I’m sure I’m not the first one to write on this topic, but it’s been something that I’ve been thinking about in my own photography for the past year and a half or so. Instagram is one of the best marketing tools we use to communicate about our company. But I’ve noticed that there is something of an “Instagram effect” to the way in which people live. I’ll go into what I mean in more detail below.
Are we living for social media or for ourselves?
Several months ago when my wife and I were in Guangzhou, China for the adoption of our little boy, I noticed a scene unfold before me that was very unusual. A fashionably dressed woman was standing in front of a wall and her five year old son was taking pictures of her, at the mother's direction, as she struck different poses. While I have no idea if these were for social media or not, it seemed as though this was not this little boys first rodeo of doing this for his mother. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, for a son take a picture of his mother, it made me wonder - are we living for social media posts - for our lives to be on display to others through a phone screen - or are we actually living the lives we want?
This idea gets even closer to home in my own experience with Instagram - which before I started Saw & Mitre, in all honesty, I had no clue what it was. So when I first started getting into Instagram for this business I used to post mostly my own photographs - but when I saw what other admirable brands were doing I felt like I had to up my game in order to reach their level. As I got more and more into using the app I noticed that I was starting to live my life around orchestrated scenes that I could take pictures of. For instance, I went camping with some friends one weekend and I found myself almost obsessively orchestrating photographs - almost like I was a producer on a commercial set and not experiencing the time with my friends on a rare night away from my family. Needless to say, those photos are not the best and they’ve never seen the light of day. It took me a few months of going through these motions, but I finally realized that an Instagram account like that would be completely boring and disingenuous. So fortunately, for me and my friends and family, I switched gears and went in another direction.
But as I scroll through my Instagram feed this morning I can’t help but wonder how many people are presenting an ideal life through their photographs that’s not actually their reality. Or maybe even worse, are we living lives just so we can take nice photos that we can post online?
This leads me to my next point - are your photos (and mine) instant or actually interesting? Do they stand the test of time rather than the two seconds someone sees it on Facebook or Twitter, and makes the split second decision to like it or not. As I mentioned, the orchestrated camping scene photos I took that weekend are totally and utterly boring photographs. There’s no human interaction, there is no emotion, it's obvious that it’s a fake.
Camping but not camping.
In a time where people have access to thousands of photos every day through Facebook, Instagram, etc. it seems to me that there is a style of “instant” photography that is emerging that may quickly get likes, but doesn't necessarily make great or memorable photographs. To illustrate this point, I see a lot of campsite pictures online where no one in their right mind would actually camp. So what’s happened is that someone, for the sake of a cool photo, has basically set up a tent, maybe put a flashlight inside it to illuminate it, and took a really nice picture that others would see as they scroll through their phone, and more than likely hit the like button. (Before I go too far down this road, I am guilty of this myself. This was in that phase I mentioned above - again, a boring photograph).
The tent photographs illustrate these points perfectly. It’s a false representation on an ideal that people aspire to. Now I can understand if you're getting paid by a tent company to get product shots, you might do this, but it seems just a little strange to me to go through such lengths otherwise. Are these types of photos actually that interesting? Do you want to sit down and study them? Do they elicit any type of emotional response other than a like button? Would you want one printed and framed on your wall? Maybe in some cases, but on the whole I’m guessing not.
So I think that’s one challenge photographers face today. Are we going to be lured into making photographs we know people will like or are we going to make the photographs that represent our artistic expression?
For Christmas I was gifted a book of photographs by Josef Hoflehner and I was blown away by both the depth of his images and the breadth of his body of work. With seemingly normal scenes and places, he is able create layered works of art that have kept me coming back night after night to study.
So maybe that’s the goal for our own collections and in turn, our own lives. To live an interesting life, and as a by product, make interesting photographs. Not vice versa. We should be going the interesting places, talking with interesting people, reading interesting books, and doing interesting things - and maybe then our photography will follow suit.
As photographer Jay Maisel famously quipped when asked how to make better photos, “If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.” Couldn't agree more.