THE TYRANNY OF, LIKE, LIKING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY MOTHER WARNED ME FOR MY ENTIRE BOYHOOD THAT, IF I LIVED MY LIFE TO PLEASE OR GARNER THE APPROVAL OF OTHERS, I would spend it “following a little red wagon”. Now, I can’t paint my generation as being populated by the last of the rugged individualists (after all, we have to live down that whole “flower child” business), but, when it comes to current social networking, it seems like that little wagon is indeed speeding along at light speed, with the rest of us slavishly tailgating it in desperate search of one crucial word:
Let me state categorically that I view sites like Instagram with an equal measure of hope and dread, since history has yet to rule on whether its billions of filter-soaked snaps advance photography or mire it in mediocrity. That said, I am certain of one two-part truth:
1. Photography is essential to social networking, and
2. Social networking is not essential to photography.
Simply stated, the hungry maw of social media needs an endless resource of fresh meat, with photos as vital a component as text. To keep this torrent of images rolling in, it bestows little training treats on the millions to motivate them to submit their works and keep the machinery oiled. This is what likes, retweets, and faves have become. A gold star on your spelling paper. A little extra beef on your mess kit tray. Good boy, Fido, here’s your “like”.
But here’s the thing. You cannot grow your personal art if you are bending the arc of it purely toward the goal of popular approval. Art is not about getting “likes”. On the contrary, it’s frequently about garnering “hates”, deaf ears, blind eyes, misunderstanding, antipathy, even shunning or banishment. Art needs to make people uncomfortable, to confound and distress. And, just as it is in leaving our personal comfort zones that we stretch as photographers, we need our audiences to leave theirs. Guess what: they will not do that willingly or happily.
History provides easy evidence of this: cough up the names of your ten favorite “legendary” photographers and chances are that most of them were marginalized, despised, or otherwise shunted away during their best years. There is a reason for this.
“Likes” are seductive, but they are merely quantitative, not qualitative. The raw number of people who numbly click “like” on a photo tells you nothing of what they felt was right, or elegant, or beautiful, or awful in an image. Such little emotional check-offs may stoke our need to be seated at the cool kids’ table, but they do zilch to make us better shooters.
To be a great photographer, you cannot afford the luxury of whether anyone else “gets” what you do. Let’s stop settling for photo sites as popularity contests.
They need you. You do not need them.