Research + History = My Thoughts

I came across a link on twitter about a recent “photo-essay.”

The essay was hyped as “great,” “fantastic,” “amazing,” as well the rest of the modern single-word comments associated with online photographic expression.

The only problem was the essay wasn’t great, and it surely wasn’t original, but it was written about and hyped and tweeted and commented on as if the photographer had broken pioneering ground or exposed the world to a story that we had never seen before.

I have a little advice.

We need to learn our photo-history and do our research before we do this, otherwise we do little more than prove our lack of knowledge and prove our lack of ability to judge whether a body or work is good or not good.

Look, I understand we have the ability to do this. We can instantly carpet the world with an image, a story, a post, etc, and sure, there is an upside to this, or at least there can be. But if you are touting yourself as a professional photographer you should know better, and ultimately what you are doing is lessening the impact of the story you are trying to hype because the real audience for that piece visits the link and says, “This isn’t good.”

I’m not sure what can be done about this because many of the people doing it have successfully built audiences of followers, some of them sizable, so I can’t see this slowing down. We as a public, as an audience just need to stop participating in the charade.

This particular story had not only been done before, but it had been done more successfully, skillfully and by someone I actually know. So when I saw the link my first thought was “Nice, I can revisit this story.” And then I saw the work.

It is VERY easy to say, “Everything has already been done,” which is a complete and total cop out I’ve heard countless photographers make, but let me just say that is complete and total shit. It’s not true, but it sure provides an easy excuse for copying someone else or taking a lesser stab at a well known story.

As a photographer you have to do your research, but I’m actually thinking now that a lot of photographers aren’t doing research at all. In fact, I would guess the photographer who did this story might not have ever even searched for prior projects regarding his chosen topic. I reviewed portfolios a while back and when I reviewed the documentary photographers I referenced prior stories which were directly related to their work and all I got in return was utterly blank stares. It is so easy, so damn easy to become so completely and utterly self-centered in this photographic world, and being blind to history is a great first step. There is such a rush today to be known, to be famous, to make money, to sell prints, to get likes, to be shared or to build an audience that it absolutely takes over and in many cases ruins the chances of making anything memorable.

A few years ago I did a project, a strange one, and during my research found out another photographer had done the same story ten years prior. He was European, did the story in a matter of days, and had a different angle, so I decided to do it anyway. I got into the field and KNEW what this person had already done. I made sure I kept to my storyline….MY storyline and put my own fingerprints on the project. I also suffered the ramifications of working behind someone who had promised everything to everyone and delivered on nothing, so be careful of that as well. After five chapters of the project I quit after realizing the work wasn’t good enough. I knew I had to begin again, make it better, and stronger, and reinforce MY view on why the story was important to tell. I’ve not yet begun to redo it because I know I can’t half-ass ANYTHING. If I do I’m selling myself short, I’m selling the story short and I’m selling the people in the project short.

I guess the question I have is “What the Hell are we doing?”

I think what the lack of knowledge regarding history and the lack of research, coupled with the successful exposure of second rate work proves is that VERY few people are actually paying attention. The photographer who created this work and the people that helped blanket it around the world surely aren’t, but ultimately it could potentially gain them followers, but what good is it if these followers aren’t paying attention?

There are more people wanting to be photographers than ever before, and it appears that the VAST majority of these people want the entire world to know about their work. This is like a traffic choked freeway of content. There is no possible way for anyone to keep up with this.

When you do a project, come up with an idea, for the love of God do your research and learn your history. If you do this and you create a unique and strong voice you won’t need to hype yourself to exhaustion. The real audience will find you.

We all want to be encouraging, especially to young photographers and people doing the right thing, but we can’t give a hall pass for BASIC responsibilities that come with the title “professional”. Slow down, do your homework and provide us with something of quality. You won’t always succeed, nobody does, but don’t let that deter you, and just because something has been done doesn’t mean you can’t do it. If you understand your story, and what has been done before – where it fits in history – you can ADD to the legacy, history or understanding.

One of the best things photographers can do is talk to other photographers. And when I say this I don’t mean someone with 10,000 followers on Twitter. Likes and screen after screen of one word comments might mean someone likes to write about equipment, but it might not signify good photographer.(Yes, this was a slam.) And remember, many of the world’s best photographers are nowhere near social media. Why? Because they are out making work. So when I say show your work, discuss your ideas with other photographers I mean real working photographers with a track record and portfolio to prove it. These people, when willing, are a HUGE resource who want nothing more than to help you and to help photography. They can save uneducated photographers from themselves.

If we do this we can all celebrate, not just our own work but the further progression of the industry and craft of photography.

When I write a post that takes a stand or sheds light on an issue I always run the risk of getting the usual comments of “Oh, you are just being negative,” or “What gives you the right?” or “How dare you question the power of social media?” About 99% of the time these comments come from people who are trying to build an audience. You know the type. Everything is unicorns and rainbows and every shoot is perfection and photographic life is akin to a suburbia lifestyle catalog. When your business is on the line and you are trying to create a facade of happiness to gain more business I get it, but I don’t have to live like that. I’ve always tried to be honest and gaining followers is not my priority. I’ll take truth and honesty over followers any day, and I’ll never stoop to writing about equipment all the time.

All I’m doing with this post is pointing out a pattern that is VERY CLEARLY going on. But I’m also pointing out how to change things for the better even though I have little faith anything with change. But, you never know. It’s worth putting out there and maybe somewhere something will stick.

Creating original art isn’t easy. Blazing your own path isn’t easy. Breaking from the herd isn’t easy. But the great artists do, so next time you have a story idea or are about to hit “retweet” make sure you get a second opinion. It can help us all.

43 responses to “Research + History = My Thoughts”

  1. Paul Romaniuk says:

    Thank you for writing this, Dan. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no changing people with this mindset, and if they want to continue to delude themselves that x number of followers and pages of “nice capture” comments means they’re talented, so be it. In a way I look upon it as a blessing – they’re distracted by the shininess of their plastic bubble, which leaves the path clear for those who are truly committed and serious about their craft.

    Besides being knowledgeable about what’s gone before, seriously researching and learning photo history opens up wonderful oppoortunities to improve composition and story telling skills through the great work that’s already out there from decades ago.

    • Smogranch says:

      Agreed. I don’t see any of this changing anytime soon. The payoff is too high. Write about gear, book workshops and have gear companies lined up to provide equipment. Much, much easier than actually learning photography or making great images.
      I don’t spend a lot of time with it, but when I see a story being hyped, a story done ten years ago by someone I know well, I had to say something.

  2. Well put, Daniel, particularly on knowing one’s place in history
    (though Americans, in particular, tend to think history is irrelevant
    and this Yank does not hold that opinion). Knowing history does
    not make one old school. It just decreases the chances of deluding

    Also this practice, so prevalent, of tapping the work of others for
    ideas and then photographing essentially the same story, like
    following the recipe of a chef, is not the express lane to success.
    It can work remarkably well, for a while but usually the mimicry
    is exposed for what it is over time. We see work from the same
    places over and over and over, and on the same subjects over and
    over. This is the result. You see work from an ordinary place
    that has been completely overlooked, it sends a bolt of electricity
    through your entire body. Your shout out for Danny Frazier Wilcox
    springs to mind. Danny finds stories that are only his own
    in places others simply consider towns to drive through on
    the way to point B.

    Thanks again, Daniel. It is not negative to point out this
    ever-present elephant in the room, especially in an era of
    extreme self-promotion.

    • Smogranch says:

      I like that expression, “The elephant in the room.” There are MANY today, and I’ve never understood why people are so afraid to discuss them. I think it would make photography a much better business if there was more discussion. I think you are right about Danny. He seems to shoot what he knows and realizes you don’t need to board a plane full of other photographers to make good stories. Heck, I don’t even look at photojournalism anymore. I don’t find it that interesting because I feel the photographers are being so controlled by outside sources I feel like I’m seeing everything through a filter of speed and corporate controls.

  3. Great post Dan.

    My only regret in not having and formal schooling was missing out on the history of photography aspect of it. But I’m slowly self schooling myself and at least once a week find something that blows me away that was done 30-50-75 years ago.

    FWIW, it may be cliche but I still think ‘Country Doctor’ is one of the best photo essays ever done.

    • Smogranch says:


      For me, Gene Smith was by far the best doc shooter to ever live. 90% of the young photographers I talk to, those doing doc work, have no idea who he is or what he did. Heck, I’m guilty as well. I went through PJ school and barely knew who he was.

  4. Jim Azevedo says:

    Thanks for speaking out about something that has been lurking in the
    back of my brain for a while. There’s like this whole cloud of illusion that these vast numbers of people swirl around in. If you’re able to penetrate all the dopey backpats and mutually congratulatory inanities, you find out the fuss is not about very much – and well, a lot of the time it’s not about anything. Not about anything of real value or anything that will endure, anyway. If enough fuss is made and enough people mindlessly follow along, then it’s all wonderful. But there’s nothing there.

    • Smogranch says:


      Mindless is a good word. When work is delivered this way it ends up being nearly meaningless because like a drug, people want more of the same thing and they want it quickly. Remember, Americans eat fast food on average of 20 times per month. I see this as much of the same. Our attention spans are pretty short these days, so this type of work fits our appetites.

  5. LionelB says:

    I recently spent time with an exceptional sculptor and painter. His daughter is following in his footsteps and he explained that he insisted she draw and shade a simple egg thousands upon thousands of times, until perfection became hard wired. Only then was she allowed to touch paint. It seems severe but this was once universal practice. The point is that genuine freedom of expression only grows out of that dogged discipline. The shapelessness of ignorance is not freedom at all. It is ignorance, period.

  6. Don Denton says:

    At times, you hear photographers say they don’t look at other/same work as they worry that it will “contaminate” their vision.
    I don’t understand how you can’t worry that your work will, as your post so much more elegantly says, then not be derivative.
    I’ve been working on a series on the Pacific Northwest. Two of the shooters who have also done work here and in a similar vein are Eirick Johnson and Tom Hyde.I’ve looked at both their work and a good thing. Last February I was shooting on the Olympic Penninsula for the first time. Getting lost in Aberdeen I cut down a side street to park and get my bearings I looked up to see to my left a Hyde photo and to the right a Johnson photo. A tiny side street that had already been photographed by two others. I was able to shoot the area my way (it is a great little street) but without knowing what others had done I could have very easily just made copies of the other two shooters’ work.

    • Smogranch says:

      That is a perfect example. I’ve seen this happening over and over online. Photographers posting images online and on their sites as if they are original or discoveries and I sit there thinking, “Doesn’t this person know that same exact image was done ten years ago and ran on the cover of such and such a magazine?”

  7. Nancy says:

    It’s not just photography — I see this in interaction design and human computer interaction research, too. People (and not just students) want to be original and creative; they don’t want to be bothered with looking at other work because they want to DO stuff. Of course, their ignorance makes their work UNoriginal. This extends to the people evaluating that work, too. Mutual ignorance, mutual admiration, mutual positive reinforcement. Ironically, in photography it has never been easier to see others’ work, to see what has come before. Welcome to the community of old farts, Dan: we don’t hop on the latest bandwagon and admire the latest (unoriginal) work. We grumble about those ignorant newbies.

    • Smogranch says:


      You are so right. Today it’s EASY to see work and do research. Remember going to the library and digging through the stacks in our smoking jackets and pipes! But, research takes time away from…promotion!

  8. Thank you for writing this. It really needed to be said. It really is frustrating that people care more about cameras than the actual work.

  9. good read! Not trying to sound like an elitist but it is also nothing new that the majority of people will not know, reflect or try to understand.

    People most of the times simply consume on a shallow level. No matter if it is any form of art, words or even food.

    I don’t even consider myself as well educated, in the context of my possibilities. I waste a lot of time instead of using it to study and do research. Instead I work a lot as a photographer – but try not to to put myself out there as an intellectual either.

    The most important is find out who you are, present yourself and your work in an authentic (overused word!) way and find an audience that is able to appreciate that.

    I gave up trying to please everyone and deiced to do it my way and find the right people to support that. Again these words are almost used by anyone who creates things in life… but it’s not about that others say or do the same, it is about that you found these people who understand.

    Words and Photos are just ways to express. So when you say tree it’s your version of it – almost like when I ask you to take a photo of a tree and then we compare and these two photos will differ in so many ways.

    Just had a look at you work and really enjoyed it. Glad I did, because now your words have more value to me.

    Cheers and keep the spirit!

    • Smogranch says:


      First off, cool name. Great literary name of reoccurring character I think.

      “The most important is find out who you are, present yourself and your work in an authentic (overused word!) way…”

      This is it. This typically takes time. That is my only fear and the area I see being most overlooked. Great work normally takes time, and these days people don’t want to spend it.

  10. […] very recent blogpost by Daniel Milnor. He touches what is by far most important in photography! (Also check out his […]

  11. Hey Daniel,

    what you’ve written is just so true. I mean I am still very young and I am just starting out in photography. But how should we ever know what photography is about if not by studying the history of it, the masters of it, the amazing bodies of work that already have been done? Of course, this sometimes gets really upsetting, as one (certainly I do) feels that his own work might never reach the quality of bodies of work from other photographers that one discovers through these studies. But still, through this, one knows which path to go…

    Of course it is hard to create or tell something original. We are all influenced by other photographers and it is hard to break through these influences. But of course it is not impossible. But isn’t part of the problem that you are talking about here also the lack of editing one’s own work properly? A lot of people (I do that mistake way too often) find themself blindly publicizing photographs to gain reaction and feedback of others. Of coures they (Me) probably should have kept them locked away and really ask if that photograph is original and worth to be shared… Oh well, I don’t see how this will end. I hope it does end for me. 😉

    Thanks for reminding us all to do our research instead of blindly shooting what has already been shot too many times before…

    Cheers from Germany,

    • Smogranch says:


      It’s a hard fact realizing we might not ever get where we feel we need to be. But, it can also be very motivating and lead us in new directions. My aunt woke up in the middle of the night, had an urgent mental message come through and proceeded to sit and write an entire children’s book before the sun came up. The book was picked up by a publisher and the rest is history. So you never know.

      History is a funny thing. It can guide us, education us, inform us and deter us. It’s just going having a grasp.

  12. Kristin says:

    Is it possible to be aware of every image ever taken though? Even well known images, there are so many images, our culture is infiltrated with image. Don’t get me wrong I completely agree with you, because I don’t think there is even an effort in most cases. and if you do have a specific idea and research you can usually find evidence of past existence. Are you specifically talking about photojournalism? or all avenues of photography? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve even slowed on taking pictures for the time being, not because I think it’s all been done but because I don’t want to do more until I find a unique way to express myself and separate that from wowing people. When I first got involved in photography I never even thought about social media or even sharing it other than in a classroom setting, which in many ways I miss. It’s almost a strange pressure now, in the masses of images and photographers, the attempt to stand out is daunting, maybe it’s best to not even think about that aspect any longer and re-focus on what’s important and meaningful.

    • Smogranch says:


      NO way. Too many images out there, but when someone is doing a project in regard to region, people, place, etc, and then presenting the project as in depth and groundbreaking……they HAVE to find out what has been done before. It really helps to know so that you can build on the idea rather than undermine it. That’s all.
      Standing out has become a full time job.

  13. Megan says:

    I really appreciate this post! I’ve been struggling lately with the weight of how much I don’t know – about the technical aspects of photography as well as other photographers’ prior work. Reading this really encouraged me to just do the research, and accept that I won’t know everything. [I think my biggest photography fear is being one of the people you are talking about.] At the same time, I feel surrounded by photographers who genuinely (sadly) lack talent and/or knowledge, and who could benefit from my experience. I guess there’s always a fight to be self-aware enough to understand where you stand in relation to others. Don’t make excuses, make progress.

    • Smogranch says:

      Don’t worry, there is always more to do and know than we can possibly expect. Enjoy the process. Take your time and make images that best represent your story.

  14. Harold says:

    I’m always wondering what part of my foot I’m chewing on as a result of the endless analysis of results. I like Paul Rand’s quote regarding the work of the uninitiated; he called it “undisciplined gibberish” It is true that the making of something that is not overtly derivative takes some time and education and it may not be possible to escape it altogether. If someone wants to be taken seriously there has to be, as you point out, some research and understanding of what has gone before.

    There is a problem with the current state of things in that it’s fairly easy to “get into” photography and launch into some nether world between the happy snapper and a working professional. Gear is everywhere, tips and tricks books are everywhere… We live in the most photographed era in history and something that was once considered special or even rare has been made a common thing.

    Getting people to stop and take notice [as you recently discussed elsewhere] is rare and not only that it’s important. We’re talking about getting people to care. If a picture, thing or person can be easily dismissed and written off…. Context goes away, bye bye nostalgia. It is important even beyond the notion that someone else made that image before.

    PS I’ve never seen a photo essay on the guys trying to find which hat is theirs after that hat toss at graduation. If it hasn’t been done maybe someone could work on that :-).

    • Smogranch says:


      Magnets. Hats come right back down perfectly, I swear.

      Yes, the idea of “getting in” is VERY easy today, especially if you choose a genre with no gatekeeper. Anyone can do it now, which is great in some ways. In other ways, perhaps not so much, but ultimately we have to come to grips with the vast majority of people in the world simply don’t care about photography. Keeping this in mind will always keep a smile on your face because we know most people are looking for food, shelter and protection.

  15. Well written Sir! My hat’s off to you.

  16. The thing I miss the most about having no formal education in photography is a broader knowledge of its history. I try to continually fill in the blanks, read about 50 photography blogs and go through every photography book I can get my hands on. Still, there are huge holes in my knowledge, something I dislike but can only work on bettering as fast as I can.
    Research rules. Is needed. Is good of course. But then I also want to forget the history in a way. I mean I want to do the project my way, my style, my images. In that respect I have to do what I heard Raghu Rai say earlier this year where he talked about first having to make all the India images he had in his mind, a lot of them inspired by old masters, then having made them he could forget all of these and find his own style and make his own work.
    I want to not copy anyone and I also don’t want to consciously keep trying to shoot the opposite of what has been done.
    In some way I guess the research, well all the images, must be remembered and then forgotten.

    • Jason Timmis says:

      Good point Flemming. It’s a fine line. If you get to the point of forcing yourself in another direction ‘because’ then you are not following your own feelings, however they have been evoked. So would your images come across as fake or contrived because you subconsciously copied someone’s style or because your images lacked imparted emotion? I don’t know….I think ignorance is bliss – but – it will only get you so far. (Then one day Milnor outs you for plagiarism and it seems as though the dark side of the force may win and that working on your Uncle’s farm is the only alternative 🙂 )

    • Hehe, I don’t think there’s any safe place in the universe once Milnor has outed you for plagiarism – however a moisture farm on Tatooine should do the trick or bartending in Mos Eisley, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

      To subconsiously avoid copying anyone and consciously work entirely as yourself. That’s the (jedi) trick.

    • Smogranch says:


      I think the hard part is finding your style, whatever that is, and then making a cohesive, collection of work. That might mean cohesive snapshots. Doesn’t have to be a project. Just takes getting out and feeling your way around.

    • Smogranch says:


      Yes and no. The difference is that Rai didnt’ shoot these images for two weeks and then spend two years promoting them as if they were original, or even good for that matter. He was copying people he RECOGNIZED as the masters, which means you have to KNOW the masters to begin with, which is again where I see a huge difference today. Many of the projects I see promoted are being done by people with complete and total disregard for the masters, the history, the place in history or even why the work is important or why it fits in. And did I mention the relentless promotion?

      I also think people forget you can go to the exact same place a historical project has been made, shoot in that exact same place, on the exact same story and actually ADD to the legacy if you know what you are doing. I know someone doing this right now and it’s a grand project. BUT, he HAD to know in great details what had been done, why and how his work would help further or revisit the story.

    • Flemming Bo Jensen says:

      Sounds right yes, agree. And the relentless promotion is truly appalling.

  17. […] Daniel Milnor writing ‘one of those posts’ about the value of doing research and some of… When I write a post that takes a stand or sheds light on an issue I always run the risk of getting the usual comments of “Oh, you are just being negative,” or “What gives you the right?” or “How dare you question the power of social media?” About 99% of the time these comments come from people who are trying to build an audience. You know the type. Everything is unicorns and rainbows and every shoot is perfection and photographic life is akin to a suburbia lifestyle catalog. When your business is on the line and you are trying to create a facade of happiness to gain more business I get it, but I don’t have to live like that. I’ve always tried to be honest and gaining followers is not my priority. I’ll take truth and honesty over followers any day, and I’ll never stoop to writing about equipment all the time. […]

  18. Erik Ahrend says:

    One day I woke up and realized how much I knew about the technical aspects of photography and how little I knew about….PHOTOGRAPHY. Two thounsand lenses, 750 MTF charts, a zillion camera iterations and a river of ink (bytes) later, my passion for photography, like love, without knowing why, died…Sold all my (massive) collection of gear and moved on to the next thing in life.

    Only recently, I got reacquinted with photography. I bought a decent small camera , just one (slowish) lens, and am having more fun than ever shooting a fraction of what I used to. I honestly think that the situations in which you are so limited by gear that you can’t take a decent shot are very few and apart, but if my lens happens to be too slow for the scene, I may as well sit down and enjoy the sunset… 🙂

    In such a mindset I (accidentally) came accross your site, and oh boy, has it been refreshing!! I have been slowly sipping coffee with your articles in my iPad whenever I had some time. I like your mages (though I confess that not always 🙂 I like your style, but above all I like the honesty in your approach to things. Thanks for the time and effort you put into this. I think I will be sticking around for a while….

    (Please do excuse my english, it’s a little bit rusty)

    • Smogranch says:

      No offense. If you like everything I do then you gotta get more critical!! I think you hit on the right word, or the one that I try to adhere to…honesty. It’s not easy, and continually keeps my followers coming and going, but that is also what makes it fun. I am waiting to get some gear back from Leiva. two R6’s and three lenses. I can’t wait to use this gear. However, I shot all weekend with an M4 and 50mm and never felt like I didn’t have what I needed.

  19. Tara says:

    You are such a breath of fresh air. I swear, if I continue to read your blog and soak in your words, I will be cleansed of everything that is being put in my brain.

    I know I am not the best photographer and I have A LOT to learn, but I work hard to do my research, and learn new things every day. Sadly…even the internet is becoming totally flooded with garbage, not just social media sites. I went to look up someone you mentioned earlier in the comments “Gene Smith”, and have the most difficult time finding some actual information about him.

    What I try to create is art, it’s things I see in my mind. I want to recreate moments in my imagination, but my work gets lost. People would rather look at terrible pictures of half naked girls…I have had people completely tear me apart because they don’t understand my work, but they support garbage. It’s confusing. There was even a time where I started editing my photos the way I thought people wanted to see them, and they loved them, but it was the worst feeling because it wasn’t what I really wanted to create.

    I remember watching a video of you…you mentioned telling a story through a series of photographs. That is when I started looking more into you, because that is always how I’ve done things, until other “photographers” started telling me that it was a terrible way to showcase your work, 1 or 2 photos per set was best. I listened…and yes, maybe that is better if you want more likes, but really if I keep doing that part of my story is missing.

    I just wanted to thank you for writing about what you believe in. You are brave and you are inspirational! I can’t wait to hear more from you.

    • Smogranch says:


      My bad….W.Eugene Smith. That will help. There is actually a fictional movie made about him, with an actor playing Smith, that blends many of his real images, life moments and dialoge from his notes. Worth seeing. You are speaking to several different things. If you want “likes” and an online following it is very easy. Short posts, write about gear, technology and do things like “top ten lists” or “Five Hints for Killer Post Production.” You will have instant audience, mostly male, mostly more concerned with the “how” than the “why.” If you want to learn photography, or art, that is an entirely different program and one that has NOTHING to do with any of the online stuff.

      To be perfectly honest, I’m not brave or anything special for that matter. I’m simply someone who puts his thoughts online. Glad you are following.

    • Tara says:

      Yes, I was talking about a lot. It all kind of got messy. I was just trying to say how easily it is to be taught the wrong thing now a days with so many decent photographers with bad advice.

      It took me a while to realize that the only way to be truly happy shooting, is to continue following my heart. It’s so easy to sell out now a days. You played a big role in this realization and for this I thank you! =)

      If you ever have the time, I would love to do an interview via email with you! I am trying to start a website/blog to promote art, and do interviews with real artists to shed some light on their experience in the industry. Not just photography either Graphic Design, Painters, Graffiti Artists.

      I feel like more people in the industry need to know who you are and hear what you have to say because it is a breath of fresh air. I believe you might be able to wake some people up!

    • Smogranch says:

      No worries. There are a lot of ultra talented folks out there making great work. They might not be known as photographers, but they are doing it for real. As you mention, art directors, designers, artists, etc. I find something almost everyday that makes me say “Wow.”

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