Managing Validation and Authencity as an Amateur Photographer



I write this from a shaded cafe in Athens, where I am hiding from the disgustingly sharp sun and forcing myself to generate something, anything, even a little creative. If I stick my head out of the door I can see the Acropolis across the way, the ancient citadel upon which the idea of democracy was founded and defended. I think about the accepted abandonment of democracy around the world, and the fact that not a single country has a truly democratic system. Not in the pessimistic “all politicians are corrupt” view, but in the fundamental framework of our politics. Ancient Athenians would see our governments as oligarchies, the ownership of power by the few. Democracy was a shared power among the people, in its purest form even the selection of a leader via a random lottery. The idea of politics being a career choice was outlandish. As soon as you give someone the ability to obtain power, natural selection takes over, turns its wheels, and spits out the biggest dickheads possible. The bigger the dickhead, the higher they reach. We are seemingly happy to allow the fate of criminals and the accused to be decided by democratic processes, with the selection of most juries being random. But in the running of governments, why not?


My girlfriend asks me a question about currencies, I lose my trail of thought. I ordered a coffee 2 hours ago. Are the short glances from the staff a suggestion that I need to validate my stay by buying something else, or just glances?



Validation, that’s a word I’m thinking about a lot recently. It’s something I apparently need, but I don’t know where from and I’m not even sure that if I received it I would ever feel it. It’s a concept that deconstructs me, essentially asking: what would make me happy? What am I hoping to do in life, what would validate me? And, when is it normal to working towards validation? In my experience, things get even worse when talking about creative and personal pursuits, where a quantity of your being is plucked from your soft vulnerable centre, brought through your emotional defences, and injected into everything you make.


If someone criticises my writing in a scientific article, “no problem, cool”. But if someone doesn’t like my photograph, “What? Should I delete it? Maybe it’s embarrassing. I’m not as good as other photographers.” It’s normal to want emotional works to be accepted by others, but the possibility of its rejection breeds anxiety and doubt. Should I present my photographs as pieces of art, or just some casual snaps? Can I even call my photographs art? At what point does someone transition from an amateur into an artist, who decides, and does it even matter? Do I need to win a competition, why aren’t I winning any competitions? The problem with these doubts is that I’m pretty sure I’m in charge of all the answers.



If I can’t find any external validation, well, there’s only one other place to look right? What I seek has to come from within. Pure art is the creation of something that satisfies myself first and foremost, and the only way to do this is to discard the opinions of others. Self-help isn’t exactly a new idea, but we also struggle with it. In the age of instagram, photographs have become the lingua franca of identifying yourself. The opinions of others, however self-reliant we believe ourselves to be, has impact. It is far too easy to become trapped within the idea that more likes = better. Better art, better person, better ideas. Being liked is not self-validation, it is not the same as liking what you do. And when you prioritise others for your art, you jeopardise your authenticity. You seek out situations that get you more likes, and you can pretend that this is what you want.


We all have an urge, an ancient voice, deep inside our monkey brains, that pushes us to showoff, to ask for and receive external validation. Our ability to keep that voice under control varies widely, and although I like to think mine mimics the principles of a repressed Englishman, I can still hear it frequently. On paper, as 21st century social media standards go anyway, I have a relatively showoff-able life. With travel becoming the pinnacle of showoff-ness, proof of worldliness and adventure, I travel a lot and so must have a pretty great life. This is something that I occassionally hear my non-travelling friends say to me. I’m not quite sure at what point in time travel became the absolute measurement of success, but it is certainly not something I ever chose travelling for, and success is not anything I have ever felt myself possessing. There goes the showoff voice again, such a humble man.


Recently I have determined what I value in life and photography, and what has a chance at bringing me internal validation: authenticity. Whether I like it or not, this concept inundates every opinion and experience I have. And with life sending me a series of hurdles and major dickheads my way the last couple of years, staying genuine has become more important to me than ever. Authenticity is the biggest reason why I don’t like to photograph or visit 'honeypot' spots or big tourist sites, as they are perhaps the least authentic representations of a place or culture. Life is often depressing, it is rough, and inequality is everywhere. When I think about visiting the Taj Mahal, I remember the horrible smells of trash, human and animal waste, the huge numbers of homeless people, the pollution and air quality, and the large gates that keep these less palatable features out. I then remember those queuing to pose for photos in front of the central pond within the pristine palace gardens. Why are these the only photos I see online? Conscious or not, humans cut and bleach the world into palatable yet inauthentic pieces to support shiny narratives. It makes sense, can you blame people? But it fuels a fantastical, optimistic picture of the world and fundamentally changes the view of how reality works. I was and am still just as guilty of this, but I am trying to improve.



Unfortunately, authenticity in art is scary. It means planting your feet, standing your ground, and opening yourself up to judgement. This risk may be why I have hesitated in sharing my photography in quite a while - in fact, all the photos in this blog represent individual photography trips in different countries that I have barely looked at yet. But, I need to remember that you don't judge me, I judge me. If I think something has value, that's enough. I think back to Ancient Greece and the philosophy of Socrates. His methods were based almost entirely on asking questions. Attacking and dissecting beliefs with unrelenting questioning to find the the root truths. Is this what I am doing here? Am I saying anything at all profound, or does this essay just reek of an attempt at the profound? Well, it doesn’t matter. I am, after all, writing this for myself∎