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

(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

(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

(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

(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?

(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

(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?

(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

(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.


(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

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!