A simpler way to significance
“Twelve significant photographs in any year is a good crop”.
Words by Ansel Adams that I’m sure are familiar to most photographers. As each calendar year draws to a close, the above quote prompts a detailed examination of my Lightroom catalogue for that year as I seek to evaluate whether my efforts have resulted in a “good crop”.
It probably didn’t help that towards the end of 2016 I was in the middle of a photographic low but when I studied my work for the year I found it incredibly difficult to find even 3 images that I rated as significant in my own creative journey - the above image was one of the 3 I settled on . I do accept though (speaking from a more positive mindset now) that I generated quite a good crop last year but when I consider the images I posted, like most photographers who are active on social media platforms, I shared well in excess of this crop.
Social media has contributed to the mass production of images by photographers, myself included at times. This is only to be expected though, surely? We live in a world where we have come to expect instant gratification. We can order a product from an online retailer and get it delivered to our door within 24 hours. No! Scrap that, we can get it delivered to our door (by a drone) within a 2-hour window of ordering the product! Similarly the age of digital photography means we can see our images seconds after pressing the shutter, we can easily and quickly transfer them to our editing software on our mobile devices and soon afterwards we have a image that we can share on social media.
So we post this image we’ve created and we can receive almost immediate likes and shares, all over the world (of the internet). Wow! This must mean that our image is wonderful, hugely significant to the world of photography…yes? No…. of course it doesn’t. Whilst the instant gratification of social media may feed our need for acceptance and praise it essentially means very little. It doesn’t always mean that a follower actually ‘likes’ our image.
A wise man (my husband) recently ran a poll on Twitter asking followers to vote on what they used Twitter’s like button for. Less than half (49%) of the 79 who voted (the majority of these users being photographers) opted for “to show I really like the tweet”. The poll identified that a popular use of the like feature was to use it as a bookmark, to save tweets for later and 15% admitted to liking images just to show they either agreed with the tweet or to show they had seen it.
Considering this, it becomes crystal clear – if it wasn’t before and just in case you were under any misconception of the meaning of likes – that the number of likes an image may have, on social media, holds very little meaning.
So why do we post so many images?
Quite simply, we’ve got to. We have followers to keep. If we don’t broadcast our early morning shoot experience and follow it up with a subsequent image by 2pm we’ll lose followers and be considered a lesser photographer.
This sounds absolutely ridiculous, doesn’t it? That’s because it is ridiculous.
Sadly this is a feeling that a number of photographers have confirmed they feel through actual words in a discussion that have taken place in real life (that’s away from the Internet).
Along with this view of needing to prolifically post images, there’s also a belief (I was inclined to use the term ‘urban law’) that if you’re a photographer who is active on social media you have to participate in one or all three of the weekly photography competitions run on Twitter.
Now, let’s consider Adams’ words above – “12 significant images”. Even allowing for holidays and life to get in the way of us entering these weekly competitions, 40 weeks of the year of this mass production for weekly competitions gives us 120 images, assuming that different images are entered for each competition. There’s a feeling that you have to do this. To enter one image a week in all competitions means you’ve only created one image that week that’s worthy and that’s considered by some to be poor and even worthy of an apology by the photographer.
Of course we’re all individuals and that mass production of images is going to work for some. For some it encourages getting out each week with the camera and that’s great. However I can’t ignore the weekly uproar that results day brings. The wave of negativity that engulfs my computer when the shortlists or results are announced makes me question why come people create images. Is it purely to win a weekly competition? What does that mean anyway?
Let’s remember here that art is subjective. Okay, I know that’s not rocket science and it’s a phrase that is so often bounced around social media platforms but it’s true and I think it needs mentioning here. Success in weekly social media competitions means one thing. It means someone liked your image and chose to shortlist it or vote for it as their favourite. That’s all. I’m sorry to disappoint you but it doesn't mean anything more.
If you have created an image that speaks to you, that you love and that you would happily print large and hang in your home, it should not matter whether that image is chosen as a favourite by someone else. Remember being a teenager and experiencing the pain of unrequited love? No? Oh was that just me then? Well, just as we can’t expect to always have our feelings reciprocated we can’t expect everyone to love the images we love. Putting that down on paper makes it sound so simple and so obvious yet it seems we often forget that, come results day.
Now it may come as a surprise to you when I say that I choose not to participate in these weekly competitions. I have done so previously though. I was swept along by the tweeted love of these competitions by some photographers on social media that I admired. I’d look at the beautiful landscape images posted each week and think “I want to create something that gorgeous. I must therefore enter this competition, like they do. Then they will choose to speak to me, they might even like one of my images”. I like to think I’ve grown up a little since that time. I can still admire those stunning landscapes but I can now be confident in my own creativity and recognise that my photographic style and eye is individual to me. It won't be appreciated by everyone and I'm more than okay with that.
Rather ironically, I won a weekly competition once. The aluminium print that was given to me after the competition’s annual exhibition still hangs on a wall in my home, not a significant wall I might add but a wall all the same. It hangs there to remind me to be confident enough to walk down my own, sometimes meandering creative journey. It’s an ‘okay’ image but its success in the competition means nothing to me. It means nothing to me because I don’t love the image. Hell, I don’t even like it and I certainly don't care whether anyone else likes it. It’s a colour image of a sunset featuring a swan. It makes me want to stick pins in my eyes…okay I’ve probably taken the negativity a little too far with that comment but I hope you get the picture.
So for the reasons outlined above I really feel that social media forces us photographers to lower the bar in our creativity and the quality of the images we share.
So how do we pull ourselves out of this cycle?
I’m not going to suggest that we only share the best crop of our work. Whilst I do believe that a great many of photographers overshare on social media and we need to be more ruthless in culling our image catalogue to raise our standards, I accept that sharing images contributes to a vibrant, online community of photographers that has so much to give to the genre and our own development.
I do feel however that we need to continue to learn and grow as photographers. Before we share an image we should examine it for something we love. Now that might not be the entire image. Perhaps you’ve captured the light beautifully. Maybe the composition is well thought though or maybe it’s the processing – a B&W that looks how you envisaged it in your mind. What’s that? You didn’t envisage the image in your mind before processing it? That’s another blog post…. Maybe you’re really pleased with some of the technical elements of the image? Now this may not mean that the image falls within your good crop of 12 images a year (for example) but there’s something there you can build on, to learn from and be satisfied with.
Maybe as photographers we should post more of our thoughts with our images – to explain what we’re pleased with in our images or what we wish we had done differently and how we’re going to learn from our experiences? This would give us more of an opportunity to learn from others. It would be so helpful for others also if we took a little time to comment meaningfully on images, rather than the obligatory ‘like’ and ‘super capture/great light/good work’ type comments that so many of us (me included) are guilty of posting.
So, returning to Adams’ quote, even in today’s world where film costs and exposure limitations don’t restrict our photography (for most), having a crop of 12 significant images a year is I feel even more pertinent. Perhaps the more we cull our substandard work and share less images to satisfy our own need for approval and self-worth, the more able we’ll be to take notice of the significant images and utilise the power of social media in a more positive, less saturated way.