The Impact of Social Media in Photography
Often times, I’ve been asked why Anna doesn’t pose… or rather, why she doesn’t pose like a model on this blog. In a manner of speaking, Anna isn’t functioning in the capacity of a model, which is why she’s not posing like one. Frankly, it wouldn’t make sense for her to do something like that. When someone poses - like a model - what they’re really doing is optimizing the presentation of a given photo opportunity. But in doing that, something happens to the image capture, which makes it look manufactured.
Early on, I knew I didn’t want to present that look for this blog. From my perspective, staging photo opportunities with deliberate poses have become all too common in our curated world of “insta-perfection”. But that is understandable, given how social media has changed the way we approach photography. It's no longer enough that we take good photos. Now, we also want it to be liked. The more our photos are liked on social media, the more affirmation we get that our photos are good - that being the conventional wisdom.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Getting more likes on social media has nothing to do with how good a photo is. Rather, it's more an indication of how popular a person is. But knowing that doesn't stop us from acting like popularity isn't important - because it is (seriously). So, it's only natural the emoji tweeting sect do whatever they can to squeeze out more likes from the photos they share. After all, nothing beats that rush of good feeling like an affirmation of popularity
It's no wonder then so many popular photos on social media look manufactured. Many of them are absolutely perfect - staged to perfection with perfect lighting, perfect timing, and perfect overall composition. It's just so perfect that the image capture just makes you look. Perhaps, that's why manufactured images are so universally liked on social media. They're so easy to appreciate - like popcorn, eye-candy, or any other crowd-pleaser.
Still, perfection has its limits. For one thing, manufactured crowd-pleasing photos are generally not exceptional. Beyond the visually compelling documentation that grabs your attention, there really isn't much substance to it. Anything noteworthy about it is appreciable on the surface - without any deeper meaning attached to its creation. However, that is to be expected from any image documentation that's made to be universally liked.
As you can imagine, most popular photos are superficial, since they're typically made for no other reason than to be liked. In that way, it puts into perspective how recreational these perfect images are - which in turn - commoditizes its significance. Admittedly, this may sound counterintuitive, given the effort that goes into manufacturing photos for likes. But then again, effort is no promise of value.
Having said that, it isn't exactly fair to make that assessment. After all, doing anything more than just manufacturing eye-candy isn't an exact apples to apples fit on social media. With the limitations of documentary options typical of social media publishing formats to effectively explore substantive ideas, it is unlikely to expect anything beyond superficial content. It would be like expecting a thesis from a fortune cookie.
Given the format of publishing and the nature of audience viewing, photographers on social media essentially have just one chance to make a good first impression with their shared photo. That means any likes, interaction, or any engagement completely hinges on the effectiveness of that shared photo's ability to sufficiently cut through competing visual distractions, in an effort to get noticed.
As such, photographers are forced to optimally condense whatever they're working on into a single square image that best represents the entirety of their project, experience, or exploration. Given the reality they're facing, the most logical course of action is to manufacture and select the most visually compelling image that shows well on smaller screens, characteristic of handheld devices.
And, for good measure, a little hyper-contrast and hyper-saturation in post wouldn't hurt. After all, It would give the selected image some pop.
It may seem as though I've been spending an exorbitant amount of time and effort exploring the effects of social media's on photography. However, I believe social media currently presents the greatest challenge to photography. This is especially true, with traditional conveyance of engaging audiences, like print publishing and galleries dwindling in relevance. As such, photographers are forced to reexamine their objectives in accepting the shift in media influence.
What this means is that photographers are forced to conform to the limitations of documentary options typical of social media publishing formats. Consequently, their focus will shift from formerly substantive objectives better accommodated by print publishing or gallery showings, to superficial objectives better suited for social media feeds.
Mind you, this is not to say that photographers will turn their backs on more substantive ideas. They certainly will continue on or outside social media. However, it's an illusion to believe that social media can be an effective platform for substantive expression. At best, social media can share a link to something beyond the superficial. But seriously, substance isn't exactly the point of social media. In my opinion, it has always been about popularity.
However, just because popularity doesn't appear substantive, it doesn't mean it should be dismissed. In spite of the superficial stigma generally associated with it, popularity has real tangible value. In a world increasingly influenced by social media, those with a large confirmed following will have more say than those without a following. And, with a large enough audience, one can pretty much do anything, from the substantive to just getting more likes to pad one's popularity.
In that way, I believe popularity is the single most important influence affecting (or rather infecting) photography today. With how influence can justify what a photographer does, it is easy to see how popularity can become addictive. I mean, what photographer wouldn't want to be taken seriously with every effort that is undertaken? If all a photographer requires is a large enough audience, then the most logical course of action is to increase one's audience base.
I know - easier said than done.
The world has changed, and you cannot escape the impact of social media. Like it or not, you are judged by your popularity. Speaking anecdotally, even I have worked on my social media presence to gain legitimacy. And yes, it does take some effort. But it's not impossible, and it’s all worthwhile, once your popularity is recognized. When you've reached that point, it means there is a large enough following to accept your work.
So, because of our established popularity, Anna doesn't need to pose, we don't need to stage our image capture, and we don't need to be perfect in documentation. What you see of Anna is authentically the way she really is in real life. In that way, I suppose this means all the photos on this blog are not commoditized, since there has been no attempt to manufacture them for likes. Besides, it's not as if these photos are visually compelling.
Then again, it's not as if we need to condense what we're doing into a single square image that's representational of our project on social media. This is a blog after all. So, we do have the luxury of space to share multiple images. And, owing to sufficient popularity, there might even be interest in the content of these photographs.
With that said, we were in New York City for the week. I thought it would be a nice change of pace to shoot outside of Hong Kong. I figure it would reduce the doldrum of seeing Hong Kong on yet another blog post. The way I see it, just because we've achieved a measure of popular acceptance, it doesn't mean we should rest on our laurels.
All images shot on the Leica M10 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH or 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar-M ASPH. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. A few images have been cropped for composition.