Fear and Loathing in Photography

From Poe:

‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied,—
     ‘If you seek for Eldorado!’ 

A Needle in a Stack of Needles

About 95 million images and videos are shoved into Instagram’s pocket each and every day. That number bloats to about 350 million for Facebook. Not including any other platform, on the daily that means we manage to load nearly half a billion photographs into the ether. Multiply that number by 365 and you get about 182.5 billion photos and videos per year. In this foul year of our Lord 2019, the good folks over at the US Census Bureau estimated that the world population hovers around 7.9 billion. So, as a species…on average…every soul wandering this planet uploads about 23 photos every single year. Which doesn’t seem like a whole hell of a lot. Of course that isn’t quite fair, seeing as there is a good chunk of people who don’t have any feeds or accounts, or even a computer or a cell phone. So we’re left with a combined 3.41 billion people reportedly on Instagram and Facebook, which is a conservative number with the data for Instagram coming from a 2018 survey.

But wait, that’s not what I’ve came here to speak with you about today. I’m here to tell you about Jesus….

Ye Gods! No! What’s happening? Is there no communication in this line of thought? Have we completely went off the course in some half-ass Thompsonian railing about the in’s and out’s of photographic intent? Maybe so. In any case, we’ll attempt to pull ourselves together with nourished intellects just long enough to focus our collective Ids on the path we find ourselves trotting when it comes to sweating it out as a “photographer” in today’s lurid creative climate. 

The Great Delusion

Let’s say I ask you “Young man/woman, where are you headed?” In polite repose you answer “I’m not sure. But I’ve got a map (scribbled in fat crayon) with all these directions that will tell me how to get there.” This, dear friends, is a didactic description of the current mindset of most would-be, has-been and current-be social mediatic camera warriors you are likely to encounter this day. Unsure of purpose, content with grinding away using tools that don’t fit the job, laboring towards a goal they don’t understand.  Why oh why indeed. 

I believe a certain hemlock swilling philosophe once remarked that a person might do well to “know thyself”. Good wisdom. What ol’ Soc was driving at here was that no wind is favorable when you’re headed towards an unfamiliar port (Seneca?). What in God’s gold plated name are you doing? Do you know? Why are you trying to get featured on someone else’s feed? What would you do with 100k sheep churning at your heals?

Answer me, damn you! 

Where was I? Intent. Direction. Purposeful drive. Yes, that’s it. If I might call out and name the elephant in the room; likely your goal is to exchange money for making pictures. As “one of those people” I hate to bear the tidings of soul crushing news…but making a living that way is fairly fucking hard. It can be done, and is, but it’s rarely through the veins that you might think.

But there’s one thing for certain; no amount of likes, followers or any other nonsense you’ve been fed will ever get you there. Not only that, once you are ‘there’–I can’t predict and I can’t guarantee–that it will be a fish you wanted to land in the first place. 

In the majority of face to face conversations (remember those?) where I pose similar questions I’m met with vaguely impassioned explanations outlining hopeful attempts to “be discovered” or to “grow a following”. Discovered by who? Followed by what? There’s not many big companies trolling the feeds and pages of the feeble populous just chomping at the bit to give someone their big break based solely on a singular photo. Canon isn’t waiting to give some jackass with 400 followers a shot at working with their newest gimmickcam. Nat Geo isn’t going to send you off on their next political pet project because you made a photo of a dead pigeon. The cruel reality is that the majority of these types of entities work from an already established pool of content providers, close knit with relationships and word of mouth recommendations yielding most of the contracts.

In the words of Mr. George Carlin, “It’s a big club and you ain’t in it.” They aren’t interested in giving you free gear or flying you off to Singapore for a shoot. If you are expending a lot of creative energy banking on one day being hired directly off your Facebook page I have sad news; You. Are. Spinning. Your. Wheels. 

Hope for the Doomed

So. What to do about it all?

Well, if you’re reading this and I hope that you are, the first thing you must digest is that you’re on your own. Completely. Which is not altogether bad, although it could come as quite the existential jolt. Secondly, stop attempting to work towards working for someone else. Sure, you’ll always be more or less selling something but that’s the point. Ansel Adams had a publicist. Picasso didn’t give his paintings away. And believe me, I don’t work for free…well, not always. 

The point is, you have to recognize you are the ultimate commodity and the target of creatives who are attempting to do the same thing as you; make a living by any means required. Don’t be some sucker chasing after “features” and feather beds full of followers. Always be suspicious of anyone who says they’ve got the exact answer you’re looking for and it’s only $9.99. Recognize the cogs in the wheel and begin to count them.

If there’s one thing that is crucial, which we’ve touched on slightly already, is that the only real moneymaker for people like us (creatives, freelancers, photographers, hobos) are relationships; that’s what truly matters. Being a known name, a producer of valuable goods is your perpetual ace in the hole. Talk to people, be open, be nice. At the risk of rolling full bore into some campfire rendition of Kumbaya, it also helps to be an advocate for your fellow creators. Most times, a genuine gesture of kindness or generosity will always be remembered and eventually returned. Give, receive, repeat. 

I’m not here to tell you how to go about doing, well…whatever it is you’re trying to do. What I am here to do is to hopefully rub a little bit of conscionable  smelling sauce under that nose of yours. Pretty pictures and fluffy captions might get you a few pity ‘likes’ on Instagram but they aren’t the real bread and butter of working photographers. Go ahead and send a group message to your followers asking them for a dollar or two so you can “continue to provide great content”. Let me know how that works for you.

It’s a dry hole, friends. No secret formula, only common knowledge.

Come to think of it…why am I telling you all this? 

You’re my competition. 

Author: Adam Welch-Photographist

Photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find me on some distant trail making photographs or at my computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography.  Pick up a copy of my new photo book of wild pony portraits, Faces of Grayson.

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