______. ” you’re just trying to be provocative .

  • http://twitter.com/pel_daniel Daniel García

    “Our identity isn’t through the clothes we wear or the cars we drive – but something deep within and innate.”
    How is that a sociologist think that everything is innate? Cool post.

  • Jeff Mercader

    so true!!! love it! kudos Eric!

  • Amellemseit

    Also read these creative rules by John Cage “Zen composer” http://www.alisant.net/cca/sitespecific/cage.html
    Especially rule 8 of course in this context. It also means not to evaluate at all during the crative process. So also do not try to please yourself while in the flow.

  • Chio Gonzalez

    Honestly, it’s actually a really good thing that Eric is getting a lot of hate and flak. That just means he’s doing something right. His recent photos may not be of the conventional style that most people like, but it’s a style he’s created for himself. I think that deserves respect and appreciation even though you may not necessarily like his images. I definitely respect someone who is willing to experiment with different types of street photography to define his own style versus someone who simply goes with the conventional way just because it’s approved more by the masses.

    I also like the fact that Eric actually shares his own guidelines/philosophy to street photography. He isn’t trying to tell someone to “do” this or “do” that but he’s simply sharing his own beliefs that have helped him become a better street photographer. I for one have been greatly helped by all his tips and philosophy in my own street photos. I don’t always agree with what he has to say, but it’s actually helped me to shape my own philosophy on photography.

    Eric, you’re doing a fantastic job! You may have a lot of haters nowadays, but you’ve definitely gained more fans from those who can truly appreciate what you’re trying to say.

  • http://twitter.com/mr_mikefraser Mike Fraser

    Eric, a degree in sociology does not a sociologist make. And your understanding of evolutionary biology is laughable. Where is the “shame” gene, pray tell?

    Your goal in street photography is laudable, but there is nothing wrong with the “one image at a time”, shoot it because it’s interesting mentality. Winogrand and Myerowitz made careers of it.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Agree – my understanding in evolutionary biology is very weak – but I am still learning!

      Also there is nothing wrong about “one image at a time” – yet it is still Winogrand and Meyerowitz who made names for themselves (I would say) through their books/projects. For example, Winogrand and “Public relations”, “The Animals”, etc. Meyerowitz really sprung to fame after his “Cape light” book – shot with a large-format camera!

      • http://twitter.com/mr_mikefraser Mike Fraser

        I would argue, though, that by that definition, ANY collection of images is a ‘project’. Winogrand famously took photographs “to see what the world looked like photographed”. He explicitly avoided big messages. Yes, he photographed beautiful women (and made a book from it), but I contend that was because he liked beautiful women, not because he was trying to make some profound point.

        Similarly, Meyerowitz’s street photography (his large format photography, such as ‘Cape Light’ or the 9/11 stuff is clearly distinct) doesn’t deal in big ideas, unless you consider ‘the curiosities of every day life’ to be a big idea. Again, if that is your definition of a unifying theme, then it the theme might as well be ‘People With Noses’.

        My point here is merely that it is perfectly acceptable to make photographs one at a time, with only the thinnest of threads linking them. For every ‘The Americans’, which has a clear underlying thematic message, there is a ‘Women Are Beautiful’, which to me seems utterly descriptive (which I don’t mean to be pejorative in any way…it’s a terrific book).

  • Peter Majdrup

    Hi Eric, greetings from Denmark!
    First of all big fan of your work and blog!

    I just looked through your Korea series and it is like seeing Goffmans theory of “frontstage” and “backstage” in photos (I am also a quite big sociology geek myself). Brilliant!
    Keep up the good work!
    Peter.

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  • tom

    Narcissists live for validation from others.

  • John W

    Yep!! Validation is for parking …. and we seek it because we seek a comfortable place to park our egos. Separate your ego from the photograph … before you press the shutter … and the effect of criticism and desire for validation ceases to affect you. Its just a photograph, not YOU.

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  • http://www.aquashieldroofingcorp.com Tony Barnak

    This was helpful for me and it really gave me allot to think about. Thanks for this!

  • Armando Martinez

    good advice.

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