Social media is an ocean of unofficial experts and critics. It’s also a deep place with a lot of photographs due to social media relying on the visual grammar of instant gratification explaining to viewers, what, when, where, and how. Photography has been smacked with so many redefining elements that it would be solid to ask, what is a good, or even a great photograph? Who is a famous photographer? What is a professional photographer? On top of all of these questions would be: what about the self-esteem of a photographer on social media?
The self-esteem of a photographer in today’s social media climate consistently takes punches from every kind of opinion imaginable. Social media is a prime location where a photographer could discover viral fame, the commercial success of followers, working with magazines, and having a YouTube channel dealing out the cards of “how to become a successful photographer just like them.” It’s as if you’re weird for not having a photography marketing campaign, or if you’re a photographer without the desire of viral success.
As soon as a photograph appears on the newsfeed of a social media website, the attention span for embracing a photograph can be gone within a few hours, unless the marketing of the person photographed has the playing card with a “broke the Internet” style written all over it. Right there, the photographer could be looked at as if they are a machine. “Are all of these the photos? Can I have all of them? I can edit them myself,” would be the sort of dialogue any given photographer can hear on a daily basis.
Where does this leave the photographer? Mentally, where is the photographer’s self-esteem? It is my opinion that the photographer has to be tougher than ever when roaming through this social media climate. The photographer has to figure out their way into shutting their ears off when they are seeing with their eyes. The concentration of the photographer in a world where social media is louder than reality is a necessity.
Once upon a time, there was eye contact in a classroom where critiques were discussed. We could hear the voices of fellow photographers or the professor, as well as the learning curve being communicative to everyone within the circle of photographers learning the medium. This is not to say photographers were not sensitive about their work before social media became the world’s portfolio. I am just stating that the photographer physically knew who was looking at their work, whether in a classroom or inside of the office of a publication, with an editor sitting behind a desk. The photographer knew the faces and voices of those who enjoyed or did not enjoy their work.
Someone sitting anywhere in the world could lay out the work of a photographer. As far as we know, they could be of any age, might log out of social media, and could not care less about art or photography. They just want to rumble and disrupt the comment section under your photography post. Call it trolling, being a gadfly, starting arguments, or whatever you wish to call it; the photographer has no control over how their photographs will be understood or misunderstood. The conning of text is the new, clever, and controversial way of taking things out of context in any given social media site with a comment section.
Today’s photographers can easily be influenced by what is trendy in the photography world. This is why so many online articles are aimed at the newest camera or some technical fortune cookie explaining how to photograph the “correct” way. Hashtags, photographing celebrities, or wanting VOGUE to notice your photography — all with the hopes of becoming a camera company’s spokesperson — can distract the photographer into focusing on approval ratings. Down into the hands of a social media following that might be cheering their photography today but disrespecting their work tomorrow.
It would not be flying to the moon to admit that photographers are carrying the weight of keeping a brand. On top of that, the photographer must be a business person who has to stay newsworthy and competitive within a network that requires the upkeep of their social media following. All of this digs into a path that has them doing everything except growing into the photographer they always wanted to be. The burnout rate for a photographer can arrive as quickly as the strobe they use in their photography sessions.
It is as if the photographer’s self-esteem is lowering itself into various brackets that quietly accept the backlash of “my phone can take clearer photographs” from clients who look at themselves all day. They have a personally biased vision on how they should look in every single photograph because the camera does the work, not the photographer. Every photographer who knows how to remove a lens cap from their camera will clearly know that the camera is just the wall of vision. It is the photographer who sees through the wall. X-Ray vision, knowing how to count time, innate or well-trained visual awareness — whatever it may be, the photographer knows the moment.
Of course, there is an area of photography that covers the gimmick, sales-pitch, lack of needing to be original — areas which are entertaining. However, the gimmicks and trends of photography on mainstream social media have created the perception that a large social media following can make you a photographer. Therefore, one cannot point the finger at the almighty dollar and blame the fancy fame that is bigger than ever for someone with clever marketing sense and a camera. Society’s disposable ways of mistreating photography play an instrumental role in why the famous photographer of today makes it look as if their success and connections arrived overnight.
Let us not forget the artist who is a photographer — the same photographer who may have other jobs or deal with grants, possibly living a life where fame and a lot of money don’t explain their passion for photography. The business aspect of modern photography has social media influencers offering the “Look at me, I have a million followers and no budget, but if you photograph me, I will give you credit on my postings” negotiation chip that leaves a lot of photographers seeing a way to cross-promote their services. If I could get 10% of that influencer’s following to hire me, waiving my fee for them right now will be profitable for me down the line.
If there’s anything required from a photographer today, it would be to try abstaining from reading the comments and trends and believe in their eye instead. The photographer has to defend their work without being defensive. Furthermore, the photographer has to stand up for their work and not fall into the trenches of acceptance. The dislike or lack of likes isn’t attaching its so-called viral success to your work. So what if your photograph has 10 likes or you have 100 followers? If you are doing the photography that is unique to you, if you are gathering business, or you find some form of happiness by picking up a camera as a hobbyist, then your photographer’s self-esteem is calmly residing in an extremely happy and priceless place.
The camera or gadget won’t ever replace the happiness in knowing that you love photography. When you know your work, you know your self-esteem.
Words and film photography by Shaun La. Used with permission.
Shaun La is a photographer & writer. Starting off with the medium of photography at the age of 18 (20 years ago) with a Minolta Hi-Matic & 135 film, the desire to see the moment became a way to envision the possibilities in wanting to be a timer awaiting to see if he could photograph more moments.
His photography extends into fashion, street, photojournalism, landscape, still-life & candid realities — still utilizing film cameras only, 135 & medium-format film. As a writer, he has penned numerous essays on various topics, which has been published by the Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Sun, Afro-Punk, Camera Obscura & other media outlets.
Currently he is working on his book, “The Perpetual Intellectual View Called Photography: Essays,” & putting together the building blocks for an upcoming exhibition on his Photography.