The Relevance of Your Photographs to Others
If photography be the food of love, share on. Give me too much of it - that - in overloading the attention span. The appetite may sicken, and so die. Oh spirit of love, how quick to refresh my newsfeed art thou. That, not withstanding thy endless stream, which I receiveth like the sea; nothing catches my eyes anymore, regardless of any recognition or brilliance whatsoever; thus descending me towards complete indifference, with every photo I encounter looking tired and the same to me.
It’s true - photography. It’s everywhere. It’s shared by everyone. There’s just so much of it. And it never stops. Everything under the sun has been documented, for every possible reason imaginable, in every possible way, over and over and over again in an unending stream of selfies and bucket list photos, all intermixed with daily testimonials, milestones and second hand photos. The world has become a run-on free-for-all, with everyone sharing photos because it’s easy, and because everyone else is doing it.
But seriously, does anyone care? As photographers, is there really a more important question to address? If we share our photos, then we’re obviously hoping that others care enough about our initiative to receive our efforts in a welcoming way. However, that isn’t how the world works. Sharing doesn’t guarantee recognition from others, much less appreciation. And therein lies the crux of the matter. How do you get others to care about your photography, if they really don’t care about them at all?
In pondering that question, I often wonder why anyone cares about my photos? As I’ve said repeatedly, what I share week after week isn’t especially exceptional. It’s not like I’ve done anything new, much less reinvent the wheel. There’s no free solo climb up El Capitain or Earth rise from the vantage of the moon. Nor have I beaten the scrum in snatching up an exclusive dominating the news cycle. All I’m photographing are supplementary photos to accompany the words I string together - week after week - on this blog.
So week after week after week, it’s just the same old same old. It’s always tall and lanky sashaying down the runways of Hong Kong’s narrow streets and back alleys. Usually the photos are captured in color. Sometimes they’re captured in black and white. Most recently, many are captured on film. But beyond that standardized approach, the supplementary photos on the blog seldom varies. Frankly, what I churn out regularly on this photo assembly line isn’t intended to be exceptional. It’s volume I’m after as a blogger, not grandeur.
And still, you visit this blog week after week after week. Clearly, being a good photographer has nothing to do with why anyone cares about anybody’s photography. If nothing else, this blog is living proof. Proficiency and creative expression, albeit a prerequisite to some extent, isn’t the underlying reason why anyone cares about anybody’s photographic efforts. So then, what is the reason? What motivates anyone to care enough to look at any person’s photographs beyond just a passing glance - if at all?
Thing is, what anyone really cares about when looking at your photo isn’t necessarily what you photographed. Often times, what makes them care is the context of their relationship to you - in other words - how close they are to you. For most, that relationship does not extend beyond friends and family. Beyond that, it’s a question of familiarity. The more familiar you are to a wider audience, the closer a relationship they’ll feel towards you. If they’re familiar to you, they might begin to care about your photographs beyond just a passing glance.
So, how can we make ourselves more familiar to others beyond just our friends and family? To do that, one needs to become more popular, which is easier said than done. To crib loosely from the immortal bard, some are born popular, some achieve popularity, and some have popularity thrust upon them. And if you must ask which of the three routes to take towards popularity, then it means you’re going to have to do it the hard way - that is to say - you’re not born to popularity nor positioned to be thrust into it.
Dear Malvolio understood the challenges of achieving his overreaching goals, when pursuing Lady Olivia, in the play Twelfth Night. Following his lead, opting for what you want to be thrusted upon you is infinitely more preferable than the hardship of having to achieve it yourself, when you are not born to better circumstances. However, that is only an option when someone else offers you that opportunity. For everyone else, popularity must be achieved the old fashion way.
Unfortunately, the road to popularity isn’t immediately evident. However, what can be certain is the approach to undertake. To become popular, you must find a way to stack the deck in your favor - by being first, by being better, or by cheating. Skill, hard work, and creative expression isn’t enough to tip the balance in your favor. You need to find a reason for others to like you before they will begin to like your photographs. And often, that reason has nothing to do with photography.
In cheating, one exploits inherent advantages (which generally has nothing to do with photography) that one could have over another person. For example, popularity can be bought. Alternatively, popularity can be built on a person’s physical appearance and the extent of willingness to take advantage of it. Popularity can even come from a person’s social position in a group - that is to say - an influential person can be easier to like than one who is less influential. So if you’re famous or important, it’s easier to like what you’re doing.
In being first, what is really being recognized is the photographer’s initiative to get first mover’s advantage. If a photographer is first to do something - whether documenting sensational photos risking life and limb, or snatching pivotal photos dominating the news cycle - the effort will have a greater likelihood of catching the attention of the mainstream public. Greater noticeability will invariably impact that photographer’s popularity, which in turn can make that photographer’s work easier to like.
But for most of us, we’re not in a position to be first or even cheat. That means our quest to achieve popularity can only come from being better. In other words, we must try harder to be more popular. It’s just a matter of becoming more proactive in interacting with people you don’t know, while simultaneously taking a smarter approach in that interaction. To that end, it means you must have a better understanding of what your target audience requires from you in order for you to be more relevant to them.
That’s right. You must position yourself to be liked. Thing is, the world really doesn’t care enough to know who you are. Frankly, they only care to see what they want to see. So why should they care about you or your work? Because of wishful thinking? You are as irrelevant to them as they are to you or the next irrelevant person that you all don’t know. But if you can figure out what they want from you, you can begin to find common ground to foster familiarity. Essentially, that is the start of building context in any relationship.
I can imagine this perspective to be unsatisfactory, given our mainstream inclinations towards merit. Frankly, it’s not right. But don’t kill the messenger. It is what it is. The world loves popular people, and popular people will always be at an advantage. Anything they do will likely be received more positively than anything done by a relative unknown, regardless of merit in skill or creative expression. That said, once you have reached a level of popularity to a wider audience, the photographs you share will become more relevant to them.
Last food for thought. If for whatever reason people aren’t receiving your photos in as positive a way as you would like, it might not necessarily be your photos or skills at issue. Trying harder to take better photos might not make sense when you’re already doing your best. I mean, how much better a photo can you take? There comes a point when one can no longer take a better picture than what’s humanly possible. When you’ve hit that wall in how your photos are seen, then it’s worth considering changes to how you are seen by others.
Still, is it really the end of the world to remain a photographer that only a mother can love? If your photographs are only relevant to your friends and family, isn’t that enough already? I mean, pretending to be someone else, like Viola, is an enormous undertaking. Then again, I suppose putting on your work face to achieve popularity is well worth the trouble, if gaining relevance is material to your needs. If your livelihood depends on how your photography is received, then it’s well worth the effort to do what you can to achieve that end. It’s just work.
Images have been tweaked in Adobe Lightroom. All images digitized on the Pakon F135 scanner. All images have been cropped in the digitization process.