Comedians get validation when people laugh. Politicians get validation when you vote for them. Street photographers get validation when you look at their work and don’t complain about it too loudly.
Among the many definitions of validation is this one from the Oxford Dictionary: “Recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.”
I love the way “or” is repeated four times in that sentence! It’s like one of those vague recipes which says “use chicken, or beef, or lamb or turkey.”
However, if you think about it (and it’s actually a very well crafted definition), the most important words are not mentioned at all but merely implied by “recognition or affirmation.” The words omitted are: “by other people.” Hence: “Recognition or affirmation by other people that a person or their feelings, etc…”
Validation isn’t about you. It’s about other people.
In 1964 physicist Peter Higgs (and colleagues) proposed the existence of a particle which came to be known as the “Higgs boson.” If it did not exist then the entire structure of modern physics — the Standard Model, our framework for understanding the universe — would be seriously undermined.
There was little more Higgs and his colleagues could do except depend on other people to detect the Higgs boson with super-expensive equipment. After all, the particle breaks apart after a ten-sextillionth of a second, so it needed something powerful, like the CERN Large Hadron Collider to detect it. Nearly fifty years went by, then in March 2013 CERN announced its discovery. According to Forbes: “..the total cost of finding the Higgs boson ran about $13.25 billion.”
This vast expenditure was made, not to validate Peter Higgs, but to validate the Standard Model of physics. I’m sure Prof. Higgs was chuffed (as the British say) and he added the Nobel Prize that same year to the many other awards which had acknowledged (but not validated) his work.
I’ve mentioned the elusive Higgs boson because the story of its discovery sheds a little more light on our use of the word “validation.” By all means apply validation to scientific theories. It’s still one stop short of outright proof. But we should be wary of seeking validation for ourselves — our selves — because no one can be defined entirely by the opinions of others, except in the eyes of the world.
So what does it mean to validate someone who takes photographs? Does it mean you have to like their work? Or does it mean you want to acknowledge the sincerity of their motivation even though you may have reservations about their approach and the results they get with it?
In both psychology and photography, validation does not have to mean agreement.
The Psychology of Validation
For example, a close friend may have done something stupid that has landed them in a lot of trouble. You don’t want to condone their action but if you want to stand any chance of influencing them you need to validate them in such a way they can come to terms with what they’ve done. To invalidate them is to abandon them: a sure way of encouraging repetition of the mistake.
Psychologist Dr Karyn Hall has written: “Validation is one way that we communicate acceptance of ourselves and others. (It) doesn’t mean agreeing or approving. When your best friend or a family member makes a decision that you really don’t think is wise, validation is a way of supporting them and strengthening the relationship while maintaining a different opinion.”
Psychologist Dr Marsha Linehan (cited by Dr Hall) has identified six levels of validation from which you should always select the highest level appropriate to the problem.
The first and lowest level of validation is “being present,” listening to the person’s problem or dilemma. The second is “accurate reflection,” summarising and commenting to show you understand it. Third is “mindreading,” or making an intelligent guess about it. Four is understanding the person’s actions in terms of what’s happened to them in the past. Five is generalising: saying “anyone would have done the same.” Six is sharing their experience as an equal, based on similar experiences of your own.
Getting Straight To It
If you can go straight to number six and share your own experience directly then do so. Failing that, work your way back down the list. Your only option may be to listen and occasionally reflect, much as an expensive psychiatrist does. (Yes, I’ve seen “The Sopranos.”)
Apropos Street Photography
What does this have to do with street photography? Everything.
Whereas the person who photographs friends and family needs no validation other than a few likes on Facebook, the street photographer takes images of and for the public at large. Your friends may not be interested in pictures of people they don’t know, but you want to show your photos to someone besides yourself.
Some photographers work around this issue by joining online communities where they build a clique of admirers by exchanging mutual praise. Invariably the comments you read in these community galleries are very cryptic: “Nice capture!” “Gorgeous subject!” “Your shot reminded me of when I was there.”
Friendships develop and validation, of a kind, takes place. But I think a person can be left with the nagging sensation that it’s all a bit fake. You start to question: how long has the other person actually spent looking at my pictures? Wasn’t that comment about the composition (“Great composition!”) a little bit glib?
You end up thinking: isn’t the whole “community thing” an elaborate charade, a theatrical performance where everyone afterwards says: “Darling, you were wonderful”?
Many photographers join societies, such as the Royal Photographic Society, which give official validation in the form of “distinctions,” enabling you to place letters after your name. I’m mildly irritated when someone ignorant of photography asks: “Are you in the Royal Photographic Society” then loses interest in me and my work when I say I’ve never applied.
I’ve nothing against the RPS, but any institution that claims to arbitrate in matters of art is fallible, however stringent their procedures.
In the 1860s, the Salon de Paris, run by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, rejected the work of Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Cézanne, and Degas so frequently the artists clubbed together and formed their own association. I don’t know if Sotheby’s could put a current value on the works refused by the Salon, but it would be interesting to get an estimate.
Every artist desires recognition, but it’s quite possible to function perfectly well without it. Vincent Van Gogh famously never sold a painting, but his work was none the worse for it. Franz Schubert had only a small circle of admiring friends, few of whom came anywhere close to appreciating the full extent of his genius. His reputation is still growing after 200 years.
Finally, I would mention that “Validation” was the name of a 2007 movie, starring T.J. Thyne as a parking attendant who not only validates tickets but the customers themselves. He compliments them on their appearance and their personal qualities, in the process becoming hugely popular. He even finds himself in the news, validating George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. Then his life hits a snag when he meets a beautiful woman, a photographer who won’t smile at his compliments…
Who won’t smile! We’re back to the comedian. “They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.” (Bob Monkhouse).
Validation? Forget it!