I am becoming acutely aware of the mediocrity of my photos.
Earlier today (at the time of writing) I was thinking about how a lot of my recent blog posts are unrelated to photography (or only tangentially related), even though I created this website for the purpose of sharing my photographs. As a result, I started thinking maybe I should try to write more posts that are focused on photography. This then raised the question of what I can possibly write (about photography) that someone else hasn’t already written somewhere else, and why I find myself to be qualified to write about photography to begin with.
The internet is already oversaturated with photography education resources, and most of what I have learned about photography started with those; it would be redundant for me to try to create more. I also feel that beyond basic camera settings, lighting, and composition, most of the learning process is finding your own style and just taking lots of photos – something that can’t really be learned from others. This is in reference to my own style of street photography, of course; I’m not trying to oversimplify other types of photography, which admittedly can be much more complicated.
Anyway, back to my mediocre photos. After thinking about what makes me feel qualified to be writing about photography, since photography is not my job and I don’t try to make any money from it, I decided to take a fresh look through some of the photos in my galleries. I felt underwhelmed. Many photos that I really liked in the past seem bland and unimpressive when I look at them now. Bear in mind, these are the photos I posted on this website, not even the thousands and thousands of photos I have saved but decided not to share.
In the past I have experienced similar things; sometimes photos I really liked initially started not looking so good a few weeks/months later, and sometimes photos I didn’t like initially started looking better after some time. But there is something about this recent feeling that is different. My feelings about almost all of my photos have changed, not just a few.
Part of me thinks that my distance from technology and social media has played a part in this perceptual change. I think most people know the saying, ‘you are what you eat.’ Basically, it means that what you consume becomes a part of who you are and affects you in some way. I think this also applies when it comes to media consumption; I’ve often found that if I regularly watch many crime documentaries or thriller movies, I feel a bit more on edge in my day-to-day life, whereas when I read a lot of self-help and spirituality books, I start to feel very chill and relaxed. This is just an example, not a value judgement – I still enjoy all of these things.
In this case, I think that the effect I’m feeling may be due to my recent lack of media consumption. I never doubted that this distance from technology would have some kind of effect, but my expectation was different. I thought maybe not seeing anyone else’s photos for a while would make me think more highly of my photos, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. The way I have made sense of this so far is that most of my exposure to photographs before was on Instagram, and, due to Instagram’s algorithms, photographers are encouraged to consistently interact with others and post every day to boost their engagement, resulting in frequency of sharing being more important than the content being shared (if they care a lot about exposure). This dynamic causes photographers to overshare, and be less critical or intentional with the photos they share. As a result, I was regularly exposed to high numbers of photos that I didn’t particularly like, making my own photos seem better by comparison because I at least like my own photos. Besides this, the manner of interaction on most online social platforms is shallow and discourages deeper engagement. Maybe the reason my perception is changing is because I have finally taken the time to look more critically at my photos, instead of just thinking, “Is this good enough to post on my Instagram?”
Part of this is also likely connected to my ego. I think the quantification (through likes and followers) on Instagram, and most other social networks, has the potential to distract from the simple act of sharing. For some, it may transform photography into a game of compulsive online engagement to get more exposure and recognition; the result of this is that we are more concerned with being seen and noticed than we are about improving our own photo quality, crippling our progress and growth.
If a million people saw a photo of mine, I’m sure it would get thousands of likes; if no one saw that photo, it would get no likes. This does not change the reality of that photo, it just causes confusion and is wholly dependent upon social media’s algorithms. Concerning ourselves with likes and exposure only affects these shallow numbers, but does not have any effect on the photos themselves outside of our minds.
In my post 2-Week Update on Not Using Instagram, I wrote:
I must say that all the attention on Instagram started getting to my head, and I felt like I was somehow more important than I really am in the photography world. Now that I am sharing photos on this blog/website instead, I am getting the attention and recognition that I deserve – none! Honestly, it feels nice to recognize that I am not important and no one cares about my photography. I can do what I feel like and there is no one to impress or disappoint, and no followers to gain or lose; I just do what I do without any other concerns. In this time when everyone is trying to be somebody, maybe it’s better to try to be nobody.
I still think it feels good to be free of these concerns, but I can’t help but wonder if another factor in my recent dissatisfaction with my photos is that they have not been receiving any external approval or feedback. When a respected friend or photographer tells me that they think a photo is very good, it will have an impact on my opinion of the photo. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t like a photo, but I still like it after that, then I know that I really like the photo. I feel that this process of receiving feedback and feeling my reactions to the feedback is an important step in my photographic process, but it has been more difficult to achieve while cutting down on my internet and technology time.
Starting to feel that my photos are mediocre isn’t great for my ego, especially considering I have spent a lot of time and energy (and money) pursuing photography as a hobby. On the other hand, when I think about all the difficulties I had controlling my Instagram and social media usage in the past, I am reminded that my ego was the source of my problems all along. An inflated sense of self-importance combined with a constant desire for more (recognition, attention, praise, etc.) is an excellent way to create a black-hole of dissatisfaction.
On the plus side, now that I’m reminded that my photos are nothing special, it may provide me with the impetus to continue improving. It’s hard to improve when we already think we’re good. Maybe it’s time for me to go back and re-read my own post about Beginner’s Mind.