1.10.2016

Deep down what I really feel photography is all about for nearly everyone...



There are plenty of reasons to document the world around us. We might need some evidence for an insurance claim, we might want a record of what our kids look like, right now. If we make photography our work we probably need to photograph a product that our client would like to advertise and sell; and we might make some portraits so other client can project a certain (benevolent) image to prospective buyers of the subject's expertise or valuable service. But when all the day to day uses of photography are cleared off the table I think most people who take photographs for themselves do it for one overwhelming reason: social connection.

If we profess to "just enjoy taking photographs" then why do we feel the need to post them and share them with other people? And, in most cases, these other people are people like us who are using their cameras and posting their images in order to belong; however tangentially, to a broad social group.

All the bickering over brands or specs or "the correct way" to do photography is just the baggage that humans bring with them as they jockey for what they perceive to be their place in the social hierarchy of this or that collection of like minded photographers.  But the need to share is implied in the immersion into online forae, real world camera clubs and meet ups. 

There's really no way to divorce the need for social connection and interconnection from any hobby or avocation that people enjoy doing. Must of us must go to work in order to survive, buy food and shelter and save up enough $$$ for cameras. But after we meet the basic criteria it's the hobbies and the passions we pursue that provide the glue that binds people with similar interests together.

I am going to pack a camera bag and go over to Zach Theatre this afternoon to photograph a play. I'll be paid, but really, in the grand scheme of things, the money is incidental, I'm also going because being present to do the marketing photographs means I'll spend time with a group of people I like to be with. Lauren from marketing will be there with a warm smile and stories about her three year old. The actors will be doing what is their passion --- entertaining us. We all support each other's human side and passion side. I exist in this situation as validation that they will reach a wider audience.

I have many friends who've taken pains to learn a great deal about photography in general and cameras in particular. We have found in each other a group of like minded individuals who don't seem to share a bigger demographic's appreciation for televised sports but we enjoy the one-to-one experience of sitting across a table from each other, talking about photography. Or talking about cameras. On one level it doesn't matter if we talk about cameras or we talk about some great show we've seen; we're using our common interest to build social bonds and relationships.

When you go to a workshop your conscious (advertising?) reason to go is to learn more about my craft, but I would say that while improving craft sounds like a very good thing one of your main reasons for paying and attending is to spend time with like minded people, and to build credentials for cementing or improving your social position within your chosen hierarchy. A selected group of photographers.

Your sub group within photography might be landscapes in which case you might share more conversations about good locations and dynamic range enhancements. If you enjoy photographing beautiful people (models) your conversation will, no doubt, center around how to find beautiful people to shoot, and about how to light people in the most dramatic and flattering way. Part of your reasons for talking to each other about these topics is to make sure you aren't missing something obvious that will improve your enjoyment of the art, but for the most part you display your shared knowledge in order to exist, meaningfully, within your group.

It's interesting to see the dynamics at work at a photo walk, a workshop, or even at the counter of the local camera store (sorry if you no longer have one). It's a process that I've reduced down to a coffee analogy. That's how I come to understand most social interactions.

People exist, psychologically, along a long curve of what psychologist might refer to as an "emotional intelligence quotient." How well do you read other people? Do you have an easy or hard time understanding humor? Are you very, very literal or very empathetic?

Here's how I take a quick evaluation of a new person arriving to our group, any group:

At my masters swimming team we swim from 8:30 am till 10:00 am every Saturday. Have for years. About 16 years ago a group of us decided to drop by a coffee shop after the long, sometimes cold, Saturday morning swim to have coffee ---- together. It's a way of catching up as well as prolonging the shared social experience of exercising together. We head over to the coffee shop and pull a couple of tables together and just share stories. They could be about swimming, or someone's latest vacation, or a bitch about there being too much (or too little) distance work in the recent swims. Doesn't matter. We learn more about each other, say supportive things about the benefits of swimming, and then go home. We build and maintain a supportive social structure.

Like any big program we frequently have new people join. The critical measure in parsing a person's group social fitness is the response we get when we invite the new person to the group coffee, following the Saturday workout.

One response tells us that the person isn't a particularly good social candidate (although they may be just fine in the swimming program!). When asked if they want to join us for coffee the response we are never looking for is: "Sorry, I don't drink coffee."  In a big way it means that they just didn't understand the un-literal underlying invitation. That "coffee" is just common code for, "join us and we'll get to know each other and welcome you into the network." 

There are tons of legitimate answers we'd accept including, "I'd love to but I left my wife at home with three kids and she'd kill me if I didn't get back with donuts!" Or, "I've got other plans today but it sounds great. Can I get a rain check?" We get that hanging out with a bunch of swimmers might not be everyone's idea of good times but we also get it that the last two answers might also mean, "Thanks for the invitation. I'll decline and pretend to leave the door open, but we all understand that I won't be attending now or in the future. I do, though, appreciate the offer." But we respect that because it shows us that the person in question understands the underlying meaning of our invitation and values our social ring enough to answer in a graceful way.

The first person, the one "who doesn't drink coffee!", doesn't understand the question but, in a broader sense, doesn't understand the social glue of groups and, by extension, the place of our hobbies within the context of our own chosen cultures.

Deep down I don't feel like most of us care all that much about the images the people around us create. We care more about being part of their hobby/art/craft connected social construct and finding our particular spot within that matrix of people. It's a way of building emotionally helpful structures in a changing world. We just happen to socialize better when mixing with cameras than with beer pong or opera singing. Seems like a valuable part of our collective photography experience to me.

There can be no stars in our group without others to acknowledge them and provide the feedback some people need in order to thrive. In a sense, we are all interconnected within our groups. Much as Taoist explain our connection to all things, living and inanimate, in the Universe. 

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I always laugh when Ming Thein invites his readers to see a gallery of his images and says, "Enjoy!" I guess what he really means is, "give me some positive feedback." We're all just trying to find our pecking order on the team.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Anonymous, I don't think that's fair. It's something we all do every time we post an (unsolicited) image. In the old days of writing unsolicited (paper) manuscripts went straight to the trash. I guess we'll know people really, really want to see our images when we put them behind a paywall and people still come and look at them...

amolitor said...

I sort of feel like there are two axes here.

There's the "camera enthusiast" axis, the extent to which each of us likes equipment, gear, methods chemistry, photoshop, etc. All that stuff. It's attractive as anything, as a professional technologist I feel the powerful pull there. This can be a very social thing, there's tons of stuff to talk about and bond over, here, and that's a great jumping off point for more social stuff. "I love the way you handled the reds here, are you using Photoshop or Capture One for that?" and 6 months later you're eating dinner at one another's houses. Which is pretty great!

There's the artist axis, for want of a better term, and this seems very very often to be virtually anti-social. It's the artist and the work and a lot of frustration, except that sometimes it just all comes together and it's so great. But it's not social, as such.

You get the overlap in the pictures themselves, which creates a kind of fraught situation. On the one hand, the artist, ultimately, seeks approval and acceptance for these potentially very personal, powerful, important objects. There's the hope that people will get it, will grasp something of the work. And man oh man when they do, it is So. Great. There's a real risk, though, in photography, that the response will be on that other axis, that social one, where the picture is a jumping off point for the discussion of things we share, things we can bond over.

And it can be. The picture might be as much about the D810 and the bank of DIY LED light panels I used as if it an expression of my deepest emotions. It's always some blend of those two, isn't it?

I feel like this is a train of thought that should go somewhere, but I'm not quite there..

Kirk Tuck said...

But in the end the photographers I know (even the serious, artistic ones) are nearly always surrounded by friends who are........photographers. Cross sharing. Commenting. The creation might take place in a tortured vacuum of artistic drama but the after-share is always done surrounded by the tribal members. Even the greatest artists in photography sat around and spun their tales of woe and conquest to the other photographers gathered around the table. They got famous when they invited the curators to join them....

Cedric Canard said...

Kirk, you say that "most people who take photographs for themselves do it for one overwhelming reason: social connection" but I would think that social connection is the reason for sharing photos, not necessarily taking them. The reasons for taking photos for themselves would surely be as varied as the number of photographers. Speaking for myself,I took photos long before I had any way of sharing them and even today, I find myself sharing only a small fraction of what I shoot.

Kirk Tuck said...

But Cedric I believe most people take them TO share them. And to share the feeling of connection.

TMJ said...

What you have described is a 'Community of Practice' (CoP) as first suggested (although CoPs have always been there) by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger.

Cedric Canard said...

Well, that's an interesting idea, something for me to think about and talk about with friends. I've always thought that taking photos solely for the purpose of sharing had more to do with the younger generations of photographers and in those cases had much to do with self-validation though that's an unfair generalisation on my part. With people from my generation however, I always thought we took photos for more introspective reasons considering that back then you couldn't share easily. I was just thinking of Vivian Maier (purely as an example, not as someone to compare myself to) but perhaps those are just the exception. This will definitely make for a good topic of conversation next time I get together with my photographer mates. Thanks.

Kirk Tuck said...

Cedric, as a counter to Vivian Maier I'd like to offer Richard Avedon who routinely held classes for younger photographers in his studio and his home, and shared his passion via shows, interviews, magazines and even via one on one sessions with students and other photographic artists. His circle of assistants alone gleaned so much from his fascination with the shared experience that they became wonderful photographers in their own right. One might say that his fashion imagery was his passport into a circle of people whose interests and talents he wanted to share and exchange, not that his photographs were the center of the shared experience. On a more local scale that's what my local ASMP chapter presidents always used to symbolize to me. I know their rational commitment was to spread the gospel of rights ownership and smart business practices but there was a strong, underlying current of wanting to sit with their peers, drink coffee or beer (as the occasion dictated) and feel the connection and continuity provided buy the interconnected fellowship. "community of practice: sounds classier...

Cedric Canard said...

Good counter and good points generally Kirk. I admit that I am looking at your proposition from my own perspective which is probably exceptionally narrow as I have never been part of such groups as you mention. Even with the photographer friends I've had over the decades, as a group we rarely shared each other's work, which, after reading this post and your comments, makes me think that perhaps we are a fringe minority. In any case, this is an excellent topic.