Killing The Beast

WARNING: This post is lengthy – it requires a lot of your time and your absolute attention. Your social media engagement may suffer as a result. If you decide to read it anyway, please sit down in a comfortable chair, put away all other devices and turn off your TV. Brace yourself.

A few months ago, I jotted down my thoughts about a subject in photography that affects every photographer. It deals with the dark periods which transpire, causing a lack motivation, difficulty in seeing and self-doubt. My jottings also touched on the role of social media in such periods of fading conviction. Somehow, probably in a state of self-doubt, I put this article on the shelf and forgot about it.

However, this write-up somehow found a way to grab my attention once again. During the recording of the Fujilove podcast, Tomasz asked me a question: “How do you deal with moments of doubt and crisis?” Then I read Patrick Laroque’s eloquent “Flux and Fuel” post that, among others, touched on this very subject. Finally, I came across a brilliant and honest post by Jonas Rask, “The Conundrum of my Photographic Identity.” That’s all it took. Jeanie was out of the bottle.

The identity crisis, self-doubt, lack of motivation, disappointment, a need to transform – call it what you want – it’s always around.

There are two ways to approach this conundrum – the SWEET way or the REAL way. Some people approach social media with a perfumed, motivational talk sprinkled with cute quotes and an “I-love-everybody” message. This approach generally attracts an avalanche of “likes,” oohs and ahs, honeyed comments and several thousand “shares.” Indeed, two birds, one stone. We all feel better.

Then there is the REAL way to approach it – writing down exactly what you feel at that moment without the usual “What if somebody doesn’t like it and I will lose followers” social media filter. Not a bad starting point. This approach includes wallowing in your doubts, thoughts and feelings, including the dark and uncomfortable ones. Take off the mask, don’t hide, stop calculating! The second approach is rare but I believe it’s the only path that leads to rebirth as a photographer!

Interestingly, one of the best medicines prescribed by the canniest thinkers in photography is to seriously scale back or quit social media entirely! Entirely? Zack Arias did it in the past! Jonas Rask did it! Daniel Milnor did it! Many other great photographers did it! Why? Why do these great artists think that quitting or scaling back their interaction with social media is so vital in transforming their photographic lives?

  

Nowadays, being a photographer usually equates with having a presence on social media. There is no question that social media offers abundant opportunities to present your work, connect with fellow photographers and eventually reach a large audience. Even though my start in the social media world was quite delayed, once things started rolling I enjoyed most of the aspects of my virtual life.

That said, there is no question that along with all the perks that social media provide there is real danger lurking deep down. First it starts with LIKING. Whether it is a little heart on Instagram or Twitter or the blue thumbs-up on Facebook, we are all accustomed to LIKING. There is very little discrimination – my friend’s vacation photos – LIKE, my colleagues’ dinner shot – LIKE, my friends’ photo of a brand-new camera – LIKE … you quickly get into a rhythm.

From a social point of view, it’s fun and engaging. On the surface, this principle could apply to a friendly photographic circle. I am privileged to interact with many friends and colleagues, some of them great people, some gifted artists and photographers whose work I admire – and I LIKE the hell out of them.

As I soak in my bath with my rubber ducky, I think about it. Ducky agrees that my photographic LIKE escapades sometimes get out of hand. I like this photographer so here we go LIKE, I know this guy personally – here we go LIKE, it’s a photographer I spoke with last week – LIKE, then, an image from one of my workshop students – LIKE.

Then one evening after finishing my social media session, an annoying thought arose … did I even like this image? Why did I like this photo? Why did I press LIKE even if the image wasn’t good? The longer I thought about it the more troubled I became. Did I really do someone a favour by liking an image which I didn’t think was that good? Did I do a disservice to this person? Did I do a disservice to myself?

While we may not be aware, this carousel of LIKES often comes back to us like a boomerang. I well remember when I joined social media and started getting lots of likes. “Wow, lots of people like my work,” I thought. First, it was natural and genuine. It just felt good and it was simple. Then I started posting more and again I thought, “Wow, what a great response!” So long as I posted my usual “pretty” images, the machinery responded as usual. It was programmed to perfection.

In time, I noticed some cracks in the pattern. On occasion, I wanted to expand my seeing and challenge myself so I posted an image I thought put me on the right track. Sure, it was risky, different and not as easy to appreciate. These images required concentration and attention from a viewer – a commodity I later found out was in short supply on social media. To my initial surprise those images were not as popular as my other pretty work. It triggered unintentional and uncontrolled reactions. I thought, “What is wrong with my photography?” The beast had spoken loud and clear: “Don’t do it, Olaf. Stay on course. Don’t you want to be popular?”

Then I started to see the pattern, almost like a formula. There were certain images that social media demanded. Some of my “friends” even suggested I should post at certain times of the day to benefit the most. It was all about the numbers. Then, some photographers I know started to post: “I reached …… number of followers – how about you? What are your engagement numbers?” Every post and online engagement was accompanied by “please follow me.” I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the masters – those with the largest followings, those who know how to make noise. If I only do more self-help postings and get my fishing net bigger, wider, noisier … after all, there are so many people looking for a direction. Remember, Olaf, don’t confuse them with fancy composition or visual risk-taking – high doses of gear and Photoshop talk should do the trick. Forget writing about seeing or originality – just do another camera review. The beast was in full control.

In time, a day without being plugged into social media felt like a wasteland, a missed opportunity. Stepping off the treadmill was a disaster, as if you were out of the game. Your long-term work didn’t matter anymore. Your risk-taking, your new seeing didn’t matter. You knew you had to feed the beast. Unfortunately, no matter how much time and energy you spent doing it, it was never enough.

Recently I met with some young photographers. A few minutes into our conversation, I noticed they were constantly reaching for a phone to check their Facebook page and Instagram feed. Most people appeared to be distracted, unable to focus on a discussion as if they genuinely couldn’t focus. We looked at a few images and the only words they could muster about these photographs were “wow,” “amazing,” “great work” – as if they were going through an Instagram feed using generic responses. There was no pausing, no genuine interest in the imagery, not even enough attention to view them. It went straight into their brains as a deeply imbedded INSTAGRAM vocabulary.

    

If the mania of LIKES was not enough, there is this constant carousel of generic “I feel so happy for you, my friend,” “I had such a great day” and “If you really want it you can do it” nonsense accompanied by dozens of LIKES as if everybody was onboard. This Disneyland of friendships with people I have never met, a non-stop diet of pleasantry and a need to belong quickly gets into your head. You start living in a virtual world where everything is possible. New camera – of course you want to buy it, exotic travel destinations – of course they’re on your list, you were interviewed, you booked new client, had an amazing photo shoot – of course you want to blow your own horn – load and clear. Your daily reality or struggles can wait. The fact that you cannot afford the latest – hey, don’t embarrass yourself.

     

Of course, sometimes a REAL discussion and REAL photographic issues bubble to the surface. In real life, the most productive and substantive discussions I ever had were with people who DIDN’T agree with me or even DIDN’T LIKE some of my work. We could sit down and provide honest, genuine and material feedback. There is no such thing on social media but don’t believe me – just try to raise some controversial subject or provide genuine but not positive feedback. You will be immediately labelled as someone who wants to take down other people’s work, who has hidden intentions or is not in line to collaborate with one hundred other photographers as if some people had a nine-day week. You will quickly become persona non-grata in some social media circles. Not only will your social media standing suffer but as a marketing entity for camera manufacturers you will receive a major blow. Without the usual “I love everybody and everything” and “I want to inspire everybody” you’ll quickly find yourself out of the game.

So why, despite the apparent risks, do some photographers decide to reduce or cut their social engagement, putting all the social media gains on the line? Why would they risk getting out of the game?

To survive, you need to put away all the clutter and noise of social media, quieten your mind and become your genuine self. You must regain your own emotional space no longer tied to shameless self-promotion (GUILTY!), YouTube videos (GUILTY!), indiscriminate friending of people you have never met (GUILTY!), liking images you didn’t even have time to properly engage with (GUILTY!), re-posting political articles you don’t always agree with (GUILTY!) … the list go on.

Because, to save yourself and rebuild your own photographic identity and free your seeing from formulas and patterns, you need to kill the BEAST! Not Ducky.

 

All images taken with the X100F and X-Pro2.

 

 

2017 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

36 thoughts on “Killing The Beast

  1. Pingback: Closing Your Eyes | Olafphotoblog

  2. Hey Olaf. Mac from Shuttertime pointed me to this post. Well, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Much of what you’re saying is resonating for me right this very second. I know that I’m finding myself driven by the Beast of social media and finding that it’s looking very hollow to me. Maybe that explains why I’m feeling what I’m feeling: like every day is groundhog day. Circling the same road again and again and failing to see the exit sign. Like anyone moving away from a routine, I’m a little afraid to exit the curled road. But reading this, I’m thinking I’ll start looking for that off-ramp. Thanks for sharing this. And can’t wait to get you on my Street Shots podcast someday soon.

  3. Pingback: A Camera Bag Full of Ideas, Not Gear! | Olafphotoblog

  4. Hello Olaf,

    I could not agree more with what you wrote about the interaction with social media. I am also guilty. I also noticed that when you take not-social-media-beautiful photos, you will not gain many likes. You feel bad and unsecure, wondering if you do something wrong. I was on the fence to decide to cut down socail media interaction. Your honest article pulled the trigger. I will cut down my interaction and focus more on my LIFE (I hate my own distraction, always checking IG of Flickr). I grew up in times where there was no social media and I remember that I was more focused back then. Even bored sometimes. I miss it, especially feeling boring, let your thoughts float and relax.

    I have my own website and blog. I’ll stick with them to upload my work because they are independent and not in the facebook or IG marketing machine.

    Have a good day,
    Kevin

  5. Pingback: Follow Up – Killing The Beast | Olafphotoblog

  6. I confess that I also LIKED your post together with 9 readers and i believe you will receive more likes here cos… part of people will only look on the images (and your collection here just fantastic).
    about this timeless theme – to social or not to social.
    i don’t know another place where i can publish my images and to show them to people – to my fam, to my close and not too close or very far friends. to shoot in a box – i have so many images taken with film and with digital, yet not edited and not scanned and i have no idea when i’ll finish all this – and yes i want to show everything to my visitors.. and i started my blogsite exactly with idea to be concentrated and not non-independent from the same social media. and likes on my blog post is just some kind of indication that people who come to my posts were here..
    sometimes i even don’t know why i take all these photographs, but this is another theme and i have to write particular post about this and to get some dozens of LIKESSS ! :-)))

    • Victor,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. My post could be easily interpreted as it is against social media. It is NOT. I am well aware that being active on social media is no brainer for a photographer. My intention was to raise the issue of our behaviour while browsing, liking, interacting…We often react/behave without much thought or honesty, something we would probably not do in real life scenarios. For this very reason, I much prefer more thoughtful and considerable form of blogging. The fact that we have this very discussion without limiting ourselves to 140 characters or without using cliche phrases make this whole thing worthwhile and valuable. Of course I appreciate all the LIKES I receive on this blog (who wouldn’t!) but somehow I feel they are more genuine and ‘deserved’ (for the lack of a better word) than hundreds I get on fast-food platforms such as Instagram or Facebook. Then there is the whole issue of concentration, taking care of your identity etc.. this requires a regular time off – away from social media, something I promised myself will do more often. Ok Olaf, enough of this!

      Thanks again,

      Olaf

  7. I’m glad the “like” conundrum persisted in nagging you until you wrote this piece. As a late-in-life beginner, my artistic ego is pretty fragile as I flail around to find my own way of seeing. It didn’t take long to notice that certain types of images get way more attention than they may merit, and to see myself checking my social media feed over and over to revel in the likes.. I have found myself looking at an image in thumbnail to assess whether an image will be successful in social media. “How will it look on a small screen?” driving the choice of images to post, rather than my own choices of what I want to say. I confess to being a touch disappointed that more established photographers continue to suffer from the negative effects of social media; I was hoping I might grow out of it. However, forewarned and all that. Thanks for the post.

  8. okok ! i started to read and you’re right – i will miss a few posts on Google+/Twitter/Facebook :-)))
    just a word about this mood, when you have no idea what a subject to choose and what to shoot – go outside and shoot street. once pple did the same thing – shooted flowers.. some of them still shoot birdies…
    i continue the reading process 🙂

  9. Well, I do like your photographic work and your articles on different matters. That’s why I keep coming back, drawn in from the newsletter. The only other photographer I follow is Eric Kim, because of both his photography and the philosophy behind it, which can be applied to life. It makes me think.

    I have a few websites myself (about travelling) which I monetize, partly by keeping active on social media. My personal profile goes mute for a long time, a really long time… The fact is that I don’t want to waste my time with things that are not really important to me. Of course I like my friends. In real life. And I like to tell them so. Personally.

    When I like a TV series or two I don’t look for other ones. I’m happy with those and I choose to spend my free time doing something else other than watching TV.

    Honestly, like you (and me), I think everybody needs to think about why they do stuff like Liking. I guess we would be much happier if we lived in the real world. It’s a bit disturbing how people my age (42) got immersed in this type of life but it’s much scarier to see that young people (I’m a high school teacher) never really had a chance to choose. They were born into this way of thinking and acting and they absolutely need adults’ help with staying away from the virtual world.

    Keep up the good work! Engage us!

    • Lseco,

      Thank you for taking the time and sharing your perspective. You raised many important points. There is no question that social media plays important role, especially for creators/photographers/artists. It is easy, however, to be carried away with impulsive interactions, which not only are time consuming but also contra-productive (not even mentioning amount of time wasted on pointless video clips, jokes, political me-too, never-ending carousel).

      Thank you so much for your support and looking forward to our future interactions.

      All the best,

      Olaf

  10. Olaf, good to see that you have engaged with your readers, once again. And, they see the wisdom in your words. Both of these are accomplishments. I think about the issues you raise, but rely upon my sporadic social media engagement to keep me from “liking” too much too often.
    I do continue to struggle with the desire to follow my vision and not just post something I expect will be popular. To that end, I try to keep in mind what a respected photographer I know once said. “The more I like my work, the fewer others seem to.”
    Here’s to the focus and fortitude to make photos we want to make and to stay away from the “like” trap that can be social media.

    • Don,

      “The more I like my work, the fewer others seem to” – I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you for sharing this brilliant thought – this is exactly what I feel on some occasions. I truly enjoyed meeting you in person and value your opinion a lot. Indeed, your measured approach to social media appear to be working and I am leaning toward adapting a similar approach.

      Looking forward to our next photography “no subject is off limits” meeting in person.

      Wish you all the best,

      Olaf

  11. A wordy but well written summary. I think its difficult to be a photographer without social media but breaking the cycle is important and something I have failed to do at some considerable cost to my spare time and sanity. Thank you for sharing your perspective and images.

    • You are right. I also feel social media is a double-edged sword. It appears that the best way to approach the subject is to be aware of its traps and shortcomings. Also, taking regular break may be helpful to regain the balance.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Olaf

  12. As photographers I believe that many of us want to connect and share experiences. It can become a very individual and sometimes lonely obsession – and social media provides a way of connecting with other photographers that may not otherwise exist for many of us. So let’s not forget the amazing potential of social media in this regard. However, as you say, the reality is that the way this plays out is not always healthy and I agree with all your points. Personally I am letting social media take a back seat and have established a photography collective in my local City and hope to build a physical network of local photographers. I’d rather do this with a dozen real photographers than be friends on social media with a thousand that I will never meet. 🙂

    • David,

      Yes, I agree with you on many positives social media offer. I have to say that I am quite impressed with your approach to the subject. Indeed, building a physical network of local photographers is the example worth following. Hats off to you for doing it.

      Thank you so much for your perspective.

      Olaf

  13. You really put the hammer to the nail with this one. Seen it, done it, probably will fall for it sometimes in the future, but I’ll definitely be more aware. You see, this spiraling got to me just as you explain. It left me with a troubling impression of not being OK, I was in constant doubt – not the creative kind of doubt and uncertainty but a paralyzing one- that started me on a track where I was trying to reproduit stuff I like and shots that got me LIKES before, instead of creating my own art. And then it happened; I started to hate these pics.But the thing is they were not my pics, they were made to get back in the realm of LIKES, not for me to like.

    Thanks for your “boldness”. I love your work and feel I get something every time I come by and read you.

    • Michel,

      It is great to hear your perspective. I think we all keep falling for it over and over again. At least we know that we have to kill the beast from time to time 🙂

      Thanks for your support.

      Olaf

  14. Guilty of liking too often haha, but I am cutting back. But I have abandoned Facebook altogether and that was a great relief. No other social media apart from WordPress and a Fujifilm blog which is informative rather than a like type blog. Anyway, love your work 🙂

    • Luis,

      I am sorry for the confusion. Tomasz just recorded our podcast a few days ago. It should be up sometimes this week on the Fujilove website. I will try to share it on our blog once it is ready.

      Regards,

      Olaf

  15. Great points Olaf, generally I agree. Social Media can become a distraction, if you’re only engaged for your own self interest, promotion or own gratification. Some akin this to a form of addiction. That said, I do feel I benefit from the “felt” relationship with those I believe to be genuine folks, who share great work, wisdom and yes, feedback.

    I’m also guilty of self-interest from time to time, but do try to provide honest feedback usually by “another way to look at it would be…” or “it my be cool to try…”. Sometimes I’ll like images I don’t necessarily like, but do see potential. Otherwise, it’s just best not to like.

    I initially started following your work (and I believe your spouse), when you were shooting mostly gorgeous landscapes. When you started shooting more street photography, I was less impressed until I saw your Vancouver post on the post Paris bombing gathering. I was so moved by your writing and images, that I began to appreciate the more contemplative aspect of your recent work – of which the images in this post are a great example! Please keep posting, I love your work’.

    • C.S. Young Jr,

      I really appreciate your generous and honest words. I am well aware that I ‘lost’ some people when I started shooting documentary/street photography. However, this is exactly where my visual explorations have taken me at the moment. I am pretty sure I will present some travel/landscape work this year as we are planning trips to some less-known but visually fascinating locations.

      I have to say I really appreciate your honest feedback and willingness to engage with our work- even it if is not a genre of your liking. I have a great respect for people who are not afraid to explore new visuals. Thank you for giving it a chance.

      Looking forward to your future feedback,

      All the best,

      Olaf

  16. You’re right: indiscriminate liking of images on social media isn’t productive or meaningful. It’s like fast food, momentarily gratifying but with no long-term benefit. And don’t get me started on smart phones, destroyers of concentration and focus. So glad I still have enough left to be able to read your thoughtful post in its entirety.

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