The Social Photographer

This post was compiled via personal experience, observation and conversations with a range of other creatives. I posted yesterday and today simply to offer a differing opinion on the dominant current of the moment, a current centered around over-sharing, immediacy and the social media life.

The “Social Photographer” continued from the previous post….

The photographer I mentioned before began to haunt my thoughts. The BEST work he ever did, by far, was back when he could not see his images in the field. He would just work, work, work and then ship film, or travel back with it. There was the time waiting for the processing, the printing or proofing. His thoughts would be on the film, what he had or didn’t have. There was chance and the unknown and all of these things forced him to think about this work. Then there was the edit, the ALL POWERFUL EDIT. Sometimes he would undertake this on his own and other times he would work with editors. There was limited space in the publications he worked for so the images that made it were given thought, even though sometimes the best pictures weren’t used.

Then came digital and it’s immediate opportunities. But there was still time. He would shoot and shoot, coming back to his hotel at night to download, EDIT, and transmit a chosen FEW images. As the technology began to invade his world the timelines began to shorten. Sometimes he would shoot for minutes, transmitting from the field to save precious seconds. Suddenly, in some ways, TIME became the key element of his life. Perhaps lack of time.

And then came the mobile phone, with true immediacy, and absolutely no filter and no barrier between he and his audience, the world. The traditional outlets, like the magazines he worked for, are bottlenecks of information, operating in many ways like the calendar reads 1975. With the mobile phone and the Internet the barrier was gone. He began to shoot and share. Immediately. This new found ability was like a drug and the intoxication followed shortly thereafter with the soothing warmth of the “like.” “Wow, a lot of people like my work.” But financially things got worse. How could this be? The pipeline for “content” a word that slipped into the vernacular of the industry, was wide and growing wider. He needed to post more. Posting became a daily event, sometimes dozens and dozens of shares were needed to keep the “flow” of information going. If something wasn’t getting enough likes it was taken down and replaced with something easier, something more fashionable. Suddenly the statistics were what was driving the “content.”

He began to realize he needed to post ONLY a certain type of image, and certain times of the day or night were more beneficial than others. He loved his dog, really loved him, but knew if he posted anything of his precious companion he would lose a certain subset of his audience, watching as his Twitter following decreased forcing him to post “rebuilding” posts, or images, that would drive the count back up. There was the competition for followers with his colleagues. After all, people were watching those numbers, corporations, potential clients who would ask “What kind of social following does he have?” “Is he SCALEABLE as a photographer?” “IF we hire him, will he bring his own following?” But there is a hiccup here, a generation gap. Many of the clients asking about this stuff sounded as if they just discovered social media the week before. They are in their 50’s, or God forbid…their 60’s (although their account execs are in their 20’s and want to keep their jobs.) don’t have time for the “nonsense” themselves, but know their readership or potential customers seem to love the stuff, so the photographer they hire should have a following. “Let the photographer mess with that stuff, we just want to SELL.”

Then the photographer finds himself alone and wondering. Thinking back to the days in school when he was pure of heart. He didn’t have the skill yet, or the knowledge required to navigate the world as someone put on the Earth to tell stories, but he knew in his heart it was what he was chosen to do. Life at that time was a fog of ONLY photography. The rest of life went by like it was someone else’s story, an inconvenience because anything that stood in the way of the images wasn’t to be factored in, couldn’t be factored in. He didn’t expect anyone else to understand. This was HIS world.

And now it’s all changed. The electronic umbilical cord can’t and won’t be denied. He wakes up each morning and instead of looking for his loved one, or his dog, he reaches for his phone because the charade doesn’t sleep. Like King in Platoon said, “The Beast is out there tonight, and he’s hungry.” Take even a SINGLE day off and he risks being forgotten, trampled in the running of the digital bulls.

Well folks, I say ENOUGH . As you know, I left photography over three years ago(Now I’m back.), and from where I view things now, think 10,000 feet birdseye, I look back on the industry and can see things those mired in the trenches cannot. I not only SEE these things, I hear them on a weekly sometimes daily basis. I listen. A lot. And I watch. But most of all I wonder how people allow themselves to be sucked into all this? Yesterday it happened again. Someone contacts me and says they are going to dip their toe in the digital stream. No matter what I say they will take that fateful step. I warn of diminishing impact, of being lost in the Internet jungle, but it always bounces off. “I’m only going to do such and such for “x” amount of time.” And then, like a whisper, they are gone. Instead of reading or talking or browsing the world they find themselves sitting at a dinner party reaching for their phone to check their Facebook page.(This happened last night.) They mumble through their conversation. They seem distracted, agitated because they can’t focus on ANYTHING. Their thumb moves up and down, trained to flick at content like a nervous tick. Their vocabulary suddenly takes on things like “wow,” “amazing” and “unreal,” words now firmly planted in their brains from their social feedback, words used to deflect conversation because they weren’t really paying attention in the first place.

Someone called me the other day and asked about a certain photographer. My response was “You will never get his undivided attention.” This didn’t mean the client wasn’t going to call this photographer, it just meant their communication had to be tailored to FIT. If you think this is crazy, think again. I have to do this ALL THE TIME as I navigate the world as a Blurb faithful. It’s just part of the job now. And people, just know, I’ve dealt with almost all of these issues myself at some point in the last ten years. I was lucky. I saw these things happening to friends and colleagues and said “I gotta make changes…now.” And I did, further evidenced by my severing of all(almost) things social media.

Many of the photographers I know, if given time and peace of mind, will come up with the goods. In a perfect world I could change things, figure out a way to get this done, but the reality is, most of the time, when I even bring these things up, the response is attack. “Who is this guy?” “He’s a nobody.” “He’s a hater or a luddite.” Maybe.

I’m also a listener and a watcher. I’m a refined observer. And there is absolutely no way you are going to tell me this isn’t happening. But I’ll leave you with a question or two.

Where is this headed? What is the endgame? Can you take in more content than you are right now, right this second? Do you see a world where your mobile phone becomes MORE of a part of your life, and does this world seem like a place you want to live in? Do you see your life’s work getting more attention or less? Are real changes being made or are things just being tossed around more?

The reason I ask these things is when I ask real questions about today’s issues, it’s rare I get any real response other than bewilderment. Poverty in New Mexico, air pollution in San Francisco, NSA spying or financial world shenanigans and so often there is just NOTHING coming back at me. Everyone knows when the new iPhone is scheduled for release, but nobody can pinpoint what is actually happening with troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Now look, I waste my fair share of time. I can recite every line of “Step Brothers,” and probably will many more times before I die, but I’m starting to look around and wonder. Are we talkers and sharers or are we doers? I just bought a teen love novel by accident, on my Kindle, and I KNEW something was wrong ten pages in but I READ THE ENTIRE DAMN THING. Now I feel dirty and used. I make mistakes all the time, so not wanting to paint myself as a saint, or more worldly than I am.

Where does this leave us? Don’t know. I think there is a difference in bringing up poignant questions and being a contrarian. I’ve been accused of being a contrarian, but what I’ve found is that most of the people accusing me see the same holes in the narrative that I do, but they are trapped and pretending it’s only a flesh wound.

I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna close my eyes and I’m gonna think of this photographer one more time. I’m going to dream “best case scenario” and I’m gonna work backwards and see if I can’t find a path worth taking.

10 Responses to “The Social Photographer”

  1. mike a says:

    Brilliant as usual.

  2. Dottie says:

    You’ve described yourself as a “listener and a watcher… a refined observer.” These are the exact qualities that make your photographs outstanding and distinguishable and probably the very same qualities that make you a good writer and storyteller. It is interesting to read about how other people also struggle to find a balance between life and work and social media. When I was living in a tiny village in a remote part of Tanzania, my solar power supply was limited to 20 or 30 minutes of “computer/internet” time per day and not even every single day. It was definitely the happiest year of my life. I felt free to be present in the moment and to make one on one connections with the people around me. Those personal connections helped me make more honest photographs. Back home in America I struggle with the deluge of information that is constantly bombarding me. There seems to be (real or imagined) pressure to try and keep up and even to compete, even when I know there is no real value to it. Every now and then though, I come across a blog or a photograph or a recommendation for a book or magazine article that inspires me or reminds me of something I’ve forgotten, and for that, I am grateful. Thank you for making me stop and think.

    • Smogranch says:

      Dottie,
      Africa sounds fantastic. One thing I’ve noticed is that most of my world now is within a few feet of where I sit, namely my computers. Last night I went for a walk and ended up in a marsh area overlooking a huge inland bay. The space alone was so different from what I’m used to it almost made me dizzy. I don’t try to keep up with anything any longer. Well, breathing.

  3. lionelB says:

    This is parallel to the way politics has developed. The world divides into dog lovers and cat lovers. The problem with the dog on social media is that it alienates that half of the audience that has fond feelings towards cats. The solution ? Meerkats.
    Culture is the same. Provincial theatres have to use C-list TV celebrities or have empty houses.
    It isn’t baked in though. Picture Post was a mass circulation magazine in the UK [1.7 million copies within two months of launch] which showcased high quality photography. It cost the same as one and a half loaves of bread. Affordable but not insignificant.
    The content reflected back what people saw in their everyday lives or showed the everyday in other parts of the globe. It triggered the simple pleasure of recognition.
    Content today centres around distraction, not recognition. Images are about things staged or imagined, not things observed. Maybe our attention span didn’t decline. Maybe these two things (the familiar and the distracting) stimulate two very different parts of the brain, one with a much shorter attention span than the other ?

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      It’s possible. I think it also speaks to the idea of forming a version of yourself. I know several people who spend a lot of time on social, who present themselves as one person, but in reality they are FAR different. I see a lot of pros creating “teaching” versions of themselves so they can fill workshops. I’m over it. It’s more phony photography business nonsense.

  4. Paul says:

    I can’t tell you how long I have been thinking the same things. So glad to see somebody post something like this.

  5. Paul says:

    I need to find those doors…

    • Smogranch says:

      Paul,
      I find the pros have to live dual lives. Public/social media and the the reality side. They often times don’t overlap. We live a life of being like covered in endless promotion, but the key is finding the really high level folks who are still making their own work. The art world is also home to these folks.

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