A Personal Story: Social Media is So Incredibly Toxic to Photographers

“Today, it seems to me that the only thing people care about is building their audience.”

Two years ago, you couldn’t find me without a camera. Throwing a party? I’ll photograph it. Need a new profile picture? I got you. After a year or so, I really found myself drawn to photographing people. I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people, hell, I’ll even go down to my local watering hole solo just to see if I meet anyone interesting. Beautiful landscapes do change, but are mostly static during each season; humans, however, are dynamic, and that fascinates me. If I could aspire to be known for one thing, it would be bringing out emotion and personality from people in a simple portrait.

Social Media and My Genuine Disdain for it as a Photographer

Admittedly, it’s been difficult finding time to be creative lately. Being a full time worker and a full time student is no easy task. When I was really starting to dive into photography, I found myself chasing trends online to try and build an audience. These days, I can’t even bring myself to be interested in spending all my time building a social audience. I want to take pictures of people (mostly); I want them to be honest and bring out peoples’ real personalities. I think humans are fascinating, and every day we seem to be drifting further and further apart from one another, and that just wears me out. Why scroll through a bunch of photos of people who have curated their lives for a thumbnail sized photo on the internet, when you can talk to real people, in real life, who have real stories. Does that make sense? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-social media, but I think we could all do a little better job balancing our online personas with our real lives. The lines are already starting to blur.

“I always assumed you got hired based on your talent and work, not the number of followers you have.”

There is much scientific data to support a strong connection between your gut and your brain, and to me, mental health and creativity have the same type of connection. My mental status can have a huge impact on my creative process. Recently, I had an idea for a piece of music; I was out working, so I hummed my idea into my phones voice memo app, and made a few notes about it. I kept singing the idea in my head all day. On my way home, I heard one song on my playlist that reminded me of a pretty terrible (and very fresh) life event which sent me into a tailspin. My mind was so cloudy and preoccupied thinking about that negative experience, that I couldn’t focus on something creative I had been looking forward to all day. Instead, I put off all my responsibilities, closed my laptop, and watched hours of Netflix. Complete waste of time. Maybe not everyone reacts this way, and that’s fine, I think mental health issues affects everyone differently. It’s important to recognize how things affect you. Creativity is not always impacted negatively during times of struggle: think about all the great creative work that comes from tragedy. It’s interesting to dissect which events in our lives cause our creativity to whither, and which events cause it to bloom.

Social media has affected me (and I think many of us) in many ways, and not just as a photographer. I find myself just scrolling and scrolling and tapping and swiping, and I don’t even know why. Now that I’m a little older (31 if it matters), I find myself caring less and less about “playing the Instagram game.” Instagram, especially, seems like a losing battle anyway. From what I understand about the algorithm, the only way to really make any headway is to either get reposted/tagged/or shoot someone “insta-famous,” or spend ungodly amounts of time engaging people on the platform. I’ve shot a couple (2) of actually famous people, and it didn’t do much for me, and I definitely don’t have the time (or desire) to spend all day online trying to engage an audience. Life is short, we shouldn’t have to live it on our screens.

“At this point I just sound like I’m complaining, and maybe I am, but creating something you love seems way more important to me than something that fits in with “the popular kids” of social media.”

This is where I must toe the line between being a creative, and monetizing my work. Today, it seems to me that only thing people care about is building their audience. I get it, it can lead to some great opportunities. A question I had to ask myself this year was, “What’s my endgame?” Honestly, I don’t have an answer for that, but I can say that I want to do work that I like. Periodically I try to research things like, “What’s the best hashtag,” or, “What types of photos play into Instagram’s algorithms?” I find that every time I spend time working on my social media audience, I just get bummed out. I scroll through endless accounts with images that all look similar, and start comparing my following with theirs. That feeling is terrible. I have friends who have been turned down for gigs because they didn’t have a big enough following; I always assumed you got hired based on your talent and work, not the number of followers you have. At this point I just sound like I’m complaining, and maybe I am, but creating something you love seems way more important to me than something that fits in with “the popular kids” of social media.

Focusing on Myself and Rebuilding as a Photographer

Recovery is like swimming in a lake; sometimes it’s warm, sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s piss. Being depressed is something I think people naturally want to fight against, but I think it’s important to just feel everything. For me, it comes in waves, and when I start feeling it, I’ve been doing my best to recognize the feeling, and just letting it take my mind wherever it needs to. This is not always fun, but I think it’s important. As for rebuilding, I’m not sure there is too much to rebuild. I don’t have a business per se, so I think rebuilding for me is just getting back to that feeling of joy I get from being behind a camera. I used to gleefully carry around my camera everywhere, and had no reservations in taking any photo of anything or anyone. Lately, I’ve been rather introverted, which is a bit out of character for me, and it’s also affected the way I communicate while taking photos (and in general). When I first picked up a camera, I couldn’t wait to take the photo, it never mattered what it was. That’s where I want to get back to, and build from there.

I am captivated by the industry and business itself, which I know goes against my whole creativity first narrative, but it’s true. I’m not saying I am the best photographer, or at all deserving of truly professional gigs, but it does shock me sometimes who I see online deeming themselves photographers (I think there was a great article on the site about photography with a capital P). The tools for creating images have certainly improved as of late, but I am still of the mindset there is no such thing as a “bad camera,” only “bad images.”

Since I want to both be creative and make money doing something I love, I suppose I should figure out how to make that happen. So, I’ve been really exploring the best practices for branding and marketing, and trying to carve out a space for my style of work in the world of photography.

So here’s what I’m trying to do to improve myself as a photographer:

  1. Shoot every day.
  2. Finally experiment with on/off camera lighting.
  3. Be less afraid of asking people to take their picture.
  4. Shoot more film.
  5. Experiment with different mediums for printed work (mixed media).
  6. Have a showing/exhibit.
  7. Write down ideas as they come to me.
  8. Stop comparing my work to others.
  9. Explore new editing techniques.
  10. Stop looking for validation from others/social media.

I’ve been starting to write down my ideas (photography or otherwise), and that has been a huge help creatively. I’m typically not the most organized person, so having lists is a strategy I will continue to use. I won’t be comparing my work to others anymore, it’s a bad habit. I do enjoy looking at other peoples’ work, learning from it, being inspired or turned off by it, but not as a comparison tool. I think when you play the Instagram game, it’s easy to find yourself shooting things that would work well into the Instagram algorithm; I fell into this, and was just shooting boring stuff that had been done time and time again. I’ve removed most of that work. I do still use hashtags, because like it or not, I believe an audience is at least somewhat important.

For even more from Nathan Hostetter, check out his website and follow him on Instagram