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.
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