“What would you say you do here?” – On Legitimacy vs. Influence as a Photographer

What would you say you do here?“What would you say you do here?” (from the movie, Office Space)

We live in an era where some celebrities are famous (or infamous), not because of a particular skill (singing, acting, playing a professional sport, etc.), but because of being an interesting (read: shocking, shameful/embarrassing, perhaps mildly amusing) “personality”. Such celebs parlay that personality into a “brand”, which creates its’ own demand, often driven by social media fame and, in some cases, even generates endorsements by corporate sponsors to reach profitable demographics. In other words, there is now a lucrative career path for a celebrity level status – to borrow the tag line of Seinfeld – “about nothing in particular”. In the world of these newly minted “influencers”, celebrity is democratized: anyone can become the next big thing. All that’s needed is a viral moment or the right gimmick.

Photography has hardly been insulated from this phenomenon. The global reach of platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Instagram has fostered an army of “influencers” who compensate for lack of an apparent photographic portfolio (or actual accomplishments) as photographers to become product endorsers, workshop leaders, and of course, bloggers. Yep, I’m not excused. Rather than calling out anyone in particular about even considering the pursuit of such a formula, I’ll call myself out for the sake of mutual reflection. Why should you follow my blog? What have I done to deserve your attention? Fortunately, this blog is a free product, but if I taught a paid workshop, why should you actually listen to/pay me? If I’ve never produced work of any substance or shown any discernible skills as a photographer, why do I deserve to be one of your “influencers”?

As a potential follower/consumer of such virtual photographic products, the question of whether to support (by means of your time and, potentially, money) is totally up to you. But for me as a content creator/at-least-partial-participant in this new phenomenon of promoting the ancillary photographic activity of “blogging” without an extended, definitive legacy or traditional credentials, I must ask myself some questions. Are these “other” photographic activities (blogging about photography, shooting videos about photography, teaching workshops about photography, etc.) rationalized by a legitimate desire to pursue becoming skilled and credible as a photographer, first and foremost? And if they are not – if I’m ok with skipping the step of actually putting in the work to become a “good” photographer before becoming a “popular” or even “trusted” one, let alone an “influential” one – can I live with that? The truth is, I’m not ok with that, which explains why my blog posts are fairly infrequent, and why I’m not making much effort to track the blogs’ following. As a photographer, my first priority is the quality of the work and the joy of pursuing the craft, plain and simple. If being a good photographer also ends up making me a popular one, awesome! But being a popular one without being a good one? Hmmm…

Anyway, if photography is a craft that is best perfected by the act of feeling and doing, the fact is that blogs, videos, and workshops will likely have, at best, a marginal impact on the overall resonance and creative power of the work of any follower/patron/”influencee” of such services (can you possibly read a blog or take a workshop to become the next Picasso? The next Winogrand? Or even the next “you”?). But that’s their problem. On the other hand, for those photographers who would dare call themselves a personality of interest or an “influencer” worthy of such followers/patrons – myself included – the nagging question will always be, “What would you say you do here?”