Last Updated on 09/19/2018 by Mark Beckenbach
Today’s reality for photographers on social media, revolving around immediate reward and recognition, might fool you into thinking that your primary challenge is attention.
It’s a trap, don’t fall for it. The world of digital noise makes it easy to lose focus and blur your vision. It was never so tempting to mistake publicity for value. Facebook and Instagram do not care about your photography when they set or change rules. As useful and important as these platforms are, their sole purpose is a purely commercial operation specifically designed to make you come back as often as possible to spend more time there. I did not fall in love with photography to satisfy an algorithm whose primary purpose is to create more advertising revenue. I am the owner of the process and the purpose.
I spent many year in the political wars of the corporate world. The struggle for positions, rewards, and trophies is an exhausting and draining process. At some point I had to ask myself why I was so engaged in this environment and more so, what I was getting from it in the end. I made a decision to quit a job that many wouldn’t dare to walk away from. I explained to friends and family that I felt I had no choice but to return to the core of what drives me in the first place and to choose a different path.
Way back, everything started for me with discovering the fascination of creativity. Raw energy was to be funneled into creative execution; politics were not a dominating factor in the process. Once I decided to skip out on the corporate world, I figured that in my new environment (the world of photography), I could avoid any and all similar dynamics. Creativity, creation, and any kind of negative competition are no friends; they repel each other. It was time for a reset on priorities.
Starting out in photography meant taking pictures for two years straight without showing the results to anyone. It was only about creating images and enjoying the process of doing so. It was a great and peaceful time and I managed to return to a place where I could re-define my way forward. I was, as I am still today, driven by capturing “the image“ and that was all that mattered. It allowed me, to a degree, to ignore my own insecurity in regard to my freshly discovered photography and shoot away without any disturbances.
Once I had the confidence and also felt the need show my work, I realized that the process of being a photographer does not stop with taking images; it only starts there. And that’s where old and too familiar dynamics started to creep in again. Going forward, it was time to define priorities to avoid repetition.
When I started building a very small team to work with me on my photography, I had long discussions with my editor on defining approaches going forward. One of the key inputs I received early on was that I should stick to my eye, develop my style. and then bring it to the level where it is applicable to a wide range of subject matters. It became clear to me that true interest in any photographer’s work will not happen because they execute or re-create this year’s hip style or adapt their photography to the newest, shiniest, most award-promising approach, not because they post once or twice a day to get more attention.
Much as with music, we will not be able to remember the summer hit from two decades ago, but we will remember any well crafted and outstanding classic album forever. That helped in setting priorities. How could we follow a different photography trend each year and what would it do for us a photographers? More importantly, what would it not do for us as photographers? Powerful photography is often the result of pursuing and shaping one particular basic visual approach and making it applicable to a wide range of subjects. That required definition and re-definition of the work over a long period of time. We need to be able to fail, reset, fail again, and develop. Following trends or investing a lot of time in selling yourself on social media is fundamentally distracting in this process. There is a right time for everything and a right motivation for everything: choose your battles wisely.
“Yes, self promotion is part of a photographer’s life, but you decide how much substance your creations have before you showcase them, and why and where you choose to show them.”
So I did not post one single image on Instagram for a year. One day during that year, I received a DM on Instagram. “I have not seen any images of yours for a while, do you still shoot?” I responded, “Yes, I am actually busy shooting and spending less time on social media.” I asked myself, “Would Robert Frank would go out motivated to shoot because he did not post for a while to keep his relevance up?” To me relevance comes from the work itself; its purpose, its why. I am not an entertainer, I am a creative person in love with photography. When I try to communicate with my images I wish it will be heard. Therefore, I, myself, cannot be the constant, never ending chit chat that persistently whistles “look at me!”
More often than not, failing will drive you forward. Adapting your photography to be liked will rob you of the opportunity to fail. There is a not so thin line between wanting yourself to be know and wanting your work to be known. I believe we need to set our priorities right. I decided to invest my energy into producing work that communicates and ideally resonates. And I want to get better at this even if it means failing. That is my primary focus as a photographer. If I am not on Instagram for a while, I am fine and I know why. I am working on creating something that ideally talks to you, instead of talking to you about it, and I cant wait to show it to you when it is ready and to tell you all about it.
Yes, self promotion is part of a photographer’s life, but you decide how much substance your creations have before you showcase them, and why and where you choose to show them. That is a privilege, not a burden. A multitude of groups, lists, hubs, and competitions crown numerous kings and queens of photography on a daily basis. I follow a lot of them and am part of some. I love to see amazing pictures and I thank all the administrators and curators out there for pointing out great work. You truly do make a difference and your work matters. The problem is not the offering but might rather be our own priorities as photographers. Do not underestimate the importance of sticking to your core spiel to maneuver trough this from the very start. In the long term, it is your anchor point whenever things get tough, reminding you of what matters going forward when the noise creeps in.
Things are not so different in the photography world from the corporate world and so it’s important to set your own priorities and to stick to them in the long term. Let’s differentiate between seeking fading attention and lasting respect for your work; that should set some priorities by itself. Priorities matter to me, as I am not planning to walk away from this. Ever.
All images and words by Jens Krauer. Follow him @urbanframes