Social media has affected societies in ways that perhaps not a lot of us have foreseen. Like a wave crashing over the shore, it has taken over many aspects of our personal, social, and creative lives. Photographers of this generation are not immune to this, as evidenced by the myriad of trends that pop up on Instagram, further magnified by YouTube. What sells on these platforms dictate a lot of what is made and gets passed around. This observation has led me to think about how we’re missing out on a lot of beautiful and authentic moments simply because we’re overlooking the mundane.
“I have always admired photographers like Vivian Maier, Martin Parr, and Garry Winogrand for the way their photos show the interesting side of everyday life. They remain some of the brilliant minds I turn to for inspiration and motivation to go out there, explore my city, and seek beauty in the ordinary.”
I know, I know. The mundane rarely makes for a compelling photograph or story. It doesn’t resonate as much as, say, an epic interstate road trip or a month spent touring vineyards across Europe. It doesn’t take precedence over photographing eye-opening and thought-provoking global matters like climate change or immigration issues. They are too familiar, too relatable, too common. It’s often forgettable and difficult to “sell.” This mentality was deeply ingrained in me from years’ worth of training, practice, and workshops as a writer. I lapped it all up, with the understanding that this will get me success as a writer and storyteller. If there’s nothing special, unique, or impressive about your story, it will most likely be binned by editors or lie forgotten in the deep folds of the Interwebs.
I think that has to change.
The Mundane Was All There Was
Back in the early days of street photography, photographers waded through the mundane because it was all there was for them to capture. Everyday life on the streets was their source of inspiration. They prowled their own cities extensively and built bodies of work around them. If they didn’t find something worth photographing today, they might find one tomorrow. Persistence is key. The habit of showing up — every day, if necessary — became an admirable display of discipline, and one of the legacies of street photographers of many decades past. I have always admired photographers like Vivian Maier, Martin Parr, and Garry Winogrand for the way their photos show the interesting side of everyday life. They remain some of the brilliant minds I turn to for inspiration and motivation to go out there, explore my city, and seek beauty in the ordinary. To make the most out of where I can go, what I can see, and what I can tell.
However, I do agree that certain locations are made for certain types of photography. That’s why many street photographers then and now find themselves ecstatic shooting in cities like New York, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. These places have always been bustling with activities — mundane and everyday as they are — that easily make for picture-perfect snaps. I wish we can all have the chance to fly ourselves to these destinations, as travel never fails to take us out of our own mundanity and into an unfamiliar one.
A Case for the Personal and the Everyday
Let’s face it: not everyone has the time or opportunity to find these extraordinary moments in the most Instagrammable places. This proves to be one of the main challenges for photographers seeking recognition, attention, and fame on social media. More and more of them are seeking moments that will get the most likes. As a result, certain genres like travel and street photography have become less candid and authentic.
This is one of the topics I thought about discussing with fellow Phoblographer staffer Dan Ginn, who I felt could give me some great insights since he’s more of a street photographer and candid photographer than I am. I agree with his observation that those who set their focus on capturing moments that are Instagrammable or extraordinary often tend to sacrifice their creative identity.
“They’re just another person in the large pool of photographers trying to get famous on the Internet,” Dan wrote to me. “Few are patient enough to do it the proper way, they prefer flash in the pan — doing what is popular now — rather than build a style.”
Of course, he sees this happening a lot in street photography as well. “The Saul Leiter style has become very popular, as has ‘minimalist street photography.’ The consequence is so many feeds are just a rip off of the others. There is no personality, no soul — it’s lifeless.”
“To connect to the mundane, you have to spend time with it. You have to observe it for longer. This culture does not exist anymore, online at least. It’s swipe, swipe, swipe. So, the more “Hollywood” shots occur because they can get attention quickly. Otherwise, the person has already moved on. Sad, really.”
Making the Mundane Memorable
Slow down. Don’t shoot to get daily shots. Life is long and we don’t need to be so fast-paced. These were Dan’s suggestions when I asked him what we can do to embrace the mundane and use it as a creative inspiration. He also mentioned spending more time in our communities, and I agree because that’s one of the things we are in dire need of today: human interaction. It builds personal connections that can lead to more unique and heartfelt stories. It helps people feel connected to something real.
“The word mundane isn’t negative. There are plenty of positives to get from every day,” Dan added. I totally agree with this, too. I fell into the trap once, and I am only beginning to unlearn all of it. I’ve found that it helps to adapt the following mindsets, for a start:
- Be decisive and intentional about it. Make sure that you want to tell a timeless story that resonates with you first before everyone else.
- Give it a personal touch. People tend to feel connected to you when you give a piece of yourself, so to speak.
- Sharpen your observational skills. It will take you some practice to learn how to sift through what’s happening around you.
- Be patient. It takes time to train your eye to see the stories hidden in plain sight.
- Challenge your perspectives. There’s always more than one way to look at things.
I don’t mean to say that the “Instagrammable” should be avoided altogether. I’m suggesting that we broaden our horizons, change our perspectives, and strive for personal authenticity instead of immediate popularity. My hope is that when we pick up a camera, our first thought shouldn’t be, “What could be a big hit to my followers or subscribers today?” Rather, it should be, “What do I want to tell the world today?” That could be something fished out of the humdrum of daily life.
Additional Reading: Boring Photographs