Is Social Media Detrimental to New Photographers?

Andy Adams of FlakPhoto asked recently which social media would photographers choose as an alternative, and which qualities they were looking for in a different platform. And I asked myself a very simple question: “Why would anyone join any in the first place?” It seems like it can only be for one reason—they aren’t making photographs for themselves, they’re making work for an audience of strangers and trying to be accepted.

Please like me.” That’s what it seems to me they’re saying again and again by posting. “I made something, here, see it and like it. Please. It’s a plea of desperation. “Tell me I’m good. If you do, then I’ll do it again, keep making more. Or at least more of the ones you like best.

But who are the ones being asked for approval? Are they even qualified to judge, or are they more people who don’t know good photography when they see it, and they just want to be liked as well?

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?

I’m in a fortunate position for sure. I’ve been a photojournalist for 35 years. I know how to use photographs to tell a story–I learned over many years of photographing. I don’t make test shots—there’s no such thing, test shots don’t exist. Bad photographs that get published are often called test shots.

I’m also fortunate in that I don’t need someone to tell me if my photographs are good. I know what good is and I know how to edit tightly–good editors are good photographers. I only show my best, not all. That’s something few upcoming photographers seem to be able to do, and it’s something that comes with experience. When you photograph news, sports and feature stories on a daily basis for New Jersey newspapers for 14 years, you get good at it.

Like the story of the Beatles–when they first started playing in Liverpool, they were ok. After they went to Hamburg and were playing at bars for eight hours a day for months at a time, when they came back to Liverpool, people there commented, “Look, the blokes can play their instruments.”

This is a good photograph of a couple of young film photographers. They’re learning to approach people to make street portraits and they approached me, to which I turned my camera back onto them. In Washington Square Park, NYC.

A PURPOSE MAKES A DIFFERENCE

I also have a reason to make photographs. I have an ongoing Roy Stryker documentary photo project, a series of portraits I make for The Wise Photo Project, as well as a Street Photography Gallery that’s been decades in the making. I have no reason to photograph a fireplug or telephone wires if they’re not part of a story for me, if there’s no point and I can’t use it.

All day long I see photographs of fireplugs and telephone wires by photographers who have no story to tell—they have no interest in those things, it’s that they just don’t know what to photograph and they want to push the button.

Photography used to mean cameras brought out on special occasions and were used to photograph our loved ones. Just a handful of times a year, which certainly meant fewer photographs overall, but they were photographs of people who meant something to us. We’ve devolved into a culture where photography is pushing the button, forming an image, and rushing to publish.

Meaningful images–not so much.

AN ARTIST HAS A RESPONSIBILITY TO TELL THEIR TRUTH

I’m bored by colorful sharp meaningless photos because they reveal nothing about the artist. They disappoint me because I miss out on meeting the artist. If you are “publishing” photographs that even you don’t care about, why are you doing it? You’re lying in a sense. Photography, like all art, assumes communication and revelation, and if asked, you’d admit you don’t care about that fireplug or telephone wire. It reveals nothing about you, not even your likes and dislikes. You just enjoyed being out pushing the button and were hoping for likes.

We are inundated with images like that. Photographs of nothing.

Being an artist comes with a responsibility, you wear a title that implies a voice, a person with something to say.

And yet if you post meaningless photos, it’s false–you don’t have anything to say. You’re asking viewers to enter your gallery only to show them untrue images.

Maybe you’re not experienced enough. Perhaps you’re not ready to be displaying photographs. Maybe you’ve opened the gallery too soon. You’re still learning how to tell a story. There’s time to get it right. Why rush to launch when you’ve only started building the vessel?

Perhaps that’s the hindrance of social media, it wants you to open your gallery on day one while you’re still learning how to use your camera.

WHAT DO BAD PHOTOGRAPHS COMMUNICATE?

If your photographs are bad, what if by posting them you’re telling the world you’re not an artist. You’re one that purports to have something to say but you don’t. All you have to say is you have a camera that can expose correctly.

If you buy a camera you own a camera. The device doesn’t make you a photographer any more than buying a violin makes you a musician.

You’re a wannabe. Great. That’s not a bad thing to be. I didn’t start out with experience, but I learned photography by studying lighting techniques and taking photography courses. I applied a lot of what I learned and tried things. And kept working and tried again. I didn’t publish any of that work. That’s the kind of work that belongs in the learning folder, out of public sight.

No matter whether they’re prints in an actual file folder (like when I started) or files in an online folder, some photographs are to learn with, not share. Because if you share them, and you’re not ready–you have no story to tell despite the fact you’ve lit the campfire, set up a scene, and asked everyone to gather around–the audience will quickly realize you have nothing to say. You’re a bad storyteller.

It’s like an author publishing their poor uncorrected first draft. The pro never does that. Bad writers do. In fact the pro knows that their first draft is no good and good writing is rewriting. Even the top authors, they know their first draft is not the place to make it perfect, that’s the place to get it started.

It’s the musician playing an unfinished song. The pro would never release it until it’s its best. Until all the nuance of the piece was worked out. Bruce Springsteen spent six months on Born to Run to make it a masterpiece.

And it’s a comedian trying out a new joke without properly setting it up. If it fails to get laughs, they have achieved nothing and gained no information about the joke because it wasn’t properly set up to succeed to begin with.

If that’s you with a great camera, putting out work before you’re ready, you’ve essentially stepped out onto the racetrack and have the car, the one-piece racer suit, and the helmet but you have no business being on the track behind the wheel. You look the part but you’re all show. You don’t know how to drive the equipment you’ve bought. Welcome to the world of racing, but you’re not ready to be on the track with experienced drivers.

SEPARATE THE PROS FROM THE UP AND COMERS

Maybe there needs to be one place for pros to post work and one for those learning. But, wait, that’s already what we have. It’s called social media. See, we don’t need one for the pros–they aren’t posting their work mining for likes. They have clients, both editorial and commercial. They have their own projects. They’re making work for books.

So, perhaps social media really is the playground for the newbies who have none of those places to put their work—no clients, no projects, no books. Their lack of experience means they may not know good photographs from bad and that’s in addition to the fact they have nothing to say. What they need more than new social media platforms is photo projects and places to show a completed body of work. Dedication to an actual photography goal that means something to them. Getting a gallery show scheduled that they have to produce the photographs for and gather with other photographers to talk about techniques and try some out.

Social media as it is today is full of people cheerleading though they have no experience or expertise in discussing good photography. They all tell each other, “Great photo,” only it’s also not true.

It’s another inexperienced racer telling you your car looks great and you’re going to do great. What do they know? They’re going to cause a wreck just the same as you. No wonder the pros stay away.

Social media is for people who have no other outlet for their work, which is also the greatest number of people with cameras. Which is exactly what they are, people with cameras. Not photographers. Not yet.

BECOMING A PHOTOGRAPHER

Can a newbie become a photographer? Absolutely. (And the world needs their voice!) But it’s not because their camera has a red dot or they bought that red-ringed Canon lens that makes them a photographer. Those things only mean they own a more expensive camera that they don’t yet know how to use. But they can learn.

Learning how to compose, and work with light, that’s all doable. Anyone can who puts in the work. It’s a skill that is 100% attainable. When you apply skills and start showing meaningful work, that’s the route to becoming a photographer.

It’s not a setting on the camera. It’s not some secret trick or a TOP 10 list that some YouTuber is promising is going to change your photography. It’s understanding light and storytelling, how to approach people and interact with them with a camera. It’s people skills as well as camera techniques.

When you put in the work, you learn to make images that matter to you and create work you like. It won’t matter if anyone else likes it. You will have intimate knowledge of the subject and you will have made something true to you. To your voice, your vision.

TELL ME WHAT YOU LIKE

Here’s why: I need to know what you like to know you.

If you tell me what you don’t like—this house sucks, this car stinks, this sandwich is lousy—you haven’t told me anything. You’re just a complainer. But if you tell me what you like—this chair, this TV, this bicycle—I can ridicule you if I disagree with you. “You like that car, Ha!, that’s a terrible car, you have terrible taste, you know nothing about cars.”

When you show me what you like you show me who you are. This is why the meaningless photographs are such a waste of my time—you don’t even believe in them, why are you showing them to me and wasting my time?

Unfortunately, most of the work we see presented to us is by those with nothing to say, who are marveling at the fact their camera can get focus and exposure correct. That’s not enough. That’s not photography. That’s a compliment to the camera engineers. Now, what are they going to do with it?

See, the problem is it resembles an image, but it’s without any meaning, it’s something less. It’s a test shot, which as I mentioned doesn’t exist photographically and should stay in the test shot folder and never see the light of day, because it is a photograph that not only means nothing to you but one that will bore any and all of us who come across it. Save it, learn from it and then store it somewhere for reference. You’re learning.

TELL THE TRUTH–YOUR TRUTH

Make work that shows your truth. Show your best work. It’s the only work worth showing.

The ones that have real meaning to you. Even if other people don’t like them, if they’re meaningful to you, that’s all that matters. You’re finding your voice.

I’ve had people tell me they like my work and others say they don’t. I tell them, “That’s okay, because I like it. Good luck finding something else you do like, there’s a lot of good work out there.” You can’t please everyone. You must please yourself.

That’s the realm of the photographer, the artist. “I have something to show you, something to say, and it’ll be worth your time, I promise. I know it’s significant because it’s deeply meaningful to me or I wouldn’t bother you with it.”

At the point where you can make the work you like, and can put it out, you won’t need strangers on social media to like it. What will matter is you like it and you’ll find an audience that likes your voice, your vision.

Then you’re a photographer. Perhaps realizing you’re not needing social media and its Likes to make it so.

These two young film photographers are learning how to meet people with their cameras, to talk to people in public to make street portraits. That’s a tremendous skill, one that comes from working on it, and learning what works and what doesn’t. It’s people skills with camera skills developed over time.

Instead of social media, I prefer a web site: KennethWajdaPhotographer.com.

8 thoughts on “Is Social Media Detrimental to New Photographers?

Add yours

  1. Really inspiring to read. As an amateur photographer, I too struggle with the current trends of social media, and at times confusing what I should show vs what I end showing. I take pictures of everything that grabs my attention, but many, many of them aren’t worth it. Hopefully some will, with time.

    Like

    1. You will get better because you’re watching and learning. I photograph things that grab my attention. That’s all we can do. Learning to see what matters to us, that’s what makes for meaningful photos. I run a monthly program for photographers in Boulder where we show work with a projector and screen and I often say the work people show says more about them than what the photos show. They say, “This is what I see to be valuable,” whether it’s a landscape or street photo or portrait. Thanks for your comment. Keep going. We need your unique vision.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In the non-photo job I have in Pre-Press for a commercial printer, I have had to do a lot of color correcting over the years. I find that I need to ask the client if what they feel, is it too red, is it to flat etc. I am blue-green color blind and taught myself to color correct based on numbers, but I do need input from a client to be successful. In the 90s I worked color correcting for a bunch of skin magazines, each book had a specific tone the wanted the models to be, I learned the numbers and could dial it in with great success.

    Listening is the biggest part of being a pro!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So many excellent points here. As Dan Milnor says, in so many ways, “I don’t need positive affirmation from people I don’t know,” when talking about social media. He is so against posting on social media as well because photographers should instead be working on projects, producing work for clients or learning so eventually they can attain clients.
    I was nodding my head in agreement with every point you made here and I especially love the analogies you’ve used.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kenneth,

    I enjoy the sense of ‘community’ that I find on SM, and I also think there are some people sharing genuinely good work, but that said, I can’t argue with you.

    I recently posted a portrait of a semi-famous chef that I was really proud of to Instagram with him tagged … And as a result it’s collected many more likes than any of my other work has.

    Does this make it a better image because more people that I don’t know like it? Nope.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: