Positionality and Personalism

One thing that that really stuck in my mind from graduate school was the importance of being aware of one’s positionality (background, race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) and biases in order to account for them when conducting or interpreting research. While true objectivity can be said to be impossible to achieve, we can at least get a little bit closer by being aware that every single person on this planet is biased by their circumstances and experiences. This is useful for conducting research and making decisions that impact society, but I’m starting to feel that leaning more into individual bias is better in certain circumstances. It’s a little funny to me that it took me until I was 30 years old just to start to realize that it’s ok to embrace my biases and personal feelings rather than trying to think objectively about everything. Anyway, I will be focusing this post on photography and the arts in general. I guess this post could be said to be related to my other post on people pleasing, or at least it is in my mind based on the concept I have, but I generally write these posts in a straight line without having a clear outline or organization beforehand.

In some ways, it’s unclear to me whether art is done for others or for the artist. On one hand, the art may be personally meaningful to the artist, but on the other, if the artist wants to make a living with art, he/she will need to create things that people will want to spend money on. Some of us, like myself, pursue various forms of art in their spare time while having a different job to support themselves. In some cases, this may allow for greater artistic freedom, in that it’s irrelevant whether anyone wants to buy our art.

In my case, I still find myself being influenced by others regardless of whether I need/want to be or not. In some way I don’t like this because it feels like this creates a sort of dependency on others’ approval rather than being self-sustaining; however, this sort of ideal may come from my positionality as someone who comes from a Western, individualistic culture where it’s not good to be average or reliant upon others. If we take a look at our identities and cognition, we are all individuals, and the collective is made up of individuals, but at the same time, every individual contains the collective in the form of ideologies, values, teachings, relationships, etc. I guess there’s no way to escape this sort of individualist-collectivist conflict, it will always be a balancing act.

One consideration regarding creating things for oneself vs for others is that if we try to be too general or broad, it may not be personal or specific enough to really impact anyone (even if it’s very popular), but if we make things that are so personal that no one else understands, they would have little appeal to anyone else.

I guess when I first started getting into photography, I was attracted to the work of very popular photographers, and technically perfect photos. But as time went on, I found that everyone else was also attracted to those same things and aspired to imitate what these other people were doing, resulting in an over-saturation of the market, so to speak. I then started becoming more attracted to the work of people who do their own thing regardless of whether others like it or are paying attention to it, and perhaps even more drawn to people who receive no recognition/popularity at all – they are authentically themselves, which is something I aspire to (and constantly fail at by my own estimation).

When I look at a lot of popular street photography, I find the photos to be boring and formulaic – a silhouette against a wall, some person positioned within a geometric scene, a dog yawning in the foreground looking like it’s eating someone in the background, a person wearing a fedora and smoking under a streetlamp, etc. I do enjoy some of these photos because of the composition or contrast or whatever, but I find little/no personal meaning in them, and have seen thousands of examples of very similar looking photos before. These types of photos have become very popular, but I find them to have little personal flavor – they don’t show me anything about who the photographer is as an individual. I don’t mean this to be a criticism of those photos or photographers, just my opinion.

I think it’s due to these opinions that I developed my current street shooting style, which is basically shooting first, asking questions later. If my eye is drawn to something, I just take a photo, the most consideration I give to each photo is usually about a half second of just thinking how to frame it. I also shoot RAW so I can decide whether I like color or black-and-white later. I feel that this is the most authentic way to express myself that I can think of because it’s essentially taking photos through intuition and instinct, rather than thinking about what might make a good photo or what others might like. It’s easy to become confused by the conscious mind, while the core of who we are is largely subconscious. Of course, most of the photos I take are mediocre (and I don’t share most of them), but I find this process of collecting photos without thought and then using my judgement to sort through them later to be an effective way of enjoying the process of street photography, while still being committed to improving.

Sometime last week I read one of Eric Kim’s blog posts about personal photography and realized that the purpose of photography should really be more personal than universal – we connect to others on a personal level, and to be liked by some people, we must be disliked by other people. If we try to be some generic photographer who does nothing people don’t like, no one will ever relate to us and we won’t make connections with others. At the end of the day, what’s more important? Making a real connection with someone on the basis of who you are, or having 100 people like your photo? Only you can decide really. Besides this, it’s unlikely anyone really cares about your photos as much as you do, especially on Instagram – a lot of people only follow others so that they will get followed in return – who cares about impressing these people? Lean more into who you are and attract the people who like what they find.

I didn’t use any social media for 4 years between 2016 and 2020 and, admittedly, I did not take that many photos during that time compared to now. In some way, using Instagram has been good for me in that it inspired me to really focus on my photography, but it came with many downsides as well. When I moved to Taiwan, I deactivated my Instagram for something like 9-10 months, and during that time I still took many photos of my friends or scenery when I was going around to different places. Those photos are much more meaningful to me than my street photos because they’re specific life memories, and I get a great sense of satisfaction providing my friends with nice looking photos to help remember our experiences together.

I guess the desire to share more of my personal photos and thoughts are part of the reason why I created this blog – I don’t like the idea of sharing personal things on Facebook or Instagram and subjecting them to the algorithms and having them evaluated in the form of likes. At the same time, social media tends to encourage us to show the idealized version of ourselves which, in my opinion, creates distance from others and causes a comparative mindset. My hope is that if I am able to lean more into my real personal life/thoughts and show the flawed and biased human that I am, my friends and family will be able to understand me better, and I might even make some new friends in the process.

Thanks for reading.

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