The social media conveyor belt

by Brian Quillinan – 6th Oct 2015

As many of us are only too well aware, the internet is awash with self appointed street photography gurus trying to catch the attention of the swarms of new photographers all lining up to document our world apparently for the benefit of facebook & flickr users. Yet what most of these gurus offer is tired top ten tips lists ..there may be the odd good pointer for newcomers but the whole thing is a bit of an embarassment that unfortunately guides new photographers towards ever more uniformity & predictability in their approach.

This is bad news. Tips like ‘be different’ are laughable in their complete ignorance. If you have character you already are & if you lack character chances are you’ll struggle to come up with something original & interesting. ‘Be yourself’ is even worse, who the hell were you trying to be in the meantime?

Some may say well you have to allow everyone to be involved in order for the best photographers to surface. Yes, no one is stopping people from using cameras but I don’t buy the argument of encouraging everyone to jump on the already crowded bandwagon, especially on the basis they are being taught by people who only just did the same thing. It reminds me of every kid in the neighbourdood wanting to sing on X-factor. On top of this many shooters are being disrespectful to people in public giving street photogaphy a bad name.

For my money all the great photographers were interesting people before they picked up a camera. They had an experience of life that in some ways cannot be regarded as average. It seems today that so many people want to pick up a camera in order to appear interesting. The feeling of a lack of having a voice makes them want to have one along with the fact its become a fashion. Of course the saying ‘everyone is a photographer now’ relates to our expertise/reliance on social media and how that is changing our idea of what a photograph tends to be for and how we can choose to use it.

plato_caveThe ‘street photographer’ has become a guise to reach a ready made audience. And right here we face a massive problem. Images individually join a conveyor belt of limitless numbers in a completely random order. Thus personal context is virtually lost at the submission point. People are viewing images faster and faster in random sequences which means that they start to judge each image by a uniform set of preconceived criteria. Anyone who has read Susan Sontag on Photography will remember ‘Plato’s Cave’ and what’s happening here online is an extreme version of that analogy.

For images to be noticed on this endless conveyor belt they usually have to tap into what the group already know to be commendable. There is little room for images that challenge preconception. This leads people to try to strategise their approach to photography on the basis of how they presume the to crowd think. This it seems is at complete odds with how any photography master of the past worked. If someone has decided to wait at a zebra crossing for the first person in stripes to pass then how can there be any sense of surprise when exactly that happens? How can the photograph be about anything other than the fact of the planning of that occurrence. It seems so one dimensional.

John Berger suggests in ‘Ways of Seeing’, we perceive images in the context of their surroundings and that includes the precise sequence of images we are fed. If this sequence is somewhat nonsensical it can only serve to confuse our judgement and cloud the context.

Today, people simply don’t have time to look deeper into every photograph and thus seek familiar cues in order to pause with an image. These familiar cues tie us to our preconceptions. For example Paul Graham’s work ‘American Night’ wouldn’t have stood a chance today on social media as these images only become effective when you give them time and thought. The fact we are being asked to consider something we may normally presume to be an elementary mistake [overexposure in this case] is an interesting question for ourselves as viewers. Its an open attack on our viewing habits themselves. Social media seems to be making us lazy & impatient in this regard.

Having said all that there are a few photographers whose work is popular on-line for good reason. Somehow they manage to straddle the line and appeal without compromising their personality in their work. However, while they might be able to maintain an audience by continually posting pictures my worry is that if they create an exhibition or book [or even delivered a cohesive sequence on-line] we would’ve seen it all previously having been drip fed it via the social networks. I only hope they are holding something better back for later.

This all leads to a single idea. If you value your work maybe its worth [to some extent] ignoring the conveyor belt and working on how to place your images as a sequence. Flickr today isn’t very good for this purpose I believe as when you visit an average photographers page there are far too many images there than to know what to make sense of. Its too taxing for the brain. Frankly, its a mess.

Photographers now, just like in the past have to learn to edit their work down to a set of images that together enhances their cohesiveness and develops their personal meaning. This is more challenging than taking your best dozen images and ordering them. It is about creating a story that makes sense to the viewer in an environment where we have almost become used to things not making proper sense. Looking at how sequences progress ideas and create a sense of flow.. in my opinion this is has to be the next step.

The idea of somewhat ignoring the social media conveyor belt is not only about the shifting the focus towards editing work into something more digestible and less compromised. Its about detaching from the lure of trying to craft images into more easily consumable individual items. Commercial photography already caters for that quite effectively. When we try to curtail personal expression to suit a target audience it is by nature compromised. It is at this point I have difficulty understanding that as an artistic process. It becomes more about marketing.

It is always encouraging to see work that instead of tapping into what is already understood as popular attempts to tap into undiscovered territories. The cohesive image sequence in my opinion stands a better chance of achieving this. The mainstream social media audience certainly won’t be the leaders in uncovering new things.. they must be led in this regard.


  1. What a great article, right to the point. Who are you? Who is involved in this great side? It’s a good alternative. Is it possible to be member? Why i see it just now? Why there are so many great photographers already member, and i didn’t know there name yet.

    Keep on with this great work.

  2. Great article i agree that he have to do more personal photography and publish less , more quality in edit and care less about what people think about our work!

    Take care keep up!

  3. Plato and Bruce Forsyth together at last! Marvelous and challenging insights. To stop and think is now the heterodox gambit. Thanks for this.

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