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Is the relationship between photography and social media broken?

Once upon a time I had 10,000 followers on Google+. True fact!

I was a very early adopter in 2011 and because there weren’t many people sharing nature and wildlife photography on there at the time I gained a great many followers with very little effort. Those… were simpler times!

10 years on, we live in much noisier digital times and my 10K brag now seems pathetic. Youtubers count their followers in millions, mainstream news articles often seem little more than a collation of popular Twitter posts and indeed, most people put more faith in what they read on social media than via news channels (perhaps for that very reason!).

But the question I keep asking myself is: As a photographer, is it doing me any good?

I can’t make a comparison to a “pre-social” era, I got serious about photography in 2006, joined Facebook in 2008 and Twitter in 2009. I’m certain that social media helped me in those early days by giving me an outlet to share which kept up motivation. I wouldn’t wish to take that away from anyone starting out. If I look back, I think motivation is the only thing I can ascribe to social media, because I really can’t recall ever getting much helpful feedback or constructive criticism on my image-making. Maybe the odd occasion, but 99.9% of the time you get some likes or you get silence.

I never relied entirely on social media, the digital world was my day job so I always had my own website and building that portfolio was always more important to me than my galleries on Flickr, which was my first photo-specific social media platform. I soon tired of Flickr, too mainstream, too many people uploading 200 images from every weekend away, so being a little snooty I deleted my account and decamped to 500px where the more serious photogs were starting to hang out.

Was that worth it? The numbers say not:

  • 99 images uploaded
  • 64K impressions

Probably should have stayed on Flickr! I have no tangible evidence that 500px ever brought me a client, a collaboration or indeed anything useful. Just an empty digital shell where I gave a few likes and got a few back. So what. The workshops I’ve run over the years all found my website via Google search, the images I’ve licensed have either been via stock libraries or press agencies.

I should probably talk most about Instagram, but I want to talk about it the least. I was always suspicious of it, I hated the constraint to square images for so long, no platform designed for creators would do that. I deleted my IG account a few months back, the algorithm never liked me or my work. I’d crept up to about 700 followers and then just got stuck there, I tried posting more frequently, I tried to be subject-specific. I took a trip to Namibia and came back with a ton of interesting images, posted one every day for 2 months. But nothing I did ever budged me beyond that mark and I noticed a couple of occasions where, overnight, the engagement numbers dropped significantly and never returned, no matter what. The doubts begin to creep in, am I posting crap, am I regressing as a photographer? No, the algo just decided I wasn’t worth its time. Even the word “followers” was bogus, as I discovered when I asked a few followers about recent stuff I’d posted. They hadn’t even seen the images. They would have loved to, but IG decided their attention needed to be directed to someone more lucrative to them. I realised I was being played.

So let’s look at the positives. What am I still using and why? These days 3 things: Twitter, YouTube and Locationscout. The latter two I use because I do get genuinely useful info and inspiration from them, Locationscout is brilliant because its focus is place not person and it asks a little more of you in terms of knowledge-sharing. YouTube is pretty much the only “TV” I can stand to watch, but I am becoming more dubious about YT by the day. I tried to be a Youtuber for a while, but I hated video editing and I’m too old to be trying to be some “personality” on there. I have to be honest, it’s a young ’uns game, most of the 45+ crowd on there are pretty embarrassing.

And that’s the biggest danger, if you spend too much time on social media, as a photographer, you kill your focus on photography, even, in the case of YouTube if it’s the subject of your videos. It cannot be any other way, there are so many distracting elements in trying to be a photographer, videographer and personality all at the same time. You might even suck all the joy out of making the still images. You also have to fight against platforms’ constant temptation to “feed me more”, where you know you’ve shared something that’s not especially amazing, just to feel like you posted something. I know I have! Let that become a habit and what have you become? a spammer of mediocre images. Not a photographer whose primary aim is to produce the best work possible.

Or, another possibility, that social media is combining with software to encourage us to actively destroy photography and replace it with digital art. In the digital world no one cares if the lighting is real, or the sky was actually that sky. Better to make it popular, than make it realistic…

And so finally, to Twitter. I’ve always loved Twitter, despite its flaws. It’s real-time, real conversations happen and you can stop an algo choosing what you see (so far). Yes I share images on there, but always accompanied by words and that’s the difference for me between Twitter and the other platforms.

On Twitter I can share ideas and thoughts, as I have them, about the process of making images or the images I’ve made. Unlike IG, I always feel the idea is given as much prominence as the image.

And I’ve made friends there, people I’ve, y’know, actually met! Years ago I saw that two Portuguese photogs I followed were over in the UK, 20 miles down the road from my home. Come for a cuppa, lads! And they did. A few years later I was in Lisbon and we met up again for dinner. Only social media could have made that happen. Just last week, I saw an invitation on Twitter to go to an open day at the wildlife travel company, Naturetrek. Sounds fun, along I popped. Ended up taking a photo of Brown Hairstreak butterflies mating, unbelievable! Social media did that.

And that’s my learning, that social media only means much when it’s the springboard to a real-world event, meeting, or opportunity. It can make a connection between people with shared interests from one side of the world to the other. There are people I’ve followed and chatted to for many years and felt like I’ve known them, that they’re friends. But the people I never got to meet in real life faded away, the ones I met, largely remained. Align your digital and real worlds and social media still has a role to play in a happy life. In short, keep it real!

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