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The Absolute Subjectivism Trap

..and why not all Photos can be considered "Art"

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Introduction

“But I like it”: four words that I'm 100% sure each one of us used and/or heard at least once during their photographic journey. “It's art, the others don't get it.” is also a valid substitute in many cases. These aren't just words in the photography world: these are invisible shields that we use to defend ourselves from critiques and opinions of the outer world, everytime we hear something that we don't like about our pictures and/or someone hurt our feelings. Oh, I'm talking about photography, but you can probably extend it to many other fields.
Sometimes we are wrong, sometimes we are right. We all know that it's way easier to express judgement on other photographers pictures than receive it on ours: the problem is that what you see as a costructive comment may be seen as an offense by the author of the image.
The most difficult part for all of us is to put emotions and pride aside for a second and try to understand in which cases you should “take the hit” and instead in which cases you should stand by your decision and prove you have a valid argument.

The Times We Are Wrong

Before getting into the action, a premise needs to be made: there's one word which has been continuously used and abused in photography: art. Guys, not every single picture you see is art. Nor it should be. Many people start from the assumption that photography = art, but it doesn't work like that. Sometimes an image has a documentary purpose, sometimes an aesthetic one and other times it may also have an artistic intent. Be careful though: it's not that you wake up in the morning, take your camera, and start taking “artistic photos”. You can try, sure, but it's not mechanical. I'm surely not the right person to define what can be considered art in photography, but it's safe to say that many of the pictures we see everyday shouldn't be considered as pieces of art. Yet, many people misuse the “art” word by attaching it to photographs that has nothing to do with art.
That's where the expression “absolute subjectivism” comes to play: if we can't understand that some of our images may have some flaws or they aren't as beautiful as we thought, the easiest way out for us is to create an explanation such as the one I wrote in the introduction, “but I like it”, or “it's art”. If you truly believes that, then it would be useless to show your work pretty much everywhere, online or in expositions/galleries, since you may always find someone that doesn't have the same ideas you have about your photos, don't you agree? We can't just fill our mouths with words like “art” or “it's subjective” in order to escape criticisms.
While there are aspects of a photograph that rely on personal tastes, not all of them do. If an image is blurry, it's blurry. If an image is oversaturated, it's oversaturated. If the horizon is uneven, it's uneven. Then we can discuss about the reasons why the author made that choice; on our part, we should always learn a bit about the author history and context before expressing our personal opinion on his work. If a certain photographer is known to produce blurry pictures and he developed his personal style around them by producing some incredible works, we would be nothing but fools to criticize one of his images.
The point here is that we can't just hide ourselves from the outer world's opinions. We can't pretend that all the photos we see (and take) should be considered as a form of “art” and not subject to any form of criticism.

If we fall into this trap, then it would become completely useless to have any kind of conversation about photography. We would let that small word, “subjectivism”, to take completely over any personal thinking, judgement or idea we might have on a photograph. When you say “it's art”, the truth is that you are taking away everyone else's chance to express any kind of thought about your photo. That's it. You are shutting everyone's mouth with a poor excuse just by not accepting that the picture is not as perfect as you were thinking. Everytime that you build that invisible shield to defend yourself and your work instead of embracing the criticism and try to improve your photography skills, you are literally wiping out every single rule that ever existed in photography.
That's a bit childish if you ask me, but I'm barely a photographer and for sure I'm not a psychologist, so that's just my personal opinion. Hey, I felt into that trap too in the past, so I'm no exception here.
To better explain what I'm saying, take a look at the photo with the flowers here: not that great, right? I know. I was in my early days of photography when I took this, and I was just getting the handle of the so-called “orton effect” and “dodge & burn” techniques. As you might notice, I tended to give slightly (yep, nothing serious) too much contrast and saturation. But hey, I was loving that atmosphere at the time. I then shared that image on a photography forum, and guess what? I received quite a few harsh critiques on the shot. And I was like “what? I can't believe they are not liking it”. After the initial wound to my personal ego, I started to think – a lot – about why they were saying all those bad things about the image. It took me time to understand, but I finally managed to get over my personal point of view and see what I was doing wrong. There were no excuses, that image wasn't great on the composition side and even worse on the post production one. Now, think for a moment if I hadn't listened to those guys: I would probably still be at that point, using tons of orton effect and creating halos everywhere with unrealistic colors. Looking back, those critiques were probably the things that helped me the most in my small photographic career. And I'm not referring just to this specific picture, I have many other examples like this one!

It would be a complete chaos if we wouldn't have – any – kind of rule to helps us understand what is a good photograph and a bad one. To help us grow our photography skills, to guide us, to make us understand what is wrong and what is right. At this point, you might think “ehy, but he said before that also exceptions are acceptable”; yes, I said it. But you know how they are called? Exceptions. And that's what they are. There are some oversaturated pictures that are astonishing. There are some blurry photos that I can only wish I took. And the list goes on. But the whole point is that they are exceptions to the rules; if there were no rules, then there wouldn't be any exception. I think you got what I'm saying.
Now that I explained a bit why the concept of absolute subjectivism is wrong, you should know that there's also one more reason why you shouldn't get offended and defend yourself everytime someone expresses his thought about your work: that's what is stopping you from becoming a better photographer. Not accepting critiques, refuse to listen to everyone that has a different opinion on your pictures, these are all behaviours that will block your photographic growth. No one is omniscient, and there are things we can learn only through the help of other people/photographers. Sometimes it's hard to see the truth, but once you open your mind to a wider perspective and try to learn from other's suggestions, you'll become not only a better photographer but probably also a better person.

The Times We Are Right

Till this point, all you heard me say is that not everything is subjective and if someone gives an opinion on your work, you should always say thanks and learn from that lesson. In the previous paragraph I left out something though, something important that we'll discuss right now: who is the person who gives the opinion.
Let me start with an example: I'm not a culinary expert. I live in Italy, so it goes without saying that I love pizza, pasta, and a moltitude of other delicious stuff, but when it comes to the so-called “haute cuisine”, I'm literally the worst people on this Earth for an opinion. I'm not used to particular flavours, sophisticated combinations and so on. So, if I'm going to a Michelin-rated restaurant and at the end of the meal I express my delusion and disappointment, together with some recommendations for the chef about how to prepare his courses, should he take me seriously or not? If at the same time a food critic got the same courses I had and says nothing but great words about them, whose words should the chef take more into consideration?

I guess the answer is quite obvious, right? While the chef should listen to everyone's opinion, it's also important to discern between the various opinions and see where they come from. An opinion of someone that doesn't know absolutely anything about cooking can't have the same importance as the opinion of a world famous food critic.
And the same goes for photography: if Giulio Cesare, that has never seen nor taken a photo in his life, comment your picture on Facebook saying that is “amazing!!”, it shouldn't have the same value as a comment from a photography expert.
We should take also into consideration the personal feelings and relations that exist between people; not everybody is going to like you, put that in mind, so there will be people that will be biased when talking about your photos. The same goes for people you have a friendly relationship with: their opinions will be probably be biased too. So I'm sorry, but your mama that tells you your pictures are outstanding doesn't count.
If you don't become one of the so-called influencers of Instagram or Facebook, it doesn't mean that you are bad photographer. On the contrary, if you are one of the cool kids, that doesn't give you the right to feel like some sort of God and ignore every critique you receive. Popularity and photography sometimes are correlated, sometimes they are not. Don't give too much credit to the popularity that you manage to gain on social medias, since it shouldn't be a factor to measure how good your photos are.

So, if you don't get any attention there, it's because maybe you are showing your pictures in the wrong place, at the wrong audience. Before jumping to conclusions, think if the audience you get your feedbacks from (or you don't) is the right one.
Once again, this has probably more to do with social strategy rather than photography, but being sure that you are showing your pictures in the right place at the right people is a crucial factor; firstly because the opinions you'll receive will be from the audience you were looking for, secondly because you'll have a better understanding of your photography skills.
Finding the right place to share and observe other people's photos is also one of the most instructive ways to improve your photographic skills and judgement; observing pictures of the people you admire, learning from them and in the meanwhile improving your photographic knowledge so that you can help the ones that started after you and need more help.

Conclusion

No matter how experienced you are, what certificates/prizes you got, nobody is excluded from making mistakes, and we all should be aware of that. In a world dominated the continuous fight for popularity, humbleness is an increasingly rare quality.
We can't let our emotions get over ourselves and prevent us from becoming better photographers. Not everything is art, not everything is subjective. We all should learn that sometimes a bad photo is a bad photo, it's not artistic and neither is a “personal choice”. And if it was a personal choice, then it was a bad one, one that we should correct in the future in order to improve our photography level.
Receive critiques is a fundamental part of a photographer's personal growth, and I personally feel like people are become more and more reluctant both to give and to receive opinions on their works.
In the end, the only thing that stands between us and our photographic growth, is our ego.

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