Let me begin with a caveat.
We are all individuals and complex ones at that; and whilst it might seem that we are confronted by the same problem, our individual solutions are almost certainly going to be different. Consequently, if there is any value at all in what follows, it is more likely to lie in understanding the process and being assured that an answer does exist for anyone determined to find it, than in the detail of what my particular answer turned out to be.
The key, in my case, lies in why I take photographs in the first place and what I hope to achieve by them; yet for a long time, I couldn’t really answer those questions. Quite early in my two-year affair with Flickr I wrote a photo essay called Shackles of the Mind in which I stated that I wanted to create photographs that touched people at an emotional level. I have always been a word-oriented person. I do have feelings but I’ve always found it more difficult to express them than to express ideas, particularly in a graphic medium such as photography. This objective is central to the problem but somehow I lost sight of it and was steered off down a false path.
In my early days on Flickr I was seduced by the promise of popularity. It was slow at first. But when I realised that I’d have to go out and shoot some new photographs if I was to make any sort of inroad into Flickr, and I took action on that realisation, I began to enjoy a period of growth in contacts, comments, favourites and invitations to post in groups. Projecting forward, I envisaged my work published in magazines; or as a collection in its own right; or as a show in a gallery. Encouraged, my enthusiasm for photography grew; and so did my obsession with Flickr until I reached a point where I was spending far more time in front of the computer than behind the camera. But the numbers continued to escalate and I interpreted this as a measure of success. And that misunderstanding clouded everything that followed.
My infatuation with Flickr was based on two things. Firstly, I have always been an introverted person by nature, more of an observer than a participant in life; and the idea of having hundreds of ‘friends’ located around the world was very appealing to me. Secondly, and this is probably attributable to my age, I failed to understand that cyber-networking differs significantly from the conventional networking I was tenuously accustomed to. It is very easy to make ‘friends’ online but those friendships can dissolve and disappear just as easily. And so, on Flickr, I became increasingly troubled by what I interpreted as disloyalty. Members who had regularly commented on my uploads suddenly stopped visiting my stream, without explanation, even though I could see that they were still active on Flickr. I didn’t understand this. Were they bored with my work? Had my standard dropped? Was it something that I had said in a comment? Why? With the absence of body language, these separations seemed brutally sudden, unfathomable and unfair.
My inability to understand the cyber-networking paradigm lead me to conclude that the disaffection was with my work; which in turn lead me to conclude that I needed to try harder. Whereas, hitherto, I had been able to go out shooting in a relaxed frame of mind, increasingly I felt under pressure to produce and to surpass what I had been producing (which I had deduced was not good enough). I found that, instead of seeing things and reacting to them, I was seeing them and rejecting them without taking a shot. The number of new images for me to upload began to dwindle and with it, so did the numbers of comments, etc. I had gone from spiralling up to spiralling down.
Suddenly, photography had gone from being a joy to being a burden. I stopped uploading what I regarded as my best shots because I was afraid that the reaction to them would disappoint me, further damaging my confidence. As a result, the statistics on Flickr continued their slide and my confidence was damaged anyway. I became less and less inclined to go out and shoot because I increasingly expected it to be a waste of time. And Flickr contacts whom I had thought of as friends continued to desert me.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I forced myself to go out with my camera. I shot 400 frames in the space of around 4 hours and at the end of it found that only a handful of them were second-rate while the rest were just rubbish; and at that point, I made up my mind that my second anniversary on Flickr would be my swansong.
So what turned me around?
It all comes back to the questions of why I like to take photographs and what I hope to achieve. And as I reflected on this, I began to realise that all the things I had written about separately were in fact pieces of a mosaic that was just waiting to be assembled.
I worried at one time that I didn’t have a style; but I began to realise that what I have is more meaningful to me than a visual consistency; it’s a philosophy; and it was all there in my writing. I have spoken at various times of the image being a form of self-portrait and about the deep feeling of “connectedness” I sometimes experience when taking a photograph. I’ve worried about the ethics of taking photographs of strangers without their permission and I’ve written about how I enlist unsuspecting passers-by to act out roles in the tableaux dramatiques that I create in my imagination. But I now realise that all these concerns are, in fact, part of a singular truth. I used to be embarrassed when people asked me what I photographed and I found myself with no recourse but to admit that I photograph strangers in the street; as if that were something reprehensible. But I realise now that this is not what I am really doing at all; only what I appear to be doing.
Photography enables me to connect with life and society; to immerse myself in a moment of reality, shedding all the inhibitions that normally segregate me from it. This is the narcotic I crave. But this is also what makes those moments, and the photographs that remind me of them, very special to me. When I photograph such a scene, it is not just the scene I am photographing but that part of me that found a way to connect with it. The tableaux dramatiques that I create in my imagination are expressions of how I see the world; and therefore, are expressions of my self. The vast majority of photographs I take are of scenes that I have come upon by chance; but the decisions to capture the scene and to publish the image are always deliberate. The images that I choose to publish are those that, in addition to depicting a manifestation of the external world, also depict an aspect of my being that has connected with that manifestation. Maybe this is true of everyone. I don’t know. But the images that I take and value are those that are more than just documentary evidence of the external world. They are the things that moved me or made me think or made me laugh. And as such they are clues to the puzzle that is me; a voyage of self-discovery; a search for connectedness with the world.
So what lies ahead?
Photography is a form of communication and now that I have rediscovered what I want to communicate, the challenge lies in finding ways to achieve that most accurately and effectively; without confusing the photograph with the photographer.
There are two kinds of success as far as I can see: popular success, which indicates how other people react to one’s work; and personal success, which reflects the author’s own opinion. In my early association with Flickr I was concerned primarily with popular success. I wanted to build a following. Not only that but I wanted to build a following of people whose work I admired. In short, I wanted to become the photographers’ photographer. And my quest began optimistically. But then interest in what I was doing started to wane; and I didn’t know why (because people on Flickr generally only say what they like; and signal their disapproval by saying nothing). My concern increased in the case of any image of mine that I felt had been successful and yet did not receive popular acclaim. I wrote about a couple of these cases on my blog and received useful responses; but the gulf between what I felt was successful and the reaction of others to it continued to grow. This is an essay topic in its own right and I don’t want to pre-empt that more detailed analysis here but I began to realise that personal success is more reliable than popular success, simply because it is much easier to define; and with that, the importance of popular success (to me) began to diminish.
I began also to realise that the goals that I had set myself, or had been seduced into believing I could achieve, were unrealistic and beyond my control. I had lost sight of my photographic objectives and replaced them with personal objectives, like wanting to become the photographers’ photographer, instead of simply wanting to take photographs that express and are able to communicate my view of the world.
And the vagaries of Flickr too are beyond my control. It was hard for me to watch the numbers diminish because I equated that with waning popularity; until I realised that a significant part of that ‘popularity’ was derived from my conscientiousness in visiting others’ streams and leaving comments. The problems I experienced recently with my neck forced me to spend less time at the computer and that, in turn, cost me visits from contacts; but it also made me realise who was really interested in my photography as opposed to those who only visited me with the expectation that I would return their visit. Recently, I have become more determined than ever not to chase comments and while the numbers are clearly down, I value the comments I do get more.
When I discovered what really mattered to me, a great deal of what didn’t really matter just fell away. For example, getting 500 Flickr comments on an image I have uploaded will not make it a better image; will probably not get me a book deal or a gallery showing; and if those comments consist of glittery icons or comments like ‘great shot’, they won’t tell me anything about why it proved so popular or give me anything that I can use when I go out to shoot the next time. So whilst it might be flattering to get 500 comments, it is probably of little practical value.
For me, it is important to succeed in moving others with an image that moved me enough in reality to capture it. Not necessarily, that they are moved in the same way, or that they interpret it in the same way as I did. In fact, I find it fascinating to read how people interpret the same image differently and see things that I didn’t see. But the fact that they arrive at an interpretation at all is satisfaction enough for me.
I recently added this to my Flickr profile:
To understand all my photographs as I understand them you’d have to be me; and there’d be no point in there being two of us. So try to understand them as you. Doing that is all I ask of you. And if an image means something to you, that’s a bonus for both of us.
So why persist with Flickr?
The main argument for persisting with Flickr lies in what it has already enabled me to achieve; and therefore, by extension, what it might continue to enable me to achieve. My photographic output can be divided into three periods: prior to 1977, the last two years on Flickr, and the intervening period that I call: The Wilderness Years. I have a great fondness for the pre-1977 work, especially that done in Paris in 1973. It’s “Old School” photography but I think it is really good (personal success) and the few people who have seen my book that I called “Remembering Paris” seem to agree with me. But it took Flickr to drag me out of The Wilderness Years and think seriously again about making photographs. What I see from others on Flickr amazes and inspires me and in the last two years I have created images of my own that I would never have imagined creating without that inspiration. Of course, I could still derive inspiration from Flickr without uploading any of my own work; and who knows, it might come to that at some point in the future; but now that I have a clearer view of where I am going and a more realistic understanding of Flickr’s idiosyncrasies, I think that I will persist a little longer, at least until I reach the next crossroads.
So, how does this revelation help anyone else?
This has been a very personal journey and in fact, due to limitations of space and time, I have only described part of the actual journey that has taken place. But it is highly unlikely that anyone else will follow this exact same path; and that is why I was reluctant to elaborate on it. But the process may be of help. And the process is one of reduction; removing all the diversions and distractions in order to isolate and understand the core problem and thereby identify the most appropriate solution.
When I was able to understand why I like to take photographs and what that really meant, all the other pieces seemed to fall into place. But it took me two years just to reach this point. There’s no silver bullet.