More images may not always be a good thing…

IMG_3118
@mingthein; I’ve been there for about a year or so. Benefits? None that I can see…

Social media = instant updates = easy consumption of new content = necessarily easy production of aforementioned new content. With the proliferation of cameraphones, this is course the era of the snapshot – more so than in the tourist film compact days, because not only does pretty much everybody in the developed world (and much of the developing world*) carry a smartphone; they’ve also been conditioned to use it. When your parents and parents in law -= people previously uninterested in photography beyond normal family documentary – now take more photos than you do with their phones, you know a switch has flipped. But what does this mean for the image-making business and image appreciation as a whole? I have a theory, and I suspect you’re not going to like it.

*In Malaysia, it’s not uncommon to see people earning $700-800 a month before tax but owning the latest iPhone. The mind boggles, since this is easily a purchase that’s two months’ net pay.

The more images are viewed, one would expect that the appreciation of a good/bad image increases to some degree; this is only true if there is conscious evaluation/ appreciation of an image when it is viewed, if even that’s limited to ‘like/dislike’. It is only with some degree of awareness that we can make choices, and preference is of course a precursor to that. Without, more images are nothing but so much white noise: visual bombardment that has the opposite effect, like ubiquitous advertising: we simply ignore it all. I doubt any given advertisement beyond a spare few attract attention beyond an audience that’s already predisposed to being aware of them – either because they’re in the business of making images, or because the product or service is personally appealing.

There are two consequences here: firstly, we only bother viewing images that might appeal to us because of their origin or subject matter, and secondly – more critically – our brains automatically tune out the rest. I think of this as the ‘local resident’ paradox: if you live there, you probably won’t notice the same things as jump out as a visitor who’s never been before. You will, however, notice the small things that matter to you like a change in bus schedule or parking zones or perhaps a new restaurant that serves your favourite cuisine. Note: this information is a visual input, much like images themselves. The visual cortex handles all of this – whether the image is presented in two or three dimensions.

In attempts to reach wider audiences and Sell More Stuff, advertisers attempt to increase reach or impact: most of the time, this means going the tried and tested route: more campaigns, more images, a bigger bang, fireworks and fewer clothes. We get desensitised to this, too – which is why the campaigns that work the best are inevitably the ones nobody expects: they are different. They break pattern, and therefore get noticed – much like that new one way street in your neighbourhood that now means you have to circle two blocks you didn’t before. Bottom line: there are more images, and more elaborate images. These don’t get noticed, but what does is the simple stuff that deviates from the big budget productions because it obviously looks different and breaks pattern. If we see what we expect, we don’t stop to examine it closer; I’ve noticed this in not only my own behaviour, but that of people I know, and random people observed walking past large print media. Since that iPhone campaign was somewhat successful, what happens next is obvious: others attempt to replicate that success by doing the same thing, not realising that it isn’t the presentation or product that created the desired impact, but the fact that it was different.

I think we’re now in the thick of the dog’s breakfast: huge quantity and variety of images, everywhere. It isn’t easy to differentiate because there’s such a wide spread already out there. It is impossible to give more or increase frequency to increase impact, because we’re already pretty much at saturation point. And it’s not just advertisers that do this, either: observe carefully, and see the same behaviour on Facebook or Instagram. The people who are clamouring for attention tend to post the most frequently, and as a result – mostly get ignored or quickly scrolled through, because what they offer is no longer ‘special’ or ‘different’ and assumed to be more of the same. And nobody wants ordinary: advertising has drummed that into us. The ridiculous images – crises, disasters, huge piles of cash, naked women etc – get most play, once again, because the content is different (and not easily replicable). If everybody posted stacks of cash, the one photo of a tree might actually get more attention by virtue of differentiation.

Let’s take Instagram, for example: other than sponsored product or posts, I don’t see anybody making money from it. Yet to feed the legions of followers, one has to continually create content that’s both interesting enough to make your audience want more, and different enough to stand out. Your competition is doing the same thing, too; and it’s all free. which means that there’s no commitment on either side to any party, but there is a ceiling to what resources may be expended on chasing the next follower. Personally, I’m nowhere near the point where people are throwing free stuff at me to use and be seen using; I arrived late to the party because I didn’t see the point initially. I honestly still don’t, but maintaining the channel is both somewhat expected (because everybody else is doing it) and because of all the social media, it requires about the least attention on my part.

Here’s the crux of it all: more isn’t better. More desensitises us, them and everybody else; it makes the audience go ‘next!’, and not pay attention. Different and unique makes us pay attention, but I think it could be argued that different merely for the sake of different doesn’t constitute better or interesting, either. The upshot of all of this is a little bit depressing for those of us in the image-making business: the proliferation of visual media has paradoxically had a negative effect on the industry. Saturation has meant no greater awareness, and if anything, greater ability to ignore or tune out or quickly gloss over anything visual; this leading to a reduction in ability to differentiate between chocolate and mud. Mud is good enough, because at a quick glance – it’s all the same. On top of that, I’m finding a disturbing trend both personally and related to me by other professional friends here: a lot of calls for pitches and creative meetings, which we attend and support because work might come out of it, but then those ideas being farmed and given to the lowest bidder and poorly executed; a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Many years ago, I was hoping that the increase in visual stimulation amongst as greater section of the population would lead to increased appreciation for photography and – hopefully – a renaissance of the skilled portion of the industry, against the $100/day part time wedding and event shooters – but I fear this is even less likely to be the case than ever. It doesn’t help that there are simply so many things competing for our attention and increasingly limited time – for most, the payoff against effort for increasing erudition in any one area simply isn’t worthwhile; it’s scalpel vs Swiss Army Knife again. Instant gratification is of course unsustainable on an ongoing basis – whether it’s consumer goods or education or intellectual satisfaction. I don’t think long term survival as an image maker is contingent on knowing what to do now: it lies in figuring out where the next evolution in popular trends lie, and where to be positioned for that. Two things are for sure: there’s only so far we can turn the dial past 11 before it breaks, and going to 11.1 requires exponentially more effort than 11. MT

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Comments

  1. I think that Instagram like many other social media really doesn’t add anything to photography as such. I do Instagram myself, but what I see isn’t very impressive. My account only has a few hundred followers, and to be honest I’m quite envious of people with many 1000s of followers. However, the photography … in many cases just seems to be lacking. In most cases blown out skies, completely white. People trying to do some interesting selfie. Food shots … the list goes on and on. Nothing really great. Copies of copies of copies.

    The whole idea just seems to be just try and grab as many followers as one can. On Instagram it is quite easy too see what people have recently done and it seems to me that most active people on the platform are trying to engage with more potential new followers rather than engage with their current followers. As someone said here already mentioned it’s all about being noisy to gain attention.

    • It isn’t clear to me what the end goal is – an arms race for followers makes no sense, as that doesn’t convert into revenue or anything else meaningful. If anything, just another monster that must be fed…eventually, companies will stop paying for this kind of endorsement or advertising, and then what?

      • My instinct about this runs to the ironic, perhaps: I think the more we push meaningless snapshots (we had them back in the days of film, too — 110 instamatics anyone? — it just wasn’t quite so ubiquitous or easy), the more I think things are going to go back the other way … that is to a greater appreciation of quality photographs, printed and displayed. Now, how monetization fits into all this is another discussion, but at a certain point I think the instant gratification vapidity begins to defeat itself, and people feel a bit hungry for more substantive iterations of the medium.

  2. Bob Gallagher says:

    It used to be I could walk into a photography gallery for Tom Mangelson’s nature/animal photography in many large cities, and even see Ansel Adams and Weston’s B&W prints in a Gallery…Alas there just are very few galleries anymore. I’ve been to the Rangerfinder Gallery in Chicago and seen Ming’s UIltra Pictures….VERY NICE !!! But there just aren’t many in my end of the world NOrth America… that display their works and other than that well it could have been taken with a whatever camera… composition of course tells us a lot about expetise…

    • There are few galleries because the economics don’t justify it; you can’t stay open if you can’t stay in business. Far more attractive to be selling iPhone accessories…

  3. This is an ambiguous sentence; which you might want to amend: “In Malaysia, it’s not uncommon to see people earning $700-800 a month before tax with the latest iPhone.” Are you saying that they are ‘earning money with the iphone’ or ‘They earn that money and they can also be seen with an iPhone’? I suspect the latter. How about “In Malaysia, it is not uncommon to see that people who earn $700-800 a month before tax also have the latest iPhone.” I hope that doesn’t seem too pedantic.

  4. This is an ambiguous sentence; which you might want to amend: “In Malaysia, it’s not uncommon to see people earning $700-800 a month before tax with the latest iPhone.” Are you saying that they are ‘earning money with the iphone’ or ‘They earn that money and they can also be seen with an iphone’? I suspect the latter.

  5. (Make it tangible. Rings true. Creating books now, curated from my master files). Well writen piece Ming, althoigh Susan Sontag said this better, in print, in her closing words in the closing chapter of her book On Photography, discussing what we need is an conservative economy of images…

    • The only problem with creating a book is basically the same one we have with every other photographic exercise: too much noise, signal gets lost, economics are bankruptingly poor…

  6. The problem with social media like Flickr is you never receive constructive feedback about your work. A “great photo” comment perhaps and that’s it. If you politely criticise photos of others the only thing that will happen is a rude private message before they block you. Flickr, Instagram and so on aren’t worth the effort. I haven’t logged in into my Flickr since months and except Ming’s reader portfolio I do miss nothing at all.

    • The reader portfolio is perhaps both a little masochistic – but still very ‘safe’ in that we leave it to you to figure out why the image didn’t make it in…

  7. I have another angle on it (while also agreeing with yours). This seems to be an age where, on social media at least, there is some kind of unspoken agreement that you never, ever say anything remotely negative about someone’s work, like you might crush their spirit if you did. This could lead to people getting lazy, knowing that whatever they put up on their Instagram / FB / Flickr (etc), it will be praised to the high heavens, quite possibly by people who don’t really even look at it.

    Jay Maisel told a story of when he was reviewing someone’s work. The photographer brought him about ten prints. Maisel’s account :

    “So I start looking at them”.
    “That’s nice”
    “That’s nice”
    “That’s a piece of sh-t”, and I tore it up into ten pieces in front of him.

    The moral of the story being that if you can’t tell good work from bad, you will be judged by your worst picture, so self-criticism and the ability to discern good from bad in your own work is absolutely critical. However, with the aforementioned syndrome of “everyone’s a genius”, this seems to be less and less relevant.

    In the end, I think a certain amount of confidence in one’s own work is pretty much the standard one has to live by. Of course if you get positive comments from photographers you admire, that’s great, and worth far more than the “great shot lol” crowd. But in the end, if you’re not satisfied with it yourself, it’s all for nothing.

    • He’s right – and that goes back to initial curation. I won’t show anything I can’t defend (and am not happy with). Otherwise, it’s an ever speeding slide downhill…

  8. I don’t know what the answer is but sooner or later one has to step away from the treadmill or Zuck and the gang will grow fat on one’s exhaustion. In most walks of life, rarity adds value as well as spice. On the internet, we are encouraged to believe that rarity takes value away. Unless one’s output is everywhere and feverishly refreshed, one is already yesterday’s news and it’s game over. Somewhere in all this, two things have got lost: authenticity and originality. Those are about a lot more than the latest 10,000 technically flawless landscape images on 10,000 websites. I’m not surprised many folk are now returning to film or almost anything else to get away from the social media tsunami.

    • I agree – and that’s one of the reasons I’m pulling back a little so that what does get output is more thought through.

    • Yes, but social media is good to connect with other people…with same interest.

      • I think that’s independent on its effect on image standards…

        • I think it is not totaly separate thing. Social media affects behavior of photographers.Their motivation. And therefore it also influence, in man cases, the quality of photos. It is a game, a competition and many other things.

          • A rather wealthy local businessman once told me something similar – life, and business are a game…money is simply how you keep score.

            • For a couple of years I am learning how to treat this social media. Maybe only one effective defense is, while keep using it for photo sharing, is the knowledge of the field and what it means to the self. How would photography look without existence of social media? Would people shoot less if they didn’t have easy way to share?

              • I’m pretty sure they would – it would be like the late days of film or early days of digital. No real limitations on the capture side, but not so much emotional return for showing work, either.

  9. So sad and so true!

  10. I sometimes warm up to shoot checking ‘Explore’ on Flickr or go through 500px ‘Editor’s Choices’ to get my head in the game. I look through dozens of photos, eventually swiping as fast as my hand can move comfortable. Many are very good and all were posted in the last 8 minutes.

    At the micro level: How do I capture a most beautiful rose and cut through cliche, familiarity and redundancy?

    • Which is precisely why ‘very good’ isn’t enough, yet you have to be frequent enough to hold your own against the deluge of the other ‘competition’.

      “How do I capture a most beautiful rose and cut through cliche, familiarity and redundancy?”
      That, is ever the question!

  11. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    “Here’s the crux of it all: more isn’t better.”

    Yet that’s what digital gives us, far more images than we ever though possible to make. In just a few years after going digital, I amassed a library of 50,000 images. Most people I know have far more than that. It’s not at all uncommon to find rank amateurs like me with 150,000 images. Digital has removed the cost from making images and so 99.9% of the people shoot gigs worth of images every time they go out. It’s pure madness.

    Once I recognized this, I sold off all my digital gear and returned to film. Unlike most, I *need* the limitations that film imposes on me. Now I shoot 40-50 images per outing and not 300+.

    Since making that move, my personal happiness with my results has gone simply off scale. I could not be more pleased with the results this move has allowed me to produce. I still have one digital camera but have shot less than 40 images with it. The batteries are constantly drained dead as it sits for 3 months or so at a time, if not more.

    • MF digital has done the same thing for me – more because of the processing and storage overheads than anything; I’d rather not spend that much time in front of a computer, and I figure if I’ve gotten it right out of camera – I won’t have to; if I didn’t, it’s not worth saving because there are already other better images which negate the point of the poor ones. I shoot probably 1/10th as much now, with similar quantity of final curated output, and much better quality.

      • Agreed. We need to impose limitations and realise that less is more, most of the time if not always. My version of the self-given film/digital MF constraint is to be a Sigma DP Merrill photographer. The shooting envelope is slim, the battery life is terrible and the processing cumbersome: so I take photos carefully and very selectively, as if I’m using Kodak transparency film. The IQ at base ISO is fantastic. The Sigma experience disciplines me in taking pictures and rewards me, when I get it right, with images I want to keep.
        Thanks for an excellent essay.

        • L. Ron Hubbard says:

          Outstanding! I dont use it much anymore but I have a Sigma DP2 Merrill as well. I agree with you completely that the limitations imposed on you by the Sigma often generate greater creativity. I recall very fondly hiking around a city at night with my DP2M mounted on a tripod. The night shots I got with that thing shot at base ISO were incredible.

  12. “one would expect that the appreciation of a good/bad image increases to some degree”.
    I guess the thing is, the way good/bad is being measured depends on the person using Instagram. A small group of us are using it as a way to show off photographs in the artistic, storytelling medium sense (both professionals, and hobbyist photographers…. and there various shades of grey in-between). We are judging good/bad based on some form of artistic score (of what we think is artistic).

    The majority of people judging good/bad are using Instagram as just a convenient place to upload images of some experience they want to share. Doesn’t matter how ‘good’ the image is… its the ‘goodness’ of the thing(s) in the images. Whether that’s the food in the image, the clothing item, the hotel that someone went too. It’s just documenting experiences.

    So, it’s a little bit hard for us ‘photographers’ to complain about the lack of good images on Instagram standing out in the mass of bad images.

    However, despite what I said above… I do agree with the basic crux of the blog you wrote. ‘Too much’ is a bad thing, and nothing stands out anymore, until something so different (within a genre) arrives.

    • “The majority of people judging good/bad are using Instagram as just a convenient place to upload images of some experience they want to share. Doesn’t matter how ‘good’ the image is… its the ‘goodness’ of the thing(s) in the images. Whether that’s the food in the image, the clothing item, the hotel that someone went too. It’s just documenting experiences.”
      Very true: however, I always think of it this way. Food served in a heap by a roadside stall may taste just as good as plated properly and enjoyed at a comfortable table with a great view and great company, however, there’s an aesthetic sense beyond the pure subject matter than also benefits from the extra. So, in essence: instagram popularity = the thing, but more popularity = the thing presented well. At least we hope…

    • listerx says:

      Gavin – I would like to see what you’re up to. Seems there are a thousand Gavin Thomas users. How would one see your images there. Thanks. @scott_woodhall

  13. I think you’re on to something here. I’d add two things. First, that the huge increase in the volume and sharing of imagery coupled with the crash in traditional media and the advertising that supports the media has changed not only how people view things in a narcissistic way; it has also changed your actual customer, from people who still nominally hold the budgets like the ad director with esoterically creative ideas or the editor who sees him or herself as a guardian of public taste, to the end reader who has always wanted to see their home town, themselves, their family, or what makes them feel good in some way. The “surprise” that a photographer or ad director can impart to an image is less a matter of their own taste than it was, and more a matter of taking this familiar content and apply a way of looking at it that feels new and refreshed to the viewer. Triggering a sense of escapism is an example, as shown by current trends in wedding photography.

    And second, that in the late stage capitalism we’re now in, the pressure for making profits and making margins in traditionally run enterprises becomes ever more intense, pressure on resources rises, and the tolerance for risking creativity shrinks. Left too much to its own devices, as it has been for around 40 years, capitalism eventually consumes itself. There are only really two ways out of this–regulate and deter things like speculative and wasteful business activity, perhaps by requiring businesses to be managed for all stakeholders and not just the shareholders, perhaps by shifting the incentive structure of regulations and taxes away from adding value to capital towards adding value to labor, away from immovable physical and financial assets and towards operations that are highly adaptable; and breaking away from Fordist mass production altogether and delivering at least existing levels of value on far fewer physical resources and in a less centralized or capital intensive way that’s closer to the customer. The former requires a fundamental, society-wide political rethink, the latter a major change in business process by companies and individuals acting on their own initiative. And whether or not the former change happens, the big movers in the private and public sector alike are going to be those who manage the latter change successfully….it will simply be more productive for most people if the former happens as well.

    The sense of pressure is heightened in photography because its biggest source of revenue–advertising–is so much farther into this shift of markets and business process than most other sectors. Newspaper classified ads that effectively funded news and sports photographers are almost gone; display and TV ad campaigns that fund commercial photographers under far more scrutiny and pressure, driven by increased business pressure. And whether you’re Leo Burnett, the Chicago Tribune, Buzzfeed or a freelance photographer, that brings us back to the imperative of understanding how peoples’ feelings about photographic imagery have changed. As with the other building blocks of the media world, news coverage, sports, features and so on, content now far supersedes advertising as the driver…in other words, stuff end users will read or look at for its own sake, not stuff that is paid for and determined by ad directors and editors. If it doesn’t have intrinsic value to the viewer, it won’t fly.

    • Good points.

      “First, that the huge increase in the volume and sharing of imagery coupled with the crash in traditional media and the advertising that supports the media has changed not only how people view things in a narcissistic way; it has also changed your actual customer, from people who still nominally hold the budgets like the ad director with esoterically creative ideas or the editor who sees him or herself as a guardian of public taste, to the end reader who has always wanted to see their home town, themselves, their family, or what makes them feel good in some way. “
      It’s changed because there’s now some (artificial) emotional reward for being narcissistic: the like, the follow, the kudos that really translate to nothing – yet companies still pay for this even though there is little correlation between likes and revenue: quality in the audience matters, too.

      “… the tolerance for risking creativity shrinks. Left too much to its own devices, as it has been for around 40 years, capitalism eventually consumes itself.”
      It consumes itself because of the shrinking risk appetite: having created the ever growing demand, stakes get larger and larger, and incremental change/ ‘safe choices’ become normal – yet this does the complete opposite of feeding the bear they’ve created.

      Bottom line: we need to make something tangible: if the value of the image isn’t obvious, then it isn’t tangible. If it is because it attracts the audience the client wants, so be it – even if inwardly we may cringe…art that lasted was rarely understood or appreciated in its contemporary day.

  14. The objective of the middle manager is to launch a campaign on time and within budget. The success of which, though of importance to the organization, is largely irrelevant to his individual career. If low quality work suffices, because of the mass desensitization you described, it will be used. The argument that an investment in quality will pay in the long run convinces few in my experience.

    To skate to where the puck will be it is useful to realize the decision makers of the future will not be clones of the current crop. Their attitudes and values are likely to be a moving average of those of their seniors and juniors. This suggests it may be possible to gain insight into the future demand by paying attention to the visual information consumption pattern of the young.

    Survival however seems most assured for the photographer who become “the safe and prestigious choice”. Annie Liebovitz is hired only partly for her talent. She is the safest possible choice. After all, if Annie’s photos can’t sell the new widget then whose can? Thus no one can be criticized for bringing her on and all careers are preserved.

    So a survival strategy could take the form – look to the young for inspiration and direction while finding a way to turn oneself into a premium brand.

    • “This suggests it may be possible to gain insight into the future demand by paying attention to the visual information consumption pattern of the young.”
      Which is precisely where quantity over quality comes from: it’s much easier to consume than create, to copy than to originate. Yet the paradox of course is somebody has to be thinking of and making all that content…

      “Annie Liebovitz is hired only partly for her talent. She is the safest possible choice.”
      True, and not at the same time: the cost of such an undertaking is not trivial 🙂

      “So a survival strategy could take the form – look to the young for inspiration and direction while finding a way to turn oneself into a premium brand.”😉

  15. Hi Ming
    From what I can see monetising of websites and social media is a race to the bottom to attract the most gullible and insecure or use lies and tricks with advertising. Advertising being the second lowest rung on the marketing ladder (publicity is the lowest ).
    I have no idea how it will all end, I guess most people don’t care just because it is not real, something we expect to disappear sometime soon, only to be replaced something else of no value.
    Thanks again for providing the refuge that is your website.
    Regards

  16. Excellent article. Ming. Extremely thought-provoking. Thank you for another great post 🙂

  17. It all rings very true, with maybe the caveat that the subset of people genuinely interested in quality cannot be scaled up in a linear fashion.
    For one I would happily follow an instagram author who would only post once a month on a specific day.

    • And the catch 22 is that you would probably never be able to find them because they’d get drowned out by the noise of the other posters – unless they started off with quantity to attract attention, and quality to keep it, and…I think you see the paradox 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] I sympathize with Ming and Eric on their thoughts of having your work posted on social media – more (content) is simply […]

  2. […] he estado leyendo un artículo de uno de mis fotógrafos de referencia Ming Thein, en su artículo “More images may not always be a good thing” , donde viene a reivindicar calidad vs cantidad. Me ha parecido particularmente interesante la […]

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