#007 The paradox of having an audience
I believe this topic is best explained by telling the following encounter I had last year in Germany.
During an overcast afternoon, I sat on a bench, waiting for an opening through the clouds and some sunlight to photograph the view in front of me: a remarkable bridge across a lake in a forest. I had my tripod unfolded near me, on the right side of the bench, with my backpack leaning on it. For a Saturday afternoon, the place was not as populated as I anticipated, with just a few occasional tourists passing by. Until a group of guys with big lighting gear and modern photography equipment (much more modern than mine) arrived, and at approximately the same time, a guy with an equally modern camera around his neck joined us and set on the opposite of the bench where I was sitting. He was so quiet I didn't really realize he was still there after about 20 minutes when he and the other guys started to talk, in English, about the beautiful place around us. He had a french accent, and when he turned to me to ask me something which I can not recall anymore, instead of replying I said to him: “You are French!”. Since I live in France and speak french, we started to talk in french among ourselves, and as I joined the conversation he was having with the German group, we would switch to English when talking with them.
As our conversation intensified I learned that he, Louis (not his real name), was a well-known Instagrammer in France, and had many followers, not only on Instagram but also on other social media platforms, although his true audience was on Instagram. He explained that thanks to his high number of followers, the year before he got commissioned by the Japanese Tourism Office to visit and photograph Japan for two weeks. As he kept sharing this experience, I understood he had fond personal memories from the trip but was not professionally satisfied with it. To explain this difference he told me a key episode that shaped not only his relationship with the client but also his own understanding of his professional role in the project.
He was contacted through Instagram at a moment when Japan needed to increase their visitors from France, so someone from the Japanese tourism office went on Instagram and searched for French content creators with many followers. The basic agreement was that he had to visit a series of tourist spots in Japan, one or two every day, take photos and videos and make a daily post about them at 6 pm. He accepted and begin preparing for his trip. When the list of places arrived, it had some bizarre requests he couldn't really understand, such as to photograph a hashtag symbol and post it to his followers. After a couple of exchanged e-mails, he understood that they really wanted him to photograph a hashtag symbol from anywhere. They literally said: “…wherever you can find it, either from graffiti on a wall or by typing it on the computer and then photographing it”. So, at that point he had to ask: “Have you ever seen my work? This is not what I do.” Their reply was concise: “No.”
Because this happened just a few days before his flight to Tokyo, he went on with the trip and in fact had a blast visiting the country. But he was very disappointed about the whole thing because he knew that he got chosen only in spite of the number of followers he had on Instagram. His clients didn't even take the time to browse through his account to see his work, let alone visit his website or read his bio.
For them, he was just some random guy who boasted a high number of followers on a social media platform.
I realized the sadness of this story, which, in essence, highlights how superficially clients use social media and the false facade the content creator has to play and keep it up. So, in an attempt to brighten up the conversation, I jokingly said to him: “Well, at least for everything else, you are free to photograph what you want”. He looked at me in a serious way, as if I said something that was not funny at all, and went on saying that he could not do that, not even when he photographs for his own pleasure, for his Instagram account, without any commissioned projects”. I could not understand his reasons so I asked him to tell me more, and that is when he said the following truth, which I still remember:
“I can not do what I want because I have to stay within the borders of my editorial line, which I originally created myself and never thought it would have become impossible to escape from it.
Whenever I try to do something new or different, I get much fewer “likes” on my posts. So, to keep up with the business I have to keep doing the same things in the same way, over and over again.”
Although his words throw me in dismay for a while, suddenly, it all made a lot of sense.
I also realized that I couldn't understand it before because I have always been intentionally away from both social media and marketing overall. Simply because that does not interest me, as I much rather spend my entire time photographing, editing, writing, or studying art. Or, otherwise said, producing instead of promoting.
I do understand that a large audience is thought to be necessary to showcase and sell a finished piece of work. For some people, showcasing their work to a vast audience seems to be a vital need, because they believe that, through it, their work will be appreciated, and in turn, this will make them feel accomplished or even happy. I don't believe that.
Furthermore, most people spend a huge amount of time and effort trying to get an audience and then struggle to get an ever-larger one. More so, to avoid losing it, they also endure great stress and have to spend many hours interacting with their audience to keep it engaged. And on top of all that, as we have learned from this encounter so far, while being “forced” to keep feeding their public the same kind of content over and over again, which, although will not stimulate them in any way, will simply keep them glued to the screen. And bingo! that is the whole point of it all. To perpetually provide the same, good-old, ever-in-demand, distraction.
I believe that we, humans, get used to things very fast and can easily feel stuck or bored. This will lead to a drastic loss of motivation and to immobility. The solution is to get moving and be dynamic in exploring our changing interests. The most interesting and creative people I met could be divided into two different categories: The first is filled with people who happen to change their interests, passions, or even careers every 10-15 years. While those in the second category remain in the same craft but constantly strive to dig deeper into it, finding new areas to further explore, not only their chosen craft but also themselves through it. For people from both categories, this leads them to new understandings of themselves and to reach new heights of creativity and personal maturity. But in order to do so, they all need to have an essential characteristic: they must be, and always remain, free.
Free to explore, free to try, and, most importantly, free to fail!
Boundless freedom must be there at all times.
As the afternoon progressed, with no sunlight in sight, we approached the evening and those group of German guys with big outdoor lighting equipment told us to stay until nightfall because they would have lit up the bridge and make a lightning show. Funny enough, they would do that to show it to their Instagram followers. They graciously let me and Louis photograph it, so we kept talking as we were waiting for complete darkness.
To much of my surprise, I found out even more things about Louis: he was there in Germany on another Instagram assignment, this time from the French branch of the German Tourism Office. He had 15 days to visit about 13 locations across Germany and had to do the usual daily Instagram posting.
What is interesting is that I, too, was there to photograph the country for the German National Tourism Board, but unlike him, I had total freedom: an unlimited amount of time to photograph whatever I wanted. Although I usually have some requests, most of what I photograph for my commissioned work comes from my own desire and initiative.
When the light show started, I saw Louis didn't even have a tripod and he was doing HDR. When I asked him why he wouldn't use filters instead of doing such a time-consuming process as HDR, he said, again, that the reason was to follow his old-established editorial line on his Instagram account. If he doesn't produce that HDR look in his images, his followers won't like it because they will not recognize him in his own work anymore.
Instead of chasing a large audience, spending a lot of time to grow it, and ending up getting short and stressful job opportunities which will make us feel creatively constrained both by the assignments as well as by the audience itself; I focused all my efforts and time into creating a strong understanding of the craft and overtime built a solid Travel photography portfolio and made these choices to try to elevate me on top of the mess that the internet and social media represent. With the aim to get a few (but) very good clients who truly appreciate my work, and care to let me be free from any restrictions while supporting my growth, which in turn becomes our growth.
These few clients have been so important to me that it's only because of their trust and our successful cooperation that I can devote months out of the year to my personal photography, detached from any assignments, without having any financial stress.
I encourage you to choose to show your work to very few people that really matter, they should be your only audience. Your work should be seen by the people who make the decisions. Those that can help you reach your goals. Showing your work to a big mass of people on the internet who not only don't know you but do not understand much about your work either, no matter how many “likes” they give to your posts, this will not help you improve. Furthermore, to keep chasing the approval of people you do not know, you will renounce your freedom, stop your own growth, and alienate yourself. If your audience doesn't evolve with you, then it's not “your” audience but just an audience, and worthless at that, carelessly browsing the internet.
Stay true to yourself, follow your intuition, and promote your own growth.
Choose an audience of one: choose yourself.
January 29th, 2022