Note: this post has been (slightly) edited a few times. Being featured on a channel with over 250k viewers puts some pressure and while I felt the urge to write a reply (and a clarification) soon, I needed more time to process the whole thing.

When you casually drop a line on the Facebook page of one of the most popular YouTube channels about photography, you don’t expect to be particularly noticed. Even less you expect half an episode to be focused on your question, but this is more or less what happened last week.

On his page, Ted Forbes opened a Q&A thread and his follower Robert Kennedy asked:

How do you know when you’re creating work that matters? Can we judge a photograph by the amount of interaction it gets on social media? What merits a truly exceptional photo? I want to keep pushing myself and my photography but to do it in a constructive way that will help me grow as an artist and perhaps inspire some other people along the way. Thanks for all you do.

Since Forbes is a creative guy with an interesting perspective on things, and since I’m struggling to find the right balance between a relevant online presence and the need to keep my focus on what’s important, I endorsed his question adding what follows:

+1 on this one. It’s hard to escape the equivalence “more likes = better picture” but it’s also hard to get valuable feedback outside of this logic.

Of course this was a rethoric question: I’m strongly against this equivalence (likes=value) and similar ones that in my views are worth the same (money=value). So the core of my question wasn’t of course “are likes a proof of value” but “where can I find a valuable feedback” considering that all we get is usually likes (or binary submission results: accepted/rejected). And, yes, I think feedback is important.

What followed is a ten-minutes-long essay on art and creativity so dense, so complete and so clear that there’s no need for comments. I’d like to emphasize just few points.

  1. Social media is important”. This is an extremely wise thing to say because it dodges the dichotomy “social media = likes”. Social media are often demonized, which is a silly thing to do. The problem is not if the phone is good or evil, is what you say and whom you talk to.
  2. Social media is important because “it’s a way to create conversations”. I particularly like the choice of the word “conversation” here, because it reminds me of the noblest meaning of lògos. We are not used to this approach because most people we admire are at the same time apparently reachable (on social media) and factually unreachable (because they have thousands or millions of followers). Getting a reply in this situation proves me deeply wrong. In retrospective, during my first month back on Instagram (and having dropped from day two the race for likes1), I find myself slowly developing (weak) relationships.
  3. What Ted said is more or less what I already think and sometimes wrote, even here. So, why did I ask? Why was I surprised by the intensity of his answer? Because the lure of an objective evaluation is tempting and the idea that someone you trust tells you “this is ok” is extremely reassuring. I don’t think this is wrong, I think it is just human: but it’s important to get back to what is crucial during the periods of uncertainty or confusion and get the difference between the life belt we need sometimes and the shore we aim to.

To add some nuances, my question actually arose from a recent experience. At the end of December I decided to challenge myself and join a LensCulture competition. I sent five photos that could summarize my approach to photography. This is probably one of the best shots I ever took, so I put it into the bunch:

Oh, Dear!

[X-T1 35mm f/7.1 1/420sec ISO-200]

Yet, for some reason, I am more attracted to this other one:


[X-T1 35mm f/2 1/7500sec ISO-200]

I’m surrounded by people who are not very fond of photography, so whenever I show a picture the reaction is more or less: “That’s ok, I guess”. This is terribly frustrating. LensCulture instead provides a free review by an anonymous “expert” in the field, which was the main reason I joined: feedback from a fresh eye. The review was terribly more helpful than I expected for two reasons.

First, it helped me recover a perspective:

When I am looking at single photographs or a project series I’m always looking for the two ingredients that transcend the image from its ordinary status and transform it into something unique. (…) Does the photograph deliver a particular emotion to the viewer as a result of the photographer’s intuitive connection with the subject, and does it become an experience? Not all images and subject matter offers or possesses those qualities but it’s imperative for the photographer to strive and incorporate those elements.

Second, it gave me the kind of validation I needed at that time:

I enjoyed looking at your images and I have rearranged the order of the sequence placing the strongest images at the beginning of the sequence. (…) The first images though have all the qualities that make for a strong photograph.

I would have bet a considerable amount of money that the first one would be the man on the ladder; well, I would have lost: the first one was the circus (my favourite).

The kind of validation we need when confused or uncertain is not an overall score on our work: it’s somehow the validation (and recalibration) of our point of view. The reviewer helped me consolidate my trust in what I was feeling right and gave me an insight on why my feeling was right according to my perspective2 (and for this thank you, anonymous reviewer).

The main point here is getting into these kind of conversations and letting go the idea that there’s a place where you can find them “à la carte”.

I still think that looking for valuable feedback is crucial because you sometimes need to abandon your point of view and cope with (hopefully constructive) criticism. How you reintegrate this criticism into your views is up to you.

I got lucky3 with LensCulture because I matched the right person at the right time: it was a moment of kairòs, not a good mark at school.

  1. It becomes easy when you understand you cannot win against a #kitten
  2. This is particularly funny considering that it’s part of what I do as a job for most of my day. But being on the other end of the line is an issue we tend to forget and this is why psychotherapists/psychoanalysts must be patients beforehand.
  3. It wasn’t just luck: LensCulture submits a questionnaire asking what kind of feedback would be more helpful and I was quite accurate in my reply.