Many photographers struggle with this question: How do you know if your photos are good or not?
Perhaps you “just know” or claim not to care what other people think, but judging one’s own work can be problematic due to one’s closeness to the process and experiences involved in the production of the work. Sure, you were there and know how precious and magical that moment seemed, or how hard you worked to get it, but viewers have no clue about any of that unless it’s communicated through the photograph itself. I’ve found that not looking at photographs I’ve made for at least a month or so helps in obtaining some objectivity in assessing the work’s meaning and value, putting enough distance between the emotion and conditions of making the work that it doesn’t exert an undue influence on how I see it (also I’m lazy and do not relish the idea of spending every night downloading and transferring files). But especially in this era of cheap memory and fast frame rates, the question of which shots to pay attention to and which to ignore has become an even greater challenge.
Back in the days before social media (which if you can recall makes you old as hell), this was honestly a difficult question. Your friends and family couldn’t be expected to criticize your work honestly. Your mother would think your work was brilliant regardless, the exception being my mother, who thinks the people in my photos aren’t smiling nearly enough and wouldn’t it be nice if they were? Your friends would probably shrug and say yeah, it’s ok, uh-huh and then continue to talk about what they wanted to really talk about because damn.
And that was usually that, unless you happened to know someone like John Szarkowski, with whom you could have lunch and chat about your upcoming exhibition at MOMA. Sadly, it just wasn’t physically possible for most photographers to be on lunch-having terms with Szarkowski, and they could only hope that, after they died, someone who knew a future version of Szarkowski would happen to attend the auction of all those shoeboxes full of your old prints and take a liking to them. They would then have lunch.
When the Internet began to be A Thing, huge amounts of photos began to become viewable by just about everyone, with no need to die and leave one’s shoeboxes to the vague possibility of a potential lunch date with a random MOMA director. The problem with this was that the ability of the general public to care about photography simply couldn’t match the amount of photos to be seen, as most photographers assumed it would. People love to post their own photos but often spend little time looking at those of others, and this began to breed a certain resentment. Phrases like “tsunami of photos” began being bantered about, as well as the now-tired “Everyone’s a photographer now.” Meaning that people, while blissfully uploading photos all day/every day, just couldn’t be bothered to look at all of these photos that somehow were just everywhere now, much less interact with them in any meaningful fashion.
The social media companies, brilliantly, devised a way to take the onus of meaningful interaction off of viewers, with the now-ubiquitous Like/Fav/Heart/whatever button. Suddenly it was easy to scroll through a small section of the endless photos, press a button to send the photographer a simulacrum of your interest in their work, and get on with your busy day. Problem solved! Now we all knew if our photos were good or not, and we then started seeing exponential growth in the number of compelling, quality work from diverse communities in the form of series, books and exhibitions from all around the world.
Except no, that didn’t quite happen. Photographers began simply judging their work on the amount of Likes they got on social media, even though they had no idea who was pressing the button or why. Their own motivations, impulses, thoughts and ideas all went out the window in favor of the mighty red symbol. The question of “Is this a compelling image/series?” was replaced by “Will this get teh Likes?” Image feeds were mercilessly culled on this basis, and curators started demanding Like/Follower counts when considering exhibitions and publications. Can’t bring your mass of Like-smashing Followers to gofundme your project? Sucks to be you. One well-known San Francisco street photographer told me, “If a shot doesn’t immediately get at least 120 Likes on the gram, it’s gone.” And this was in 2016, so that’s like 200 Likes in today’s currency.
The system was ripe for gaming, and gamed it was, not just by gleefully cackling individuals but also their vast armies of flying monkeybots. The result was more or less a guarantee that any accounts with outrageous follower/Like counts could be reliably dismissed as pretentious claptrap, and the numbers eventually became meaningless in terms of judging the quality of the work. That didn’t matter, of course, as studies have shown that people who cheat or game systems almost invariably come to believe that they deserve their success merely because of the attention they’re getting, so with little or no consequences to deal with, they just continue doing the same thing. Quite a few books and exhibitions were produced, but a disappointingly large proportion of them were bafflingly mediocre until one realized that projects were being approved on a Like-based economy, as it were.
When you discount all the detritus left over from the damage the Like button has done to photography, not to mention other arts, we seem to have taken more steps back than forward since all this began. The value of Likes is fading as more people recoil at the rage-fueled money-making machine that social media has become, a fact exacerbated by those companies introducing pay-to-play policies such as paid “verification” schemes.
In other words, after all of this, it’s still nearly impossible to know if your photos are any good or not. Yes, you can pay money to one of the 26 people who seem to be judging the various annual competitions to not select your work; you can also pay a “master photographer” to tell you that your work sucks, and if you pay even more, why it sucks. Otherwise, various critique groups have come and gone over the years, but most have died out as those offering critique were 1) often not very good at it, or 2) not willing to spend too much time engaged an effort with little or no reward, mainly due to 3) being raked over the coals for having the audacity to offer a critique to someone who said “C&C welcome” because that doesn’t mean you can just, like, say bad things about my photos, dude. Not cool.
So in the coming post-Like photoverse, to use a phrase I think we can all agree is every kind of awful, are there any ways to glean any information on how people (actual people, not bots) see your work? Not a lot, I’m afraid. One thing you can do is pay attention to the source of the Likes you do get, or, if you’re lucky, actual human-generated comments that don’t consist entirely of exclamation marks and/or heart emojis. If you’re still on Flickr (and if you’re truly interested in photography rather than clout, you should be), the number of Likes should be fairly manageable because so few people are still on Flickr, due to its clearly inferior Like-accumulating capabilities. Attention from photographers and other artists whom you respect should perhaps be given more weight, whereas Likes from bots and/or random people with questionable taste who happen to be in a charitable mood when they came across your photo…perhaps not so much.
It might even be a moot point as AI-generated content is being used to a greater extent, free of those pesky ethical concerns of authorship or intellectual property rights that cost companies actual money that they could be using to send their CEOs cute little gifts (“Another yacht? Well, thanks I guess”) in between buying political officials. Media sites and advertising have already taken to using such content, and AI-generated images are even winning photography contests. Eventually, human-generated content could only be notable for its relative “imperfections” that AI cannot or will not mimic. Beyond the question of whether our art is any good or not, what will art even mean in a world where you have to prove not only that you are human, but that being human has any value?
I genuinely have no idea what lies ahead; I just hope I see some neat stuff along the way.
So, want to get some lunch?